Community Perspective: On Banned Books and Institutional Speech

A contributed perspectives piece by Evan Knappenberger

There has been quite a bit of reporting in the Citizen lately about “banned books” and students protesting against the Rockingham County Public Schools. There are several problems here which could use unraveling and some clarity. As a public intellectual with three decades of being a student under my belt, as a doctoral student in the dialogue of letters, and as an advocate for critique of ideology, I propose to shed some light on the topic. Beware, it may be triggering to those on both sides of this divisive issue!

First and foremost is the scope of the problem of banning books: it involves official sanction of ideas and ideologies by the community (through the institution of the public schools) and must encode and decode between two opposing sets of propaganda. There was a time not long ago when books were a conversation, a dialogue and a privilege that not all had access to. Being educated and initiated into these conversations was a serious responsibility that took years of preparation. While we can mostly agree that the dialogues that form our society should be open to all consenting adults, there are still reasonable limits to any dialogue. Certain books — for instance, the Marquis De Sade’s “100 Days of Sodom” in which rich men scatalogically rape and murder children absolutely senselessly — have long been considered worse than worthless, and indeed are not worth picking up for oneself let alone for sharing with others. Just as you wouldn’t begin a classroom discussion — or a discussion of any kind, at any time — with De Sade’s peculiar verbiage about raping and murdering children and dining on feces, none who cared about the people around them would spread his book around. Limits to rational conversation, established social norms, and respectful dialogue are requirements of healthy communities. Limitless dialogue is inimical to relational life as such.

Additionally, we must acknowledge the uncomfortable fact of children’s minority status in our society: no teenager wants to admit to being half an adult without the privilege of self-determination, but that is exactly their lot in life until they reach the age of majority. The hard truth is, our biology does not always match up with our psychology; we begin puberty before we are ready, before we can choose to become sexually-functional beings in an over-sexed society. We are gendered in ways we may not immediately understand or appreciate, and it is against our will that our sexual innocence is taken from us by our own bodies, the tyranny of adulthood imposing itself upon us with all the force of social pressure — and now, unfortunately, with the ideology of culture wars superimposed on top of an already difficult life transition. Being a teenager is tough, even without one’s body and one’s nascent sexual identity being made the focus of propaganda and used cynically by ideologues in their impersonal crusades. And yet, because the rhetoric of protecting children has been misused so frequently on both sides, anyone who actually cares to shield children from these harsh social realities is labeled as a culture warrior out to destroy their opponents, or worse, as a pedophile corrupting children. Might I suggest that we give our elected school board members the benefit of the doubt on such matters which are foundational to dialogue, instead of assuming that their stances are predicated upon being evil fundamentalists who are bent on eradicating the gays? Maybe we can take them at their word and assume that they actually do care about kids? Being a school board member is a thankless job without the additional hate.

Let us again return to the issue of so-called censorship. Such texts as De Sade’s serve as a perfect example of the necessity of reasonable limitation on speech: none but the staunchest of free speech absolutists would defend “100 Days of Sodom” on its nonexistent literary merits — and those who do defend de Sade do so only in general terms related to the human rights of expression. Such anti-censorship absolutism, while making a valid point about enforced silence, also masks another truth: the idea of a book as sacrosanct object which is inoperative in today’s world. There are those who would publish anything and everything, pages of pure gibberish, and call it a book. Moreover there is literally every kind and type of text (including de Sade’s) available to anyone who wants it, at the push of a button, buried in that vast polluted ocean of filth, the world wide web. If boys of past generations were hiding Playboymagazines under their beds, the youth of today can consume whatever smut they want in private, and they need neither the blessing nor the access of the Rockingham County Public Schools to do so. Complaints that the School Board is limiting their freedom to “access information” are disingenuous at best, given the lengths that schools have gone to incorporate the technology of the internet, and these disingenuous complaints weaken broader arguments against keeping certain other kinds of books in the school libraries.

The truth is, the rhetoric of “free speech” opposed to tyrannical book banning is also vestigial to a former century: the public schools are not burning offensive books, not banning them from homes or students’ lives — they are simply removing them from the school system. Nobody is seriously claiming that all access to certain materials be completely eradicated across society. Moreover, there are legal concerns specific to the school system as institution. Something I have learned over decades of being a student is that there is a performative standard of what is called “institutional speech” for which schools and school districts are formally liable. If a Nazi were to give a graduation speech at the high school, for example, the principal and superintendent and the district itself would all be at risk of being sued for whatever that Nazi had to say. When it appears that an institution is endorsing certain speech, even if it disclaims that speech, it is on the hook for whatever content is presented. 

The operative principle at work in institutional speech is a certain endorsement; by explicitly allowing a book in school, the institution is implicitly endorsing that book’s value to the community. Children who might watch singing toilets on youtube for ten hours a day may not have high standards for what they fill their minds with, but they, the community and the courts assume that their educators and schools still have some standards (as well as the children’s best interest) in mind when curating material for them to consume. This curated trust is the bedrock of both public education and librarianship, and by virtue of its essence as inherently guardian over children, must not be up to the students themselves to decide. If a student doesn’t like this, they can go get their preferred texts themselves, at their own expense, and on their own moral authority, without borrowing the credibility of the School Board and making the entire institution liable.

The ideology of banning books in the County Schools is, unfortunately, mostly a one-way phenomenon. This is made evident by the lack of demands that certain right-wing material be axed. When I was in high school, I checked out Ayn Rand’s books “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” from the school library, and fell into a rabbit hole of rightwing evil. Rand’s books, aside from advocating atheism and free markets, also celebrate rape and murder, as I have written elsewhere in leftwing magazines; and yet nobody is demanding that those books be removed. The problem in this my case is more than a lack of awareness by the school as to the content of Rand’s books; it extends into the cultural attitudes of the 1990’s where Reaganite politics held up Randian ideals, and school librarians and school board members were as much captive to those terrible ideals as the Gipper and I were. 

Finally we must briefly distinguish between two types of banned literature, if it may be called that. There is that which is clearly ideological, which I argue has a place in mature collections if it is balanced out by moderating critique in the same context. If you want to have a book pushing atheism in a high school library, it should be balanced by an easily-to-find text on the value of the study and practice of religion. If school libraries are going to display books openly pushing LGBTQ ideologies, they should be presented on equal footing with a variety of differing perspectives. But, more troubling, are those comic books and other materials which use emotive arguments and which are not honest about the ideologies they are seeking to propagate. These are not consistent with the development of children’s abilities to practice reasoning through complex issues. When I see in school library books, for instance, comics depicting teen minors explicitly giving each other blow jobs, I hesitate to understand these books as open, honest and valuable, and I begin to doubt the integrity of those who would provide them to children. To describe such an act in terms of consequences, behaviors, psychological and emotional effects, and then to discuss it fairly in the same text would be more acceptable; to simply have a comic book story of teenagers having sex is something different.

When I see high school students learning to exercise their civic duty by means of protest and dialogue, I am generally pleased. What better preparation for adult life than initiation into the passages of democratic participatory power? However, in a world full of wars and genocides and Trumpian coups and exploitative capitalism and environmental disaster — a world full of things which demand our attention and protest — the kids protesting RCPS library review policies have chosen the least salient and most politically-suspect of these things. This inflames the community instead of building it, and begins to conflate and confuse two very different issues: the rights of gay and transgendered people in our society with the duties of educational institutions to curate institutional speech and materials. Not only do I personally think that they are wrong on the proximal issue of “censorship” but I think they are doing their primary concern a grave harm as well by engaging in a culture war that gives ammunition to those who accuse the left of sexualizing kids in service of politics.

If high school students want to make the world more inclusive to certain classes of people, they should work on that issue rationally and not emotively. Our politics has been too long emotive, and performative protests are not going to move older generations for whom public school was actually a violent experience. Less still will deliberately equivalating of transgender rights with school library policy do anything more than alienate (or more likely, bore) people who might otherwise support gay rights. I know several people in the community who were angrily abused for daring to care that their child came home with comic book blowjobs in their backpack. For speaking out, they are branded hatemongers and fundies, and will reluctantly abandon the cause of equality after enduring abuse from those who otherwise advocate for inclusion and diversity.

This brief essay has attempted to clarify issues of censorship and book banning in a local context. The author has a long history of social critique and protest, and will no doubt draw the ire of some whom he has criticized. But it would be unfair to the Trumpians and Putinists whom he has furiously lambasted for years not to gently correct those who find themselves confused on less important issues.

Evan Knappenberger is a doctoral student, veteran, peace advocate, historian and writer living in Harrisonburg and McCauley, West Virginia.

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