Libricide and Free Speech

Ah the old art of burning books — the topic of movies and books, and the subject on more than one occasion of news articles that have caught public attention. Harry Potter has been the subject of more recent book burnings.1Serchuk, David. (2006, December 1). “Harry Potter and the Ministry of Fire“. 2Religious debates over the Harry Potter series. (2010, September 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:40, September 11, 2010

Even various translations of the Bible have been burned.3Winner, Lauren. (2009, November 6). “Burnt Offerings“.

1933-may-10-berlin-book-burning Now Christians are the more ready example in recent history of book burnings, partly because the Christian history of burning books isn’t a secret and includes the asinine spectacle of a 50-member congregation in Florida that was going to be burning copies of the Qur’an.42010 Qur’an-burning controversy. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. It has even been the subject of mockery in the television show The Simpsons.5Wikisimpsons. Book Burning Mobile. But Christians certainly aren’t alone. Easily the next most infamous example is the Nazis. (Pictured left) Even Orthodox Jews have burned copies of the New Testament on several occasions.6 Wikipedia details numerous other times books have been intentionally set ablaze.7Book burning. (2010, September 11). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:50, September 11, 2010.

Out of this comes this question: what has been completely lost to history because the flame of someone’s hatred caused them to take a flame to a tome? If you want an idea as to the answer to this question, read about what was lost when the Iraq national library was set ablaze in 2003 shortly after the start of the US invasion.8“Prized Iraqi annals lost in blaze”. BBC News. April 14, 2003. Among the losses was one of the oldest surviving copies of the Qur’an. Rare books, sometimes even last surviving copies, and treasured antiquities are what can be lost when books and entire libraries are intentionally set ablaze.

And here’s the better question: why burn books at all, any book, no matter the subject matter or content?

I disagree with those who say that people have a “constitutional right” to burn a book, such as the Qur’an, something that former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has recently stated on her Facebook page.9Palin, Sarah. (2010, September 9). “Koran Burning Is Insensitive, Unnecessary; Pastor Jones, Please Stand Down Now given I mentioned the Qur’an, let me clarify or rather state this plainly: a person does not have a constitutional right to burn a Qur’an. Indeed, I feel no person has any right to burn any book for any reason other than to dispose of a book that is unusable. Allow me to clarify even further.

You do not have a right to destroy ideas, and when you burn a book, that is exactly what you are doing or attempting to do. There may be hundreds or thousands of copies of the book available, but burning even one out of hatred is a travesty, an insult to the human mind. It is a form of censorship, something no individual has any right to do.

It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear, and every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something.  In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.

— Christopher Hitchens10Hitchens, Christopher. (2007, August 5). “Be It Resolved: Freedom of Speech Includes the Freedom to Hate“. TVO.

Theatrical poster for Kiki's Delivery Service Along with books being banned, decried, boycotted, or burned, we also have movies and other creative works decried or banned (and in some cases also burned). Back in 1998, Walt Disney Studios released an English-dubbed version of the animated Japanese movie Kiki’s Delivery Service. In response, the Christian group Concerned Women for America called for a boycott of Disney in a press release dated May 28, 1998, titled “Disney Reverts to Witchcraft in Japanese Animation”11Concerned Women for America. (1998, May 28). “Disney Reverts to Witchcraft in Japanese Animation“. Archived by the Internet Mutual Aid Society, Yokohama.:

The Disney Company is still not family friendly, but continues to have a darker agenda. The Walt Disney Company has been known for weaving witchcraft into major movies such as Escape from Witch Mountain, Fantasia, and Peter Pan to name a few. Disney does not promote family values, but rather promotes such behavior as divination and entices your children to practice it.

If you haven’t seen Kiki’s Delivery Service (Netflix, Amazon), I highly recommend it. Another favorite of mine, also from Hayao Miyazaki, is Spirited Away (Netflix, Amazon). That movie also talks about magic, demons, and spirits.

Boycotts, decries, banishments and burnings. Why? Especially with works of fiction.

Remember the outcry about the movie The Golden Compass? I’d be more concerned about the fact that part of the book The Amber Spyglass was changed before being published in the United States. Wikipedia has the details on that.12The Amber Spyglass. (2010, August 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 06:17, September 10, 2010

Oh and let’s not forget The Da Vinci Code

I’ve already said before that no person has a right to not be offended. But as Christopher Hitchens said in the quote above, when you choose to censor, you are making yourself a prisoner of your own action. I’ve also previously written that the idea of the freedom of speech is to get you to confront your own beliefs and preconceived notions.

Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.

— Rosa Luxemburg

If you don’t confront your own beliefs and ideas, you make yourself a prisoner of them. And if you’re reading this and you are a Biblical literalist (read: you believe the Bible is 100% true and accurate, the inerrant word of God, and the Bible has no errors at all, it’s society that’s got things mixed up), you’re already a prisoner in your own mind, in my opinion, and pretty much beyond help.

If you would even conceive of burning a book, instead what you should be doing is taking that book and slamming it across your head. Better yet lay your head down on the table, hand the book to me, and I’ll do the honors.

Again you don’t have the right to destroy ideas. You also do not have the right to restrict others, including your own children, from being exposed to other ideas, including ideas that conflict or are contrary to your religious beliefs. Instead we all have and enjoy a right to become voluntarily exposed to new ideas, the heart of what it means to have free speech, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out as noted above, especially when those ideas dissent from the majority or an expressed point of view as Hitchens further points out in the same lecture with regard to Holocaust denial:

That person [the Holocaust denier] doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection, because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might be, might contain a grain of historical truth, umm, might in any case give people to think about why do they know what they already think they know.

But beyond this, we also need to be realistic. By this I mean you need to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. You should not go around telling children that Harry Potter would’ve been put to death had the story of him been part of the Old Testament, which is exactly what was said in the documentary called Jesus Camp (you can find clips of this strewn across YouTube):

Let me say something about Harry Potter. Warlocks are enemies of God. And I don’t care what kind of hero they are, they’re an enemy of God, and had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!

Instead of telling a child something like this, make it clear to the child the difference between reality and fantasy. Fantasy and fiction can conflict with everything from religious beliefs to the laws of nature and the universe. Star Trek and Star Wars are classic examples, as are the Marvel comic series X-Men and Spider-Man, among many others. In response to the book Angels & Demons, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) has set up a web site to address the book and the various aspects of it related to CERN and antimatter.13European Organization for Nuclear Research: Angels & Demons – The science behind the story

Instead what we should be doing is allowing our children to read these books with these fantastical ideas and universes, letting them escape into the world of their own imagination, but at the same time, ensuring that they understand the difference between fantasy and reality, what is real versus what is not, what is good versus what is not.

An open mind is a wonderful thing to have, but when you advocate the burning of books, any book, or the restriction of the availability of books or the presentation of various ideas, including books of other religions, without adequate cause, you are actually advocating the closing of minds, especially the closing of minds of those whose minds should be the most open: our children.

And of that, there is no greater scandal.