An adult student shared with me the other day the existence of a website that features racist jokes! Now I am a believer in Freedom of Speech, and the need to not censor material- to put one’s effort instead towards educating people about the difference between funny and mean. Yet I wished I could shut down such a website – initially I had thought how to interpret the joke- then realized it ought not to be explained. We live in a world that is increasingly censored- and this too is bad for too much “protection” from the way some people may be raised, the ones who were taught intolerance instead of understanding and who become frightened of the “other” members of society and therefore resort to mean- in the form of jokes, in the form of actual violent actions, in the form of joining groups that encourage violence towards others- in short, bullying on a grand scale- may result in a generation that is unprepared to fight the “bully” either in a formal fashion (voting down any bigot who chose to run for power) or in an informal fashion by declaring such “jokes” not funny.
Yes I too had moments when my children were little when I wished I could simply wrap them up in bubble paper and coat them with some type of protective shield. And teaching is a strong reminder that thinking and doing are symbiotic, and that we must expose our children to the underside of society as well as to “all things positive” if we are to be raising thinking, feeling, adults who will participate fully in society. So in spite of truly wishing that such websites as the one mentioned didn’t exist, I recognize that not only does the promise of “Freedom of Speech” allow for anyone to say anything, I am going to also be aware that when selecting and suggesting books for the YA set, that we look at what the act of censorship has over time restricted- for example why or how a book might have “enraged” a community or an individual enough to request that schools pull it off their shelves, or that libraries not feature a copy. What was in the story, the writing, the setting? what actions did the characters ask us as readers to consider?
A simple example are the writings of Samuel Clemens- aka Mark Twain. When one recognizes that Twain was asking readers to see the wrong in racism, and doing so by giving a reader a child’s insight into the adult society of his time*; or that a reading of Wuthering Heights** suggests that education and upbringing might not only challenge the status quo, but also challenges us as readers to consider in what ways social status continues to affect individual actions, then we are giving students a chance to consider for themselves what makes a book a “classic”; what messages resound across both time and space and continue to be questions that people have yet to answer fully. We may strive for a Utopian society, and may enjoy along with students the action adventure that went into a series such as The Hunger Games, while secretly breathing a sigh of relief that today’s world is not the one depicted in the dystopian*** novel. But how to continue to improve; to encourage the best in others? Reading continues to be a strong means of encouraging dialogue- and through dialogue- real freedom of speech- as in genuine communication, perhaps we are taking one step forward- I continue to hope so.
**Wuthering Heights – by Emily Bronte- the blurb for the novel states “Wuthering Heights was initially thought to be such a publishing risk that its author, Emily Brontë, was asked to pay some of the publication costs”
For a list of Dystopian literature see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_literature