Choice, Reason, And Censorship

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"Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men [and women] is but knowledge in the making." Thus wrote the great English poet John Milton in his Areopagitica, a defense of unlicensed printing. Recent local events and others of a national scope have caused me to dust off my graduate-school volume of Milton and reread this passionate work. I find it as relevant today as when it was first published in 1644.

As an educator, I naturally read Milton's argument against censorship from the perspective of one who has spent the last 25 years working with children, teenagers, and adults in schools and universities. I know that debates about censorship ultimately are debates about education, citizenship, and the kind of society we envision.

Milton contended that good and evil are not easily recognizable. The world is not black and white; rather, "the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned." The ultimate goal of all education is a moral one: How do we help individuals learn to explore and wrestle with these intertwinings and then make reasoned, defensible, and compassionate choices?

Censorship short-circuits the process of education and thus the process of moral development. It is based on the conviction of the censor that individuals are incapable of reason and choice. Instead of allowing, indeed, encouraging, individuals to venture out and engage opposing ideas, the censor wants them merely to accept his or her own particular political, social, or religious beliefs. This results, Milton said, in a "fugitive and cloistered virtue."

Unfortunately, this cloistered virtue untested in the dust and heat of our complex world has become the norm in today's society. Not very long ago in my own community a young mother objected in an editorial page letter to the Life magazine cover which showed a naked woman breast-feeding a baby. She felt that the photograph was unnecessary and simply a publisher's calculated attempt to increase sales. She believed that it didn't celebrate women or motherhood. Through her efforts several supermarkets removed it from their magazine racks.

Some subsequent letters to the editor supported the young mother's position and action. Most, however, attacked and ridiculed her as a prude or know-nothing. It was easy to sit back and smugly identify her as a censor. I believe that the young woman is not alone, however. She is a member of a much larger company which can be found in varying degrees among the politically correct, politically incorrect, religious right, secular left, various racial/ethnic groups, feminists, anti-feminists, gay-rights advocates, anti-gay-rights advocates, pro-choicers, pro-lifers, and so on.

What binds together the members of this diverse company is their conviction that they possess the Truth. Any attempt to question that Truth or to explore it from an alternative viewpoint is seen as an attack. Thus, the kind of discussion, exploration, and argument that Milton sees as a necessary part of the desire to learn is obviated. Instead of testing opinions one against the other as a way to knowledge, we are left with many opinions, but perhaps little knowledge. This unwillingness to seriously engage diverse and often conflicting opinions is what I find alarming. There is little honest, open engagement and testing of opinions; instead, there is merely a restatement of one's particular Truth when it is challenged by another.

The young mother who objected to the Life cover gave little consideration to other perspectives. Those who disagreed with her in turn typically gave little thought to the real issues that she raised. They simply restated their own opinions or, as our local editorial cartoonist did, ridiculed her. (Satire may be an inherent aspect of editorial cartoons, but it also can be a wicked, if not cruel, tool. Satire and irony usually discourage dialogue rather than promote it.)

We see this kind of absolute Truth-mongering wherever we turn. Right-wing radio and TV-talk-show hosts shrilly state their opinions and bully anyone who disagrees. A prominent anti-pornography activist from the left who argues for specific kinds of censorship refuses to lecture at any venue where an opposing voice might be heard. Anyone who questions the sexism on MTV is a "radical feminist." One who believes that sexual activity must be matched with sexual responsibility is labeled "homophobic." Individuals critical of violence in some rap music are called "racists." Those who believe that reading fantasy is good for children and young adults are tarred with "New Age."

These attempts at censorship from the left and right, these refusals to listen to differing opinions, these knee-jerk labelings of those with whom we disagree all foster a know-nothingism and moral vacuousness among children and adults. Milton argued that such censorship is not only against reason, but also against God: for when God gave Adam reason, "he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing."

How do we as educators foster reason and choice among our students and ourselves? We do not do so by imposing a singular curriculum and perspective upon our students, whether it be someone's notion of state or national standards or the kind of sanctioned, and usually unthinking, flag-waving we saw during the Gulf War. We do not do so by avoiding the difficult questions associated with appropriate texts for students. Self-censorship by teachers and librarians is just as harmful to the exercise of reason as it is to dismiss as "fanatics" parents who have real concerns about what their children read.

Unless we as educators, parents, and community members foster a climate in which differing opinions are engaged, and not simply tolerated, our children and young adults will have little opportunity other than to grow up in an environment dominated by sectarian isolation and blinkered morality. Such, I hope, is not the world we want to leave as our legacy.

Vol. 14, Issue 06, Page 33

Published in Print: October 12, 1994, as Choice, Reason, And Censorship
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