When It Comes to Banning Books, Both Right and Left Are Guilty | Opinion

This week, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a hearing on book censorship in the United States. The hearing was just the latest attempt to draw attention to the Right's crusade to control what young people read. Over the past year, politicians have introduced over 60 educational gag orders to "prohibit teachers from discussing certain topics related to race, sex, and American history in the classroom." And new radical groups continue to push this crusade even further; Moms for Liberty, which was established last year, promises $500 to anyone who reports a teacher.

But conservatives are not the only censors. Governor of California Gavin Newsom inadvertently if rather hilariously made this point when he posted a picture of himself "reading some banned books to figure out" what Republican states "are so afraid of." Apparently no one told him that the stack of books in the photo included one banned in the state he leads, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was banned from California schools on the grounds that it contained racism.

Today, the Left wages its own crusade against authors, publishers, and teachers. Moms for Liberty has a Left-wing mirror image in We Need Diverse Books and Disrupt Texts, groups at the forefront of movements trying to cancel, rewrite, and otherwise censor picture books, young adult novels, and American classics taught in K-12 schools.

Around the time Dr. Seuss's books were pulled from library and bookstore shelves, Newsweek reported that videos of liberals burning Harry Potter books were "spreading like wildfire across TikTok." In one video, a book burner condemns the "racism" and "harmful fatphobia" in J.K. Rowling's most famous work.

Not to be outdone by liberals, Global Vision Bible Church head pastor Greg Locke led a crowd of Christians into the Tennessee woods. As part of a series on "deliverance from demons," Locke invited his congregation to burn Harry Potter, Twilight, and other "occultic materials."

The truth is, there is a moral panic on both sides when it comes to books: Books are turning children into witches! Books are turning children into Marxists! Books are turning children into racists! Books are turning children into fatphobes! We must burn the books!

It's reminiscent of the moral panic over comic books during the 1950s, when everyone from the Communist Party to the Catholic Church blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency. And then, as now, even in the absence of state censorship, the costs to comic book writers and sellers were real; between 1954 and 1956, half of the comic books on newsstands disappeared. The authors who held on were pressured to conform.

Decades later, the new book burners are worried about prejudice. And just as the moral panic around comic books came in response to a real rise in juvenile crime, it's hardly surprising that the Left's moral crusade over books for young people has exploded at a time when the Right controls the Supreme Court, the majority of state governorships and the majority of state legislatures. For legitimate reasons, liberals are worried about threats to minorities.

But the idea that better books will defeat racism, transphobia, and other intolerances is simply not supported by the research.

Princeton University's Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Columbia University's Donald P. Green evaluated close to 1,000 studies of prejudice reduction, including field experiments focused on literature read by children and young adults. As they put it, "Psychologists are a long way from demonstrating the most effective ways to reduce prejudice. Due to weaknesses in the internal and external validity of existing research, the literature does not reveal whether, when, and why interventions reduce prejudice in the world."

banned books
Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

On the Right, the book burners are worried, too; it's hardly surprising that all these educational gag orders and Right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty emerged when the Left was trying to institutionalize what John McWhorter calls the new religion of antiracism. From Pastor Greg's bonfire to Governor Ron DeSantis "Stop W.O.K.E Act," conservatives believe censoring books for young people is how they will make America great again.

Yet, in all my years researching literature at Harvard, Cornell, and elsewhere, I have never once encountered a piece of evidence that suggests books have a "demonic" influence on young readers. Nor have I ever encountered evidence that suggests children's and young adult books are turning the next generation into "postmodern Marxists" who hate men, white people, capitalism, marriage, and the United States.

Of course, it's easier to burn Harry Potter and My Two Dads and Me than to talk to young people about why they are becoming more secular and progressive on social issues. Striking a match is a lot easier than persuasion.

Moral crusaders love easy solutions to complex problems. It's easier to ask "How Does the Literary Canon Reinforce the Logic of the Incel?" or bring a copy Antiracist Baby to the Senate confirmation hearing for Ketanji Brown Jackson than to actually talk to our fellow Americans about their views.

As far back as John Milton's Areopagitica, people have pointed out that eradicating bad ideas in books leaves many other places open to the same ideas and even worse ideas. In the era of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation, Xbox, Spotify, Pornhub, cable television, and Hollywood films, Milton's point could not be truer: Today, burning this or that book is as effective as tilting at windmills.

In the end, one does not need to be a Ray Bradbury scholar to understand that, as he put it in his coda to Fahrenheit 451, "There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches."

Adam Szetela is a Ph.D. student in the English department at Cornell University.

The views in this article are the writer's own.