Banning books is a threat to our society


Illustration by Sonia Meytin

In early January, McMinn County, TN’s school board voted to pull “Maus” from its curriculum. However, this ban has ironically helped “Maus” commercially– it instead soared to second place on Amazon’s overall bestseller list, demonstrating how book bans can potentially be ineffective or even backfire.

In recent news cycles, southern states—especially Tennessee—have been lambasted for banning books.

In January, McMinn County’s school board voted to pull “Maus” (1980) from its eighth-grade curriculum. The board claimed that the book, a graphic novel depicting the Holocaust and the traumatic ripple effect it has had on survivors and their families, needed to be removed because of its “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”

A couple weeks later, Williamson County’s school board (also in Tennessee) voted to “adjust” the usage and teaching of seven books. One of these books, “Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea” (2009), was criticized for discussing “gender fluidity” in sea horses and accused of “attempting to normalize that males can get pregnant.” (Imagine being so bigoted that the thought of your child learning about sea horses is enough to send you into a tizzy.) Another book, Sharon Creech’s “Walk Two Moons” (1994), was banned altogether, with Moms for Liberty (the group who initially complained) claiming that fourth graders shouldn’t read it because it contains “stick figures hanging, cursing and miscarriage, hysterectomy/stillborn and screaming during labor.”

It’s not difficult to imagine the potential harm that banning these books, and others, can cause. But just in case, let me reiterate why restricting the teaching of these books—and, frankly, the teaching of books in general—is a bad idea. For one thing, it promotes ignorance about history. “Maus” contains violence, sure, but that’s because it’s an accurate depiction of the Holocaust. By banning “Maus” and other books that don’t shy away from the truth of what really happened, we’re refusing to acknowledge that these atrocities actually happened; we’re showing we believe it’s better to keep ourselves happy and oblivious to the bloodstains of the past. And if we refuse to face the horrors of history, how can we educate ourselves and prevent their recurrence?

In the instance of “Maus,” the book’s ban was incited by conservatives. But while book banning is often attributed to Republicans, it happens on both sides of the aisle, and both “kinds” can be equally damaging. In November 2020, the Burbank Unified School District voted to ban “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the school curriculum for potentially hurting Black students. While I understand why some parents may have wanted a book ban—“To Kill a Mockingbird” contains racial slurs and reeks of a white-savior narrative—this was not the right solution to their worries.

Although this book contains depictions of racism, it isn’t condoning its practice or glorifying it; in fact, it does the opposite. For example, Atticus Finch goes against the grain of his town and chooses to represent a black man in court, in spite of the social repercussions it causes his family. And the same point used to criticize “Maus”’s banning can also be applied here: if we ban every older book that tackles racism, we’re essentially covering it up and denying it happened. Instead of banning these books, we should reframe their teaching, like explaining the harmfulness of a white-savior narrative, or we should add books to the curriculum that are written from Black (and other minority) perspectives or are written by minority authors.

But most importantly, banning books is a slippery slope. If we ban one book, what’s to stop someone else from banning another book? There’s no criteria that we can really set; no justification that doesn’t immediately fall through. If we allow any books to be banned, we open the floodgates for people to justify censoring any books that they dislike, and this could eventually cross into banning books covering minority groups in any way the “other side” finds scandalizing or otherwise disagrees with. Eventually, if we allow the banning of books to continue, literature will drown in a tidal wave of censorship and bigotry.