Saturday, August 4, 2012

Impurity and Total Value

I don't remember much about school before high school, but I do remember my seventh grade Reading class and the city-wide furor that came out of it. I think of that class in two parts. In the first, I was surprised that something as fun as reading fiction could be a class in school. My teacher, Ms. L., had a positive attitude and was great at helping individual students find books that interested them. I hope these kind of classes are still popular beyond the standard English Lit curriculum.

Then the crisis. Sticking to the public record, let's just say my mother objected to some of the material that was read out loud in my classroom, then in other Reading classrooms, then in the school library. What followed was a typical book challenge followed by a not-so-typical political movement culminating in her election to the school board. Some challenged books were moved to the high school library and some were reviewed and remained where they were. Emotions were high on both sides, to put it mildly. The whole ordeal changed more in terms of the people involved than the availability of the books in question. I'm intentionally being vague about other people, but I was pulled out of public school.

Fast forward two decades. I'm a card carrying member of the ACLU and about one-third of the way through a Master of Library and Information Science program. One of my personal goals is to reduce the kind of antagonism I witnessed back in junior high. I'm sure there are some irresolvable points of difference, but I'm also sure there is substantial room for improvement. In this post, I want to highlight one way challengers and defenders talk past each other.

Of Cake and Hair

A frequently used metaphor in the Harry Bosch noir detective series is "hair on the cake." This refers to the way one little legal problem with a criminal case can screw the whole thing up. No matter how great 99.99% of the cake may be, the hair ruins it.

Some people take the same approach to books, movies, music, etc. One rude word and the whole work is "trash" so far as they're concerned. One depiction of sex or violence and it's "unsuitable for minors." (Well, in America, it takes violence at the level of Cormic McCarthy rather than John Wayne. Meanwhile, mentioning female sexuality at all is sufficient.)

98% Fat Free!

A very different approach is to focus on the value of a work on the whole. A person who takes this approach might not approve of every element, but still believes the book/movie/album/etc. is worthwhile for its overall message, or its social importance, or a greater proportion of good bits. For example, one of my favorite books is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, despite some rather disgusting cultural bigotry near the beginning.

The Disconnect

When two people who take these different approaches argue about whether X is a good book, or Y is a good movie, or Z is a good album, they're going to think the other person is totally daft in the very common case where the material has a little objectionable content.

The objector will point at this rude word or that sexual passage as if they're hairs on a cake; since it has these elements at all, the work in question is therefore bad. Meanwhile, the defender will ask, "Did you read the whole thing?" Since the answer is usually "no," the defender is baffled; how could the objector possibly have a valid opinion about the goodness or badness of the work as a whole? And so it goes.

For a relatively recent example, check out this letter to the editor. Scroggins, the objector, writes of the novel Speak:
"As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes."
Scroggins is complaining about the inclusion of any sexual elements in a book about dealing with rape. He doesn't seem to care about the book's impact on helping young people avoid dangerous situations and, especially, helping them deal with life after rape. It mentions sexuality in relation to *gasp* high schoolers, so it has to go. (The author's response is worth a read.)

A Tactic For Reconnecting

Now I do think it's appropriate to respond to objections by listing a work's virtues and weigh them against whatever content people find objectionable, but if it's clear that the objector is of the "hair on the cake" variety, this difference in philosophy needs to be directly addressed. No matter how many virtues a defender lists, the objector can still wave around the "bad bits" as if they settle the matter. By explicitly and repeatedly refocusing the question on whether — in general principle — the presence of bad bits makes a work bad, one of three things might happen:
  • The objector refuses to acknowledge the question, which will cause the objector to lose credibility with onlookers who understand the question.
  • The objector affirms that the presence of bad bits makes any work bad. The defender can then highlight respected works with bad bits to, again, cause the objector to lose credibility with many onlookers.
  • The objector affirms that the presence of bad bits doesn't necessarily make a work bad. Now the objector is publicly committed to weighing the various elements of any given work. Differences in judgment may still occur, but at least a conversation about overall value has become possible.
I hope that greater awareness of these two approaches of "It's impure!" vs. "It has positive total value!" can help everyone in such disputes understand each other better and pin down any essential points of disagreement more quickly. Disagreements happen, but misdiagnosing the disagreement makes resolution unnecessarily difficult.

I'll leave you with a quote from the 1950's that could have been written this year:
"The major characteristic which makes for the all-important difference seems to me to be this: that the selector's approach is positive, while that of the censor is negative. This is more than a verbal quibble; it transforms the entire act and the steps included in it. For to the selector, the important thing is to find reasons to keep the book. Given such a guiding principle, the selector looks for values, for strengths, for virtues which will over shadow minor objections. For the censor, on the other hand, the important thing is to find reasons to reject the book; his guiding principle leads him to seek out the objectionable features, the weaknesses, the possibilities for misinterpretation. The positive selector asks what the reaction of a rational intelligent adult would be to the content of the work; the censor fears for the results on the weak, the warped, and the irrational. The selector says, if there is anything good in this book let us try to keep it; the censor says, if there is anything bad in this book, let us reject it. And since there is seldom a flawless work in any form, the censor's approach can destroy much that is worth saving." — Lester Asheim, Not Censorship But Selection


  1. May I ask what material caused the turmoil in your school?

  2. Dead Birds Singing by Marc Talbert
    Jason and Marceline by Jerry Spinelli
    Sex Education by Jenny Davis
    Deliverance by James Dickey
    Vision Quest by Terry Davies

    And some others, including various Stephen King novels.