Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was an American folk singer who wrote and sang about the dangers of governmental suppression of human rights. One of his favorite topics was censorship. In his song Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, his lyrics include:
“Oh there’s a dirty paper using sex to make a sale
The Supreme Court was so upset, they sent him off to jail.
Maybe we should help the fiend and take away his pain.
But we’re busy reading Playboy and the Sunday New York Times
And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.”
Ochs is addressing his lyrics to the hypocrisy of selective censorship. That, of course, is the greatest danger of suppression of ideas; certain groups seek to deny the thoughts of certain other groups and individuals while the ideals of other groups and individuals are allowed to flourish.
It may be coincidental that recent political discord in America includes powerful movements to ban thought or it may be that competing strident voices seeking to drown out conflicting thoughts are the source of the stalemate of constructive solutions to our current social miasma. As various special interest groups attempt to censor the airing of the ideals of other special interest groups such as by banning books in public schools, the education of future leaders suffers. It is reasonable to assume when these narrowly indoctrinated children become adults, they will continue the process of increasing public ignorance. And children being children and the internet being ubiquitous we should not be surprised if public school education in general is eschewed and our nation might lose sight of some of its founding principles that have helped right our ship of state for over two hundred years.
While there are numerous special interest groups that seek to have our public schools, including even our colleges and universities, deny free expression, often the banning of unwelcomed ideas comes from religious sects. In America that often includes Christian denominations that see themselves as protecting children by shielding them from the dangers of sexually aberrant thought.
I recall my own Christian upbringing when some of the first stories I was taught, even before I started my formal public schooling, were from the Bible. The realization of their nakedness by Adam and Eve and Lot’s having children with both of his daughters after his wife was turned into a pillar of salt and the adultery and homosexuality of Sodom and Gomorrah were stories related matter of factly by various teachers and preachers to me and my young friends. Then there is the ultimate Christian story I was taught untold times by Sunday School teachers and ministers about God having a child with an unsophisticated young Hebrew girl. I am fairly sure no Christian right group nor any Me Too group is calling for the Bible to be banned for depicting incest among Lot and his daughters, sodomy, the machinations of an Immaculate Conception or as the Bible says, “God’s only begotten son”. And billions of people, including me, have enjoyed the Christmas Story without a thought for Mary’s lack of input in the decision.
The point, of course, is that the evils sought to be avoided by book banning are not nearly as damaging as the suppression of free speech or the violation of First Amendment rights. Schools should not stock or teach pornographic materials. However, the Bible is great literature that should be taught along with many of the other books some groups want to ban. Public schools should not teach the faiths of particular religions as fact but should expose students to the lessons and wisdom of all great literature including the myths that have helped guide many successful civilizations. We need to teach our students how to make sound, informed judgments. The best way to do that is to expand their minds not narrow their horizons.