If there’s one thing that discourages social disobedience more than anything else, it’s got to be banning objectionable material. Banning works like a charm! People immediately kowtow to authorities telling them what to think, don’t they? Isn’t that how it works? Certainly not, because if it did, there’d have been no need for history’s greatest enforcers of “because I said so” – the Gestapo, the KGB and the Department of Homeland Security.
And who are these moral paragons who decide what’s safe for public consumption and what needs to be screened, censored, edited or otherwise bastardized before the fragile everymen (yes, and everywomen too) can be trusted to handle it without rending their garments and flagellating themselves with pointy branches? These are the people who create arbitrary rules that say things like “go ahead and show one hundred faceless soldiers geting cut in half by a gigantic chain-gun while Jason Voorhees hacks off their heads and that creepy German guy from Hostel breaks their toes one by one, but do it with absolutely no cursing, and if you show one tit we’re going to saw your bits off.” Call me crazy if you like, but there is a distinct lack of credibility when I see Arnold Schwarzennegger holding the world’s biggest assault rifle and looking stylishly bloody telling the bad guy that what he just said was a bunch of “baloney” – the most badly-mangled English-with-an-Austrian-accent pronunciation does not line up with the way his lips moved; if you’re a lip reader you’d distinctly see the word “bullshit” emanate from that once-chiseled face.
It’s the same lack of credibility I found when the entire Western world went baloney over Justin Timberlake tearing off Female Jacko’s boob-coverage on national TV – this in the midst of a program dedicated to what I can only describe as the closest thing we’ve got to gladiator-style combat in the modern era outside of perhaps cage-fighting (if only for the homoerotic undertones). People who were quite willing to let their children watch men the size of SUVs pile drive one another into astroturf for two or three hours got a severe case of the giggling crazies because of an exposed mammary gland.
My point is somewhere along the line we lost the thread. Our morality is all cocked up and we don’t know what to do about it, so we assign a bunch of dusty Puritanical relics to determine what we are and are not exposed to as a culture, and the best those tired old hags can come up with is to ban everything they find controversial.
And it doesn’t make sense.
For your reading pleasure today, I’ve compiled three of the more recent incomprehensible incidences of banning the world over. You can draw your own conclusions, but I’d bet my salary you’re going to agree this is fundamentally Bass-Ackwards.
Phonies Hate J.D.
By now everybody knows that noted American writer J.D. Salinger has passed away. Best known for penning one of the staple novels of the high school English curriculum, “Catcher in the Rye”, Salinger spent his entire career getting castigated by narrow-minded education officials who thought his main character Holden Caulfield was just a bit too free-thinking for their tastes. The book was published in 1951, right at the cusp of the Beaver Cleaver / nuclear family / white-picket fence era, and boy howdy gosh golly gee, did people ever get their perfectly-pressed knickers in a knot over Holden’s foul mouth, sexual honesty and “perversion”.
Apparently some bored housewife went through the book one Sunday afternoon (it must have been a Sunday, come on) and rather than reading it, actually took the time to count the number of occurrences of profanity: the final tally, for those interested, was 237 for “goddam” (curiously misspelled), 58 for “bastard”, 31 for “Chrissake” (another questionable spelling) and 6 for the big F. Well congratulations Old Mother Hubbard, you win the grand prize for Person With The Least Productive Things To Do Ever.
The book continued to be a source of considerable controversy well into the ’70s, culminating in several teachers being fired for including the book in their curriculum. According to a book written by some Boring White Guy in ’79, CITR has the “dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools”.
The part that binds up my considerably-less-pressed knickers is the idea of censoring or banning art to begin with. I suppose you could make an argument against censoring blatant hate speech (even though you really shouldn’t, considering ignorance is the catalyst for unfounded hatred), but “Catcher in the Rye” isn’t exactly incendiary in its confounding of the establishment. I read it in high school, like most of you probably did, and I remember relating in a very personal way to Holden Caulfield, mostly because the character was the quintessential teenager – misanthropic, disaffected and possessed of a nameless distrust of the adult world. Good writing, but hardly a stretch.
The big problem the Powers That Be seem to have with CITR and with Holden in general is exactly that: Holden personifies everything Boring Middle Class America is terrified of when it comes to its youth. Trust me, if those impossibly uncultured suburbanites had their way, every person under the age of 18 would subserviently tow the company line just like their parents, never displaying an inkling of original thought or – God forbid – healthy rebellion. Holden, in their minds, represents a laundry list of unwelcome behaviour patterns including (but not limited to) blasphemy, the undermining of family values, vulgarity, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking and promiscuity. You know what that sounds like to me? Friday night on prime-time. These people are condemning a fictional character in a book (a work of contextual literature) written fifty years ago, all the while applauding Jack Bauer and Al Bundy. You can now all join me in a rousing chorus of What The Fuck, because from where I’m sitting that sounds an awful lot like (to quote Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw) sidestepping a pothole only to fall off a bridge.
And the best part? Banning books makes people want to read them. Way to shoot yourself in the foot, Puritan America.
But this kind of ham-handed handling of culture and its effects on people is hardly a new thing.
The 10th Level West Side Elven Warlocks, Represent
Dungeons and Dragons has been under fire almost since its inception in 1974. For those of you not familiar (also known as those who do not have an internet connection or anything resembling pop-culture knowledge, Mom) D&D is just one of a myriad of table-top role playing games in which players create complicated characters and play through sort of a story-telling game universe in which the Game Master (or Dungeon Master in this example) presents the “party” (also known as “all the friends you can pack into your parents’ basement”) with a series of encounters and quests that will garner them experience and equipment to further build upon those characters. For those interested, it’s actually more fun than it sounds – in itself not a difficult bar to clear.
Back in the 80s there was a huge media backlash against D&D in which so-called “professionals” accused the game of being a catalyst for violent, anti-social behaviour. This was hot on the heels of the “Judas Priest made my son commit suicide” debacle, so you can imagine the sort of people who would decry a commercial metal band for convincing kids to sell their souls to Satan would be the same people who could look down from their extremely tall horses and tell the world that pretending to be a dwarven cleric for hours on end is comparable to mutilating small animals and writing rape slash fiction – all with a straight face.
And, I suppose, if I were a socially-irrelevant forty-something whose idea of pertinent youth trends ends at my outdated knowledge of skateboard slang, I would probably leap on the buzzword band wagon and get out the old torch-and-pitchfork combo, gleefully marching down to Wizards of the Coast to dispense a hilariously ironic form of medieval justice on Gary Gygax if the aneurism hadn’t beaten me to it. After all, somebody must think of the children, mustn’t they?
Even if you take it as gospel that D&D is socially damaging to youths (which in a way it is – check out the devout followers of D&D’s logical online progression World of Warcraft for more information), it’s spectacularly dense to suppose the game could have a detrimental effect on people already incarcerated for crimes. I mean, how much more anti-social do you want to get if you’re already jailed for pistol-whipping your local convenience store clerk for a few crumpled twenties and a hard pack of Camels?
Well, apparently in Wisconsin, you can add “gang membership” to the list of scary shit D&D will prompt you to do.
Kevin T. Singer is a convicted murderer, serving a life sentence. Just roll that around in your head for a minute. He’s in prison – forever – for bludgeoning his sister’s boyfriend to death with a sledgehammer. While I have a younger sister and have at times wanted to visit gratuitous violence on some of her boyfriends, actually following through is a pretty heavy thing (as heavy as the sledgehammer, I’ll wager. Ba dum.) The way I see it, knocking some dude’s block off is pretty much the apex of “antisocial behaviour”, but the prison system doesn’t agree. In 2004 Wisconsin’s Waupun Prison took away all Singer’s little figurines and his source books (essentially a DM’s Bible) after a fellow inmate sent an anonymous letter expressing concern that Singer and several other prisoners had formed a “gang” centered around playing the game.
I’m sorry, I have to pause here. I’m laughing so hard I’m dry-heaving.
I played D&D in high school, and let me tell you something – while we might have been labelled a weirdo fringe social group for our activities, we were not in any way given the kind of wide berth and respect-based-on-fear a gang might garner. Quite the opposite: people went out of their way to give us shit, because D&D is for nerds. That’s pretty much a given. Another given is that “nerd” is not exactly synonymous with “cool”, nor is it an appropriate stand-in for “tough” or “manly”. I shudder to think what the result might be if I were incarcerated and attempted to start up a D&D club in prison. There’s a joke in here somewhere about my Enchanted Underpants of Galag’Nor being no match for my fellow inmates’ natural +4 to Anal Rape, but I’m not going to make it because I’m totally not a nerd.
Frankly, I think the only reason everybody else in Waupun Prison hasn’t gone Epic-level Gang Raid on Singer and his geek posse is because he fucking killed a guy with a hammer. Nerd or not, when that kind of charge comes up around the water cooler, you pretty much leave the guy to his twenty-sided die and his elf ears.
But apparently the Waupun administration doesn’t agree, and they’ve got the full force of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court behind them. When the prison confiscated all Singer’s nerd paraphernalia (including a 96-page game manuscript he’d written himself) they told him he wasn’t allowed to play knights anymore because the game promoted, and I quote: “fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviours, and possible gambling.”
Let’s run down that list for a second. Last time I checked, fantasy role playing wasn’t illegal in most states as long as it’s between consenting adults. Competitive hostility – also known as “sports” – is actively promoted in the prison yard as part of the inmates’ exercise regimen, and at least in D&D they’re taking their rage out on invisible gnomes or something. Violence? See hammer. Addictive escape behaviour? Come on. The man’s in prison for the rest of his life. You don’t think he’s addicted to the idea of escape? And finally, gambling: well holy shit. The convicted murderer is gambling – somebody call a hotline. This is weak sauce, even for the totalitarian standards of a U.S. prison. Just come out and say it – he’s in prison and you’re punishing him. Enough said. But no, they have to disparage a whole subculture and their pastime to make their point. It’s like high school all over again.
In any event, Singer actually tried to sue the prison – from inside the prison – for infringing on his rights. Apparently somebody never told him that when you brain your brother-in-law with a conk buster you kind of give up your rights to, well, everything. Somehow he managed to make some headway with the court system, I can only assume by dumping skill points into Charisma, but ultimately the 7th Court upheld the prison’s decision and the game was banned within prison walls. (It’s a post about banning, remember?)
I guess I can see the prison’s rationale – this Singer guy was apparently a devout D&Der in ways that even my old high school adventuring party couldn’t begin to match, and being as he’s in jail for a terrible crime (no matter how much of a douche that boyfriend was) it stands to reason that they would take away things he likes as part-and-parcel of, you know, being a prison.
I just wish they’d do it without dragging out all the old “D&D makes you violent” pamphlets left over from the Reagan administration. No it doesn’t. Quit being a cultural troglodyte. Banning something like D&D is tantamount to banning imagination, and how about that – in one fell swoop we wind up full-circle back at the doors of Old Man Orwell’s place.
Speaking of Uncle George brings me nicely to my next destination: sunny California, where the word of the day really is “when in doubt, ban that shit”.
California Afraid of Words
I’ve never been to California, but I have family and friends who have either visited or lived there, and from what I understand it’s a very pretty place – if you leave aside the legions of would-be actors and rock stars, the garbage floating in San Francisco Harbour, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ incessant praise of the damn place, and the occasional earthquake, that is. Once upon a time I would have even gone so far as to say California struck me as a mostly liberal state, when you consider Berkeley is widely-portrayed in movies as Hippy Mecca. Of course, after the Prop 8 debacle I’d rescind that assertion – of all the places in the ‘States you’d think gay marriage would be sort of a non-issue I would have put California on top of that list, but apparently that’s what I get for giving anyone the slightest bit of credit for anything, ever.
Take this fabulous story that illustrates my point perfectly. In Menifee school district, public outcry has given rise to a new ban on the Merriam Webster 10th Edition dictionary. The reason? The dictionary, which is typically used as a source text in fifth-grade classrooms, lists a definition for the term “oral sex”.
The problems with this decision should be obvious to anyone operating with enough grey matter to fill a shotglass, but I’ll endeavour to break it down anyway – my regular readers will probably be insulted, but hey – at least I’m not using hand puppets or flash cards. You’re welcome.
So the school board was responding to the complaints of one parent who expressed outrage when his or her kid came home spouting the dictionary’s definition of “oral sex” (which, for the record, is defined as “oral stimulation of the genitals”). Now, I’ll admit that as a young lad my friends and I used to scour the English-to-French dictionary looking for translations of swear words, not so much because we genuinely wanted to know, but because French class was boring and I learned the only French phrase I’ll ever need just by listening to the lyrics of “Lady Marmalade”.
Realistically, it’s something kids do. If they’re not getting the information from home they’re going to get it somewhere else; it should come as no surprise to anyone at this point that kids are aware of sexually-charged terms at an earlier and earlier age, and if mom and dad don’t give them the straight answer about what a blow job is, they’re going to figure it out elsewhere. In fact, the dictionary is probably the best place for them to go – leaving aside the fact that the average ten year-old would have to go look up “oral”, “stimulation” and probably “genitals” in order to make heads or tails of the MW definition, where would you prefer them to go? The dictionary or the internet? It’s one thing for them to be exposed to a relatively dry, ambiguous definition like what MW provides; it’s quite another for them to Google “oral sex” and see what they come up with. I wouldn’t recommend trying it, by the way – the results are positively horrifying.
The bottom line in this debacle is that banning the dictionary of all books isn’t treating the illness, it’s treating the symptom. The symptom is the free access to questionable knowledge provided by things like the internet and books and other fancy media, and the illness is you, Mom and Dad. I can say I’m disappointed because I am, but I can’t say I’m surprised, because in the history of censorship and banning and other forms of social control it’s always a knee-jerk reaction to a supposed social threat, a response organized by a bunch of backward neanderthals who fear the written word and outside-the-box thinking and tits. Thankfully one parent in Menifee still has his head properly on his shoulders; father Jason Rogers had this to say:
“It is not such a bad thing for a kid to have the wherewithal to go and look up a word he may have even heard on the playground…[y]ou have to draw the line somewhere. What are they going to do next, pull encyclopedias because they list parts of the human anatomy like the penis and vagina?”
Unfortunately, Mister Rogers, the answer to your rhetorical question is a resounding “yes” followed by “thanks a lot for giving them that idea, you well-meaning but ultimately self-defeating defender of common sense.” And to you, O Narrow-Minded Denizens of Menifee District, I say that while the squeaky wheel gets the grease, pandering to a single parent who would rather their child stay blissfully ignorant of all things sexual until they come home with somebody’s pubic hair stuck in their teeth with no real idea of what just happened is the equivalent of oiling that particular wheel so thoroughly it falls off in transit and sends the entire car spinning crazily down the Slippery Slope of Overreaction.
So What Did We Learn?
It’s a truism that people always want what they can’t have – the more people try to keep it from them, the more they want it. It goes all the way back to our most basic childhood instincts: I might not be playing with the Batmobile toy right now, and in fact I may never play with it again once I move on to the next big thing, but woe betide anyone who tries to pry it from my covetous jam-sticky grasp. If a parental unit tells childhood me that something is off-limits my immediate response is to test those limits (okay, maybe not me because I was a risk-averse little step-and-fetch-it as a child, but most people), and the same goes in the adolescent and adult world.
Think about it for a second: banning things creates even more demand for the banned material than if you’d just leave it the hell alone. Prohibition resulted in the formation of an enormous bootleg liquor industry. Refusing classification of video games in Australia means legions of teenagers desperate to play Left 4 Dead will go through hell and high water to get a copy of the game – the real one, with the blood and guts, not the homogenized version where the zombies don’t bleed and beating them to death with a guitar has the exact same effect as shooting them in the face with a shotgun (and also: homogenized zombie killing? Come on). Banning books of any stripe incites people to read them just to find out what all the fuss is about. Banning games like D&D makes a stupid population stupider by propagating nonsensical stereotypes about people who like J.R.R. Tolkien a whole lot. And banning the dictionary is so astoundingly obtuse I don’t even want to talk about it anymore.
As always, I’m left with the same kind of dissatisfaction I feel every time ignorance wins out over education. Ignorance breeds intolerance; intolerance breeds hate; hate breeds an equal and opposing hate; the opposing hate breeds people like me who spend all day shouting rallying cries to those who remain intelligent enough to see this farce for what it is – and to be honest I often wonder whether anybody is actually listening. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop anytime soon.
So what’s my bottom line? In this day and age, trying to levy bans or censorship on any medium is equivalent to ice-skating uphill, and the people who still engage in the practice could probably benefit from a frontal lobotomy. Delivered with an ice pick. By me.
EDIT: Several of my Correspondents have asked me why I didn’t write a post about the Grammys and how much they sucked. I respond thus: because Alan Cross already did it better than I ever could. Go there if you’re really interested in what a genuine professional critic had to say.