Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

September 24, 2006

 “Censoring Thought: On Free Speech
and the Banning of Books”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

I don’t know how many of you are fans of the television cartoon “The Simpsons.” Alas, I seldom get a chance to watch it any more—but years ago, I was a certified addict. Way back in its second season, there was an episode in which Marge Simpson – the woman whose bright blue hair is almost as tall as she is – Marge is horrified to find that her dear tiny baby girl, Maggie, has become a threat to man and beast because she’s been watching the Itchy and Scratchy show. The Itchy and Scratchy Show is a cartoon that the Simpson children enjoy; and like so many children’s cartoons, it is a daily cavalcade of senseless shocking violence. Itchy and Scratchy are a cat and a mouse who engage in bloody battles to the death week after week, to the amused cackles of small children. After watching one of these episodes, the littlest one, Maggie, clobbers her unsuspecting father on the head with a mallet, and then raises a pencil above her head, preparing to tear into nearby flesh. Marge stops the crazed infant just in time, and then sits down to write a letter to the show’s producers:

“Dear purveyors of senseless violence,” she writes, “I know this may sound silly at first, but I believe that the cartoons you show to our children are influencing their behavior in a negative way. Please try to tone down the psychotic violence in your otherwise fine programming.”

When her letter doesn’t have any effect, Marge begins to organize protests. She gets widespread support. The producer of Itchy and Scratchy calls a meeting of the show’s writers. “That screwball Marge Simpson,” the producer says, “we've got to stop her. But how?”

One of the cartoonists suggests, “Maybe we could drop an anvil on her?”

Another offers, “Hit her on the head with a piano.”

Still another idea comes: “Stuff her full of TNT, then throw a match down her throat and run.”

Finally, the protests become overwhelming and all of the violence is taken out of the cartoons. The new, sanitized Itchy and Scratchy cartoon shows them sharing ice cream with one another. In earlier episodes, an ice cream cone would have been the pretext for the use of weapons of mass destruction. They would have gone to war over that ice cream. Now, in Marge’s happy censored TV world, the cat and mouse sit happily on a park bench, licking ice cream and gazing with loving friendship at one another.

“Itchy and Scratchy have lost their edge,” comments little Lisa Simpson. She and her brother Bart, along with all the children of the neighborhood, now bored by the vapid cartoon, go outdoors to play. Kids start fishing and bird-watching and doing all manner of wholesome activities. Life seems idyllic. Marge did the right thing.

And then, a European art exhibit comes to their little town. It’s main attraction is a rather racy statue, quite inappropriate for young eyes. All those who fought to censor Itchy and Scratchy come to Marge, asking her to help them stop this abomination from corrupting their children. “But, I like that statue,” says Marge, “That’s Michelangelo’s David.”

And so Marge is forced to see that censorship can cut two ways. When interviewed on TV about why she’s changed her mind about censoring art, she says, “I guess one person can make a difference, but most of the time, they probably shouldn't.”

Well, that’s probably not exactly the message we want you to walk away with when you attend the Social Action Committee’s Banned Books Coffee House this Saturday evening. But we do hope you’ll leave with more awareness, conviction and motivation to promote freedom of speech and thought here in the US and around the world. The American Library Association has designated this Banned Books Week in order to remind us not to take freedom of expression for granted.

As I looked over the list of the 100 books that in recent years people have most wished to ban, I noticed that almost all of them were books that I would deem as great writing, which would tend to inculcate virtue and morality: books like Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Native Son by Richard Wright and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I must confess, though, that I saw a book or two on the list and my first reaction was in sympathy with those who had tried to have it banned. I was working for the National Organization for Women (or NOW for short) back in the 80’s when the book American Psycho was published. A lot of women at NOW made quite an outcry against this book. They quite definitely wanted this book banned. I never read it myself, but the women I knew claimed that it was a misogynist book. The story is about a twenty-something Manhattanite in the 1980’s who is, by day, a wildly successful yuppie in an office, and by night enjoys murdering all manner of men and women in gruesome ways. I remember being upset at the time by what I was hearing about the book. The environment in the NOW office made me feel that to be against banning this book was to hate women. When it was found that a real-life serial killer in Canada loved the book American Psycho and kept it by his bed, Gloria Steinem said that the author should take responsibility for the deaths inspired by his work. Back then, based on what my friends at NOW said, I believed that the book was a cynical, mean-spirited, and deeply disturbing enjoyment of cruelty toward the weak. This week, as I read a bit about American Psycho in preparation for this sermon, it seems that some readers interpret the book as a scathing commentary on the vapidness of 80’s yuppie culture. I haven’t read the book, and I don’t plan to, so I will never know whether it has any true literary merit.

And so, as I read the list of banned books, I saw the complexity of every debate worth having—I had it brought home to me once again how we ourselves must see our own faults and proclivities if we are really to address the issue of free speech through art or books or in religion.The essay “On Liberty” was formative for me as a young woman. It ought to required reading for all Americans, in my judgement, because it lays out the basic idea of freedom of speech—why it is important and how it ought to be applied. In the bit Kelly read earlier, Mill explains that truth is not something that automatically prevails. Yes, over many years, it will keep re-emerging, because true precepts will always be recovered. But it is quite easy to suppress truth, sometimes for centuries at a time. And so, we must—against all natural inclination—actively allow for opinions to be expressed that we find odious. One statements he makes which has stuck with me for all these years is this: “While every one well knows themselves to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility. Few admit that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.” In other words, we will admit in theory that we are sometimes wrong, but seldom will we concede that this is one of the times that we actually could be wrong. And so it takes a conscious act of will to allow oneself to be challenged, and—more to the point for Mill—society must organize itself around the conviction that the free exchange of ideas is desirable.

But it is our human nature to fear that when we allow others to truly weigh all options that they might not, in fact, come to see the truth the way we see it. Each of us, in some area of our lives, is probably firmly and intractably convinced of the truth of something, and it is painful and even maddening to see that others do not see the truth as we do. And so, letting them have the freedom to think and read and come to their own conclusions is genuinely frightening.

And so, in Iran, Azar Nafisi had been one of the students who was angry and revolutionary and wanted the Shah ousted from power. As a young woman studying in the US, she had vehemently protested US support for the Shah and had been so happy for the revolution that deposed him. She returned to Iran excited about its future, having Marxist dreams of a socialist democratic state. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran is a moving account of her watching her country descend into a repressive Islamic regime. She writes that it didn’t have to be that way. For two weeks after the Shah fell, a very liberal-minded, democratic man took over as Prime Minister. But he had been too closely associated with the Shah’s regime, and Nafisi writes that she along with almost every Iranian was so entirely focused on destroying the past, that they sacrificed the future in their rage, supporting Khomeini because he was entirely new, not willing to see the merit in any man associated in any way with the Shah.

Before she lost her job teaching English literature, she asked her students, “What should fiction accomplish? Why should one bother to read fiction at all?” She gave the students her own reply: the authors that they were going to read were all subversive. Some with Marxist leanings were explicitly so. But authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain were even more subversive than the Marxist writers. She explained that great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction, she told her students, always forces us to question what we take for granted. “I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.”

In the United States, for the moment, we are not subject to the kind of censorship that Azar Nafisi faced in Iran. Because of the constant vigilance of groups like the American Library Association, even subtle attempts at banning are brought to light and are usually not widely successful. And we must join in this vigilance through activities like the Banned Book Coffee House this Saturday. It is too easy to believe that we are protected here in the United States simply because we have a long history of freedom of speech. As Azar Nafisi learned, once the bookstores start being prohibited from carrying certain books, the die is cast.

During these Days of Awe—the ten days on the Jewish calendar when we look within to honestly assess our mistakes, we might do well both to look at how we might do more to protect our rights to free thought and free speech and also to notice the subtle ways in which we create environments that send subtle messages that certain kinds of thought are not allowed here.

We witnessed in the last couple of weeks a huge outcry against the words of Pope Benedict. The reaction to his words can be seen as a kind of censoring of thought. But for a real freedom of dialog to exist, it is true that we must take responsibility for what we say, when we say it, and the context in which it will be taken.

It is easier than we sometimes want to believe to create an atmosphere where lively and good-natured exchanges can’t take place very easily. When there is a difference of opinion, how often do we avoid the discomfort of debate by saying, “Well, I’ll never convince you and you’ll never convince me, so let’s not talk about it”? How often do we simply roll our eyes or call friends to express outrage if someone expresses a political opinion we find wrong-headed or even dangerous? Too often, we allow our freedom of speech to be a freedom not to debate, rather than a freedom to debate.

Censorship is a funny thing. Not funny like a Simpsons episode, I mean, but funny as in subtle. Sometimes people cry censorship when, in fact, it’s just that no one supports their idea. If I write a book and no one publishes it, that isn’t censorship; it’s just that no one wants to publish my book. Or if I apply for a grant for a project and no one funds me, that’s not censorship; that’s just no one wanting to give me money to help me say what I am free to say without their money. It isn’t censorship to ask people to speak in the appropriate forums and to restrain themselves if the forum is not appropriate. That’s just asking people to follow some rules of engagement in order to protect everyone’s rights. Too often over the years I have heard cries of censorship by individuals who are just upset that they aren’t given a platform for their ideas.

But it is possible to create environments in which certain kinds of ideas are not welcome, and that happens, sadly, in UU congregations as much as in any other venue. I was speaking with a UU friend this week, and mentioned that I would be talking about censorship. He said to me, “You mean censorship in UU congregations?” Well, not particularly, I said. What do you mean? And he replied, “Well, I wish I felt more comfortable talking about God, and using that kind of language in my UU congregation. I have a clear and strong belief, but as a life-long UU, I have been so trained not to use that kind of language that I almost can’t now.” I made him stop and say what he said again so that I could quote him word for word. He added, “I have learned to censor myself for fear of persecution.”

He and I went on to talk about the two-sided nature of censorship. It is both important for him to unlearn his self-censorship a bit, so that he takes some brave steps toward expressing himself truthfully. And it is our responsibility as a community to become more aware of how we might be creating environments that imply that certain ideas are unwelcome in this place.

In the end, it’s about fear. Governments ban books out of fear of their subversive power. We have our own desire to ban in our own subtle ways those ideas that we fear will take us or an institution like SNUUC in a direction we don’t want to go.

And, in the end, it’s about developing habits that will foster environments in which ideas can be debated, even the ideas we abhor. We can anticipate that governments or groups of people will often make attempts to suppress certain books or certain ideas. These won’t succeed if the populace at large understands the stakes. Banning won’t succeed if the population has learned the art of engaging one another in difficult conversations.

This Saturday, we have a chance to be a small but significant part of maintaining the freedom we cherish so much in our country—the freedom to read the books that Azar Nafisi had to hide under her burka—books like The Adventures of Huck Finn, and The Great Gatsby.

And until Saturday and beyond, we have the chance day after day to speak ideas that we fear might be unpopular and to listen to ideas that we’d rather not hear.

Join with me in banning not books, but in banishing fear that we might brave uncharted waters and face whatever winds may blow.