ALAN v21n2 - THE CENSORSHIP CONNECTION - Censorship Matters

Volume 21, Number 2
Winter 1994

The Censorship Connection

Nancy McCracken
Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Censorship Matters

I am hoping that this column will be something like the late Red Barber's Friday morning conversations on National Public Radio: some news about who's ahead in the games, some humor, and some serious attention to the Camellias. First the news.

According to Charles Suhor's November, 1993, Censorship report in SLATE , we're winning ("we" being parents, teachers, children, and school boards who want to preserve intellectual freedom for kids). The score in Suhor's Sampler of 14 censorship cases in which SLATE provided assistance is Intellectual Freedom 12, Censors 0, with one tie and one case pending. The September 1993 report of the National Coalition Against Censorship provides further examples of clear wins for Intellectual Freedom along with some opportunities for restorative laughter. There is, for example, the pastor in Anadarko, Oklahoma, who failed in his attempt to censor his son's high-school sociology book, Social Problems (Kornblum and Julian, Prentice), objecting to question-and-answer passages about homosexuality and incest, which he described as pornographic and obscene: "The answers are even worse than the questions," he complained.

In another win for intellectual freedom, a parent in Silver Spring Township, Pennsylvania, who had counted "over 700 obscenities and over 100 profane uses of the name of God" in The Catcher in the Rye , was denied her request that her son be allowed to read the Catcher "Cliff's Notes" with any remaining offensive language "expurgated with a felt-tip marker." The felt-tip markers have not been idle elsewhere, however. In a case still pending in September, 1993, in Erie, Pennsylvania, a principal was asked why he "permitted" ninth-grade English teachers to ink-out passages about the mating habits of the apes in Diane Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist . No parents had complained about the material, but "You're always walking a tightrope," he said. "We came down on the better side of caution."

On the whole it appears that we have come a long way toward catching up with our well-organized opponents in the far-right field. The Gablers caught teachers off-guard in the 70s with their ability to generate, file, and disseminate to mass audiences information on books deemed dangerous to youth. Efforts such as Margo Sacco's collection of rationales for current YA novels (see her article in The ALAN Review , Winter, 1993), NCTE's, ALAN's, and ALA's published rationales, and SLATE support are ways English language arts teachers and librarians have learned to mobilize our efforts against overt acts of censorship. Though we lack the levels of funding available to Pat Robertson, Don Wildmon, and the like, we do seem to be getting better at fighting the open battles against censorship.

We still have a long way to go, though, in fighting what might be called "silent censorship." This form of censorship happens behind the scenes and accomplishes its purpose away from the eyes and ears of the press and thus away from the aid of the national organizations that would help if they could.

Silent Censorship by Textbook Publishers

What Johnny Shouldn't Read by Joan Delfattore (Yale UP, 1992) offers the best current study of textbook censorship practices, including a disturbing wealth of examples of silent censorship. Here are some of the interesting cases I learned while reading Delfattore.

* In widely anthologized versions of Romeo and Juliet , 300 lines referring to sexuality and unfavorable views of religion have been silently deleted -- that is, deleted with no sign or notice of their deletion (pp. 1-2).

* In Texas during the 1983 textbook adoption process, in response to the Gablers' protest, publishers of a history text removed "the New Deal" from a timeline of important events in American History. "Instead of redoing the timeline, the publishers simply whited out the New Deal, leaving a gap like a missing tooth just above Pearl Harbor" (pp. 149-150).

* The extreme editing of Patricia Zettner's short story "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream," which originally appeared in Seventeen magazine, is a textbook censorship classic. When two publishers arranged to reprint it for junior high school literature anthologies, they silently deleted references to "chili burgers, pizza, and ice cream, and changed the title to `A Perfect Day' " (p. 130). They also deleted a reference to Gloria Steinem, a sibling argument, and the expression "kamikaze ball" (p. 130). Delfattore reports that "When Zettner asked for an explanation of the changes, she was told that they had been made in anticipation of California complaints about junk food and ethnic stereotyping and Texas protests about family conflict and feminism" (p. 130).

In these examples, the publishers, like the principal who had his teachers mark out primate sexual behavior references in Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist , were censoring before the fact. In the case of Fossey's book, the action of the censor was apparent. In the case of the textbook publishers' "adjustments," it is often impossible for a reader to find what's been censored. As Delfattore notes, "No matter how good a teacher is, there is just so much time to study a textbook to try to figure out what is not there" (p. 151).

Censorship Through Silent Exclusion of Nonprint Media

Another major arena for silent censorship is nonprint media. The effect of this censorship hadn't really struck me until last semester during the first class of my Teaching of Literature seminar. The teachers focused on response, highlighting the values of teaching literature to adolescents -- educating the imagination, stimulating open critical discussion, multicultural understandings, creativity, problem solving, etc. Suddenly Jann, who had been quiet throughout the discussion, spoke out in a voice that was half despair and half challenge: "But all of this is irrelevant since only a handful of our students read! Television and videotapes are the real adolescent literature -- what about that?" Much as we hated to admit it, we knew she was at least partly right. According to a US Department of Education report on the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress, "about a quarter of the students [in both grades 8 and 12] reported never or hardly ever reading for fun on their own time" (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, OERI Bulletin , Fall 1993). Although the majority of students did claim to spend at least some time reading for pleasure, it appears that nonprint texts provide the sole literary experiences for many of our younger students. An alarming "20 percent of 4th graders" and "14 percent of 8th graders" reported watching six or more hours of television each night .

Because of the tremendous presence of media in students' lives, it would seem essential to include media literacy as a primary educational goal in all English language arts classrooms. Yet media literacy is one of the major silent deletions in the English language arts curriculum. In 1990, in recognition of the increasing need for media literacy and in anticipation of the extension of print censorship activities to nonprint media, NCTE appointed a Task Force for Guidelines on Dealing with Censorship of Nonprint Materials. The first major finding of the Task Force was that media texts are seldom taught in schools and thus seldom are the focus of highly publicized attempts at censorship: "Despite the enormous cultural influence and artistic contributions of nonprint media, the classroom study of nonprint works is threatened by direct and indirect censorship." In discussions with teachers, the Task Force members learned that indirect censorship of nonprint media occurs when English language arts teachers focus instruction solely on print texts, avoiding audio and video texts in the classroom as having greater potential for arousing controversy and censorship in the community than print texts. Examples of direct censorship included instances in which teachers who did request purchases of videotexts for classroom study were told by their principals or school boards to abide by the ratings of the Motion Picture Association of America and show only films rated "G" or "PG" (and even then Zepharelli's PG-rated Romeo and Juliet continues as one of the most frequently cited media censorship cases). The Task Force published Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Nonprint Materials (NCTE, 1993) which includes "Principles," "Guidelines," and "Responsibilities of Teachers in Dealing with Nonprint Materials." Here are a few excerpts worth thinking about in light of young adult literature:

* The students' "right to know" is not limited to print media. It includes the right to know through nonprint media and about nonprint media.

* Students' freedom of speech includes freedom of expression through studying, discussing, and producing nonprint media.

* As with reading literature, the students' prior knowledge shapes their perception of a media text; each student thus "sees" a different work. There needs to be class time for expression and discussion of a range of response to the nonprint media work.

* The rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America should not be used as the primary guide in selecting films or videotapes for instruction in schools. The MPAA ratings are made by the film industry expressly without regard for artistic or educational value. ( Guidelines 3-5).

Recently publicized attempts to ban The Great Santini and Glory are examples of important film literature that would be excluded if the MPAA rating were the sole selection criterion. Those who are interested in correcting the silent censorship of media by using more film and video texts appropriate for young adults will want to see Leonard Malting's Movie and Video Guide 1994 . This excellent paperback resource contains brief reviews (including MPAA Ratings) and availability in film, video, and lasar disc formats. The list is arranged alphabetically by title, and cross-referenced with major actors and directors.

The Stability of the Top Ten

The most insidious of the silent censorship arenas is selection of print literature. In this day of "top-ten lists" that change with the seasons -- nightly for David Letterman fans -- it is worth asking why the most-censored-top-ten list has remained virtually unchanged for years. Everyone knows the stars of the list: Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter , Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye , Twain's Huckleberry Finn , Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men , Blume's Forever , Cormier's The Chocolate War , Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird , etc. An impressive list to be sure, yet troubling: the authors represent a very narrow cultural range and the "censorable" issues raised by these books seem centered in blatant heterosexuality and disobedience or disrespect for government or religious authority figures and symbols. So long as The Catcher in the Rye and Forever continue to appear on almost every censor's "hit list," we can take comfort in the fact that heterosexuality is being read about and discussed in numbers of classrooms -- albeit with considerable effort. So long as Harper Lee and Mark Twain keep showing up in the latest national reports on censorship, we can be sure that racism -- at least as seen from the point of view of naive, white adolescents -- is being read about and discussed. But the "most-censored" lists also direct our attention to the relative absence of other issues: points of view and voices extremely important to today's youth. Why haven't some of the excellent contemporary books dealing with homosexuality, incest, AIDS, and racism from the victim's point of view made the "top ten"? And why haven't books that present the voices of Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans made their way to the "top ten"?

Three explanations surface. First, the broad-based censors haven't been able to keep up with the publication and teaching of contemporary young adult literature. They have been so busy publishing and faxing quotes and rationales for censoring the "classics" and works as socially unchallenging as The Wizard of Oz that they don't have time to read contemporary authors much less The ALAN Review . Second, it's possible that teachers are similarly so pressed for time reading their students' writing portfolios that they are unable to read more current and diverse literature. The third possibility is, of course, self censorship of what the movie industry calls "thematic content."

Judging from the stability of the "Most Frequently Challenged Books" lists, it appears possible that, on the whole, teachers may continue to avoid topics like racism, misogyny, homosexuality, and incest. Perhaps like the Kanawha County, West Virginia, censors who were studied by James Moffett in Storm in the Mountains , many of us suffer from a kind of fear of knowing, what Moffett calls "agnosia." The fear of looking deeply with our students at what is painful or different or truly threatening to the status quo may be what unites us -- even those of us who teach from the current "Top Ten" list -- with the censors.

And the Camellias?

Meanwhile outside in the literary garden, Toni Morrison has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her Beloved is viewed by many as the great American novel. Her Sula and Bluest Eye are important reading for adolescents. Morrison describes the way we all have of not looking at what we don't want to see at the end of The Bluest Eye : "She was so sad to see. Grown people looked away; children, those who were not frightened by her, laughed outright.... We tried to see her without looking at her, and never, never went near" (p. 2182). In the same novel, she offers the reason for taking the risk to read more culturally challenging books with our students: "They were disgusted, amused, shocked, outraged, or even excited by the story. But we listened for the one who would say, `Poor little girl,' or, `Poor baby,' but there was only head-wagging where those words should have been. We looked for eyes creased with concern, but saw only veils" (Tony Morrison, The Bluest Eye , p. 2173). What would it take for Toni Morrison to make the censors' "Top Ten" list?