Book bans in a polarized age
April 8, 2023
The Illinois State House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday, March 22 cutting the distribution of state funds to libraries who ban materials due to partisan pressure.
The bill comes as, at the end of March, all of Illinois’ neighboring states: Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin have approved bills strengthening the ability of parent and advocacy groups to ban books or make it easier to prosecute those who disregard these bans.
“I think it’s alarming,” said Illinois State Representative Anne Stava-Murray. “I think everyone should be alarmed. The free exchange of ideas from diverse perspectives is fundamental to our democracy.”
Stava-Murray said the original idea for the Illinois bill came from the office of the Secretary of State, Alexi Giannoulias, but Stava-Murrary took up the bill proposal because of events in her own district.
“I was very excited to step on as the sponsor because there had been an attempt of a few radical parents and a hate group, called the Proud Boys, who came from out of town and disrupted several weeks of school board meetings over a book called ‘Gender Queer,’” she said.
Scott McClurg, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University (SIU), said the recent trend comes as a result of Republican legislatures using their positions of power as a means to define the terms of conversation around minority issues, usually centering on religious objections to societal changes.
“It turns out this is something that has been going on for a long time, it’s not a new thing,” McClurg said. “But people forget about that, so, right now, we’re coming back into some of these issues, and they might change over time, but the one that always comes up again and again is our religious issues.”
He said a large reason bills restricting access to information get passed today comes as a function of the higher voter turnout of older populations as opposed to younger populations.
“Especially with transgender issues right now, there are a lot of people, older people, for whom that’s a real issue,” he said. “It’s something you never had to think about in that age and now, all of a sudden, we have to try to understand these things quickly. And for our age, that’s a little harder for people.”
Along with the increased complexities of modern culture, the advent of the internet and modern forms of misinformation and disinformation, as well as the increased ability to self-segregate into echo chambers, it can be difficult to have effective discussions, according to Robert Fox, a professor of Africana Studies at SIU.
“I lived through the 60’s, and that was turbulent, but at least we only had one reality people were quarreling over. Now people can’t even agree on what reality is,” he said.
Fox said, rather than attempting to restrict or remove access to information, efforts should be made to come up with more intelligent ways to discuss sensitive topics.
“It really depends on the circumstances, and I think sometimes censorship or efforts to censorship could actually be avoided if people had some intelligent discussion about the issues,” he said.
Stava-Murray said if parents feel material is inappropriate for their children, they should be telling that to their children and establishing rules to maintain their style of parenting at home without interfering with other students’ education.
“If they want to say their children can’t be reading certain books, they need to be detailing that to their children and expect their children to follow their own rules,” she said. “And if they don’t trust their own parenting, that’s on them.”
According to her, Illinois has recently earned a well-deserved reputation for fighting against Republican-led national initiatives like the discrimination against abortion access and LGBT+ healthcare.
“We have been fighting hard to earn that reputation of one that protects and champions women’s rights… and we believe it’s up to an individual to control their own healthcare decisions,” she said.
While major arguments surrounding the implementation of book bans have centered on the Republican push for parental rights in education, Fox said the actual instituting of bans only makes the information harder to find but not impossible.
“You know what it is with kids, if you tell them they shouldn’t be doing something, they’re going to want to do it anyway,” he said. “When it came to books or intellectual things, I didn’t feel I had to wait x number of years if I can get my hands on it. And if I can understand it, why not?”
Fox said while it’s important for parents to be able to exercise some control over the information their children receive, the danger comes from the lack of agreement over what is considered appropriate or not.
“I get it up to a point, but not all parents think alike. A parent has the right to say, ‘I don’t want my kid to see that,’” he said. “But you don’t have the right to get rid of it and let nobody see it.”
John Pollitz, Dean of Library Affairs at Morris Library, said recent book bans come more as a result of a dominant culture fighting to maintain dominance over the discussion of minority groups and their issues.
“What we see recently is a lot of attempts to take books about LGBTQIA+ topics off the shelves,” he said. “These books get banned because they depict these groups and their depiction is deemed sexually explicit by their definition.”
Pollitz said the purpose of these bans is to cause a chilling effect on the states and communities affected, making it more difficult or costly for teachers to bring up the subjects involved without facing consequences, thereby curtailing the spread of the ideas.
“It causes people to be more afraid to do anything outside of the ordinary. Here at the university, we don’t really have that trouble, but if I were a high school or elementary school librarian and I wanted to teach about all people and ideas, I’m going to get challenged and it’s going to be a hassle and I might lose my job,” he said.
According to Pollitz, the American Library Association (ALA) holds an annual Banned Book Week in autumn to raise awareness of commonly banned books, with the 2023 week set for October 1-7. He said while there will be events at that time celebrating banned books, there is plenty that can be done currently against bans.
“You can fight censorship,” he said. “You can go to school board meetings, you can write letters, you can advocate for the free and open exchange of information. Libraries in the past haven’t always been the best, but it is our mission to provide for the free exchange of information, and that makes us stronger as a country.”
Stava-Murray said the purpose of the U.S. education system should be to provide a safe place to freely express a diversity of ideas.
“We want to make sure that we are creating a better world for our children and all their friends and peers,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are just working toward making our state a great place to raise a family where you can be proud of the politics as well.”
Staff reporter William Box can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @William17455137. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.