Seriously, nobody sensible wants to “ban books”

One of the more frustrating things about the era of public debate in which we live is the way in which people on all sides of cultural hot button issues tend to resort to the most outlandish claims about their opponents. I will start by highlighting an example that arises primarily on my own side of the ideological fence, and which has arisen almost entirely because of the internet: The tendency of angry people to accuse almost anyone they disagree with on any matter of sex education, trans rights, or free speech of being a “groomer” – that is, somebody who wishes to mould children into having sexual relationships with them. This almost entirely internet-driven craze has contributed in my view to a general aura of unpleasantness wherein people are too often tarred as being some class of pervert simply for the crime of honest disagreement about how best to broach certain topics in schools.

If we ferociously oppose an idea, then we should at least have the good grace to engage with that idea and accept it for what it is and understand the perspectives of those who believe in it. In the case of sex education, those who believe in so-called “sex positivity” believe quite sincerely that since children will be exposed to extreme pornography in almost all cases by the time they are adults anyway, it makes sense to talk to them about it frankly and realistically and educate them about consent and choices in order to ensure that children don’t think some of the stuff they encounter on the internet is normal. Holding that perspective does not make you a paedophile. It might make you naïve and wrong – and I’d argue it does in at least some cases – but people can be naïve and wrong from a position of intending basic goodness – and indeed most people usually are. Including me, I hope.

On the other side, the new fascination on the left is to accuse anyone who raises concerns about the age-appropriateness of certain books in children’s libraries of being a “book burner” or wanting to “ban” books. That is a deliberate choice of words, evoking as it does images of the Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, where Jewish businesses were smashed to pieces by rampaging mobs, and many Jewish-authored books and holy texts were ritually burned. On one side then, paedos. On the other, nazis.

Honestly, it’s no wonder so many people switch off.

That said, those who are fond of accusing others of being book-burners have an inbuilt advantage: They retain the ideological sympathy of almost every mainstream journalist and media outlet, few if any of whom have any interest in ever interviewing or otherwise interacting with the actual protestors to ascertain whether the accusations of book-burnerism are correct.

We should when discussing this begin with the basic fact that libraries have always, by their nature, been repositories of filth as well as culture. A quick search of the Irish libraries repository shows, for example, that Irish libraries stock an almost unlimited and fantastical amount of outright smut, including multiple copies of the doubtless gripping “mammoth book of women’s erotic fantasies”, as well as various copies of “Emmanuelle”, a dirty novel that has been around for forty or fifty odd years and was spoken of in whispered and almost mythical tones when yours truly was a teenager in the pre-internet era. Those books, as one might expect, are in the adult section, and nobody has suggested burning or removing them. They have never provoked a murmur of controversy.

By contrast, the present protests have a definitive focus: The inclusion of sexually explicit “education” books in young adult sections which are, by their placement in those sections, being recommended for children as young as 12 years old. This is, self-evidently, a legitimate cause of debate.

We can, presumably, liberal and conservative alike, all agree that age restrictions on books are an appropriate and well-settled mechanism for protecting children, in much the same way that age restrictions and parental guidance limits on movies are intended to achieve the same effect. There is no campaign for book-burning in Ireland: What there is, essentially, is a debate about whether it would be appropriate for a state agency to hand over the literary equivalent of a DVD of “basic instinct” to a Child.

My own view is that some of the content in these books is clearly and obviously inappropriate for children of 12 and 13 years of age. There is a fundamental difference between basic sex education and detailed instruction manuals for exotic sex acts whose existence would come as news to many adults, let alone children. Nobody reasonable is arguing for these books to be either burnt or banned – just that they be placed in an area where children are not encouraged to pick them up.

Note, by the way, that the headline to this piece reads nobody “sensible” wants to ban books. Because there are, and ever will be, of course, the occasional unhelpful extremist hiding (or not hiding) in the midst of any cause. Those people perform an invaluable role – for their own enemies – because they allow an entire movement to be mischaracterised and caricatured by its enemies. Yet their existence does not detract from the reasonable argument that the vast majority of parents with concerns here are making. And the refusal of the media, and the commentariat, to even engage with that argument is another reason that trust and engagement with them is persistently falling.

As a general rule, a healthy democracy is one in which disagreements are openly acknowledged and understood and debated reasonably. A democracy with people shouting groomer on one side, and nazi on the other side is not especially healthy, and should not expect particularly healthy democratic outcomes in the long term.

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