How do you know what to censor?

Abrams published a satire title for adults called Bad Little Children's Book, under the pseudonym Arthur C Gackley. It's a stupid work of faux covers that trade on 50s and 60s era children's book painting styles, mixed with inappropriate messages. You've seen this kind of humor before — it supposedly pokes holes in societal norms, and, according to the marketing department, is "edgy, politically incorrect parodies that speak to the bad little kid in all of us". Needless to say, the social depths of the humor are akin to drawing a dildo in one of the Family Circus kid's hands.

But one fake cover, titled Happy Burkaday, Timmy! by "Ben Laden" shows Dick and Jane style characters walking towards each other, but Jane, whose face is obscured by a niqab, is carrying a wrapped ticking present.

Kelly Jensen, at Bookriot, wrote a piece shaming Abrams for Islamaphobia. Abrams responded with a "we can publish anything we want, you can't censor us" statement, that included a press release from the National Coalition Against Censorship. "Humor that employs satire and parody is often the subject of criticism and controversy," it says, before noting Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor as "significant comedians" of the "recent past". Well, significant yes, but recent past? Bruce died 50 years ago.

Anyway, after doubling down, Abrams ceased publishing the book on the request of the author while still standing firm on their ground: "At Abrams, our books and our publishing house have never nor will ever stand for bigotry or hatred. Those misrepresentations, aspersions, and claims surrounding the book, and the attempts to promulgate them, fly in the face of the values that our company and our employees hold dear."

Is this censorship? What is the issue at stake here?

Did you know that the word censorship was originally a noun? It was a position, like a judgeship, in the Roman days. The Roman censor was responsible for the census, and also for the keeping of the public morals (or regimen morum). In this duty, the Roman censors would censure people for actions outside of the norm of proper Roman behavior.

Censorship, as a problem to be addressed, is especially pernicious in state-down situation, where a government decides a certain work of art should be banned because it breaks whatever moral code the government promulgates. But, of course there is no objective government; there are people in positions of power who make decisions. If the person in power isn't offended, they likely won't find the piece in question worth censoring. Conveniently, many of the banned books also argue against the government in power.

In the states, our constitution limits the governments ability to interfere with free speech, except in some rare arenas, and there are many cases that have tested the First Amendment. The First Amendment is pretty good at winning those cases.

But that doesn't mean that coalitions, or organizations — specifically, religious organizations — won't try to get things banned when they feel something goes against their worldview. It happens every year, with some parent or another raising a stink over a book their kid has been assigned. These appeals, to ban a book from a school or to pressure the publisher to change, are almost always under the banner of refusing the dominant culture — e.g., Christians offended over the reading of a book that talks about a transgender child.

So is that what's happening here? Is this another case of thin-skinned people (you know, those "special snowflakes" conservatives are always crowing about) who can't take a joke?

Well, you can answer that question for yourself. Here are four questions I ask myself when I read about a group trying to ban a book.

  1. Is it a government or official agency instituting or requesting the ban?
  2. Does the work in question punch up against a dominant culture? (As opposed to punching down into a minority culture.)
  3. Does the work in question trade on deep truths? (As opposed to hackneyed stereotypes that show the author didn't understand the culture being critiqued.)
  4. Does the work in question malign an already sidelined group, that the current president-elect has talked about banning and whose supporters have evoked Japanese Interment in relation to, and who have been subject to unprecedented levels of harassment, hate, and attacks?

If you answer "yes" to any of those questions, the idea of "censorship" may not apply. Your mileage may vary.