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Let’s censor less

Defusing our culture wars by Robert Maranto Special to the Democrat-Gazette | June 3, 2023 at 3:52 a.m.

In a skirmish in the ongoing culture wars, recently nine members of the board of Fayetteville's Walton Arts Center resigned over the director's decision to duck political controversy by avoiding the possibility of exposing children to drag shows.

As a professor who researches free inquiry and a veteran of two school boards, I offer three ideas to defuse such culture wars: Admit what censorship is and when it might be appropriate; censor less; and offer more.

First, recognize that since every society has taboos, censorship is universal, though it varies to suit local values. Some limits on who sees what are appropriate.

I'm a fan of Italian neorealism, but would not show "La Strada" or "Two Women" to children. Those cinematic classics belong in college and high school courses, not elementary school libraries. Notably, many cases of "book banning" in fact involve moving materials from elementary library collections to secondary ones.

Save in unusual cases like police investigations, we should not intentionally expose young kids to graphic violence or sexuality. Decisions about what ages to expose which students to what materials rarely involve objective truths but instead present tradeoffs between criteria many ignore: intrinsic artistic or scientific merit, parental values, and whether students have sufficient background knowledge to understand a work in context.

Second, on balance we should censor less because freedom of expression honors our founders' First Amendment, benefiting everyone. Censoring is neither left nor right; rather, as Jacob Mchangama documents in "Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media," whomever has power finds reasons to censor others. Censorship thus further empowers the powerful.

The left and right do censor in different ways, reflecting where each holds power.

Way back in 2003 in "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn," Diane Ravitch humorously chronicled conservative demands to remove school readings about evolution, sex, student misbehavior, and discrimination. Considering artistic merit, I cannot imagine an interesting secondary literature course that skipped such readings.

Yet at least rightist moves to "protect" children come in open public meetings, comments, and statutes. Leftist efforts to guarantee safety and diversity occur behind closed doors in publishing, regulatory, and artistic bureaucracies. Lacking transparency, they are harder to counter.

Ravitch documented censorship of ever-expanding categories of "offensive" language, and imposition of gender and ethnic quotas for authors of and characters in required readings, heedless of historical accuracy and literary merit. Great writers like Mark Twain suffered cancellations. Even back in 2003, many curricular specialists embraced critical theory, and thus only approved works showing minorities as victims of white supremacy, censoring other portrayals.

The same thing increasingly happened in museums, a trend I first noticed in 2014 when the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology featured an exhibit on South Asian Americans which highlighted obscure figures who suffered discrimination, while erasing South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, successful politicians who do not view themselves as victims. (Haley is now running for president.)

Whether right or left, left unchecked these restrictions wreck education since, as the Soviet Union demonstrated, politically correct history is misleading, and politically correct art is bad art. No wonder fewer kids read books and visit museums.

Further, as liberals Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt show in "The Coddling of the American Mind," the more we shelter students from challenging content, the less we prepare them for the real world. Do we want to raise a generation of snowflakes?

Third, we should offer more. As the late Stanley Rothman documented, we now face a backlash against cultural institutions which exile positive portrayals of patriotism, self-reliance, and Christianity. A while back, a Valley View substitute teacher (unsuccessfully) petitioned the school board to remove Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner," asking "is it permissible to have a book which deals with Islam and a man's journey to receive it as truth when most schools are not allowed to teach the same in relation to the Bible?"

Valley View was right to keep "The Kite Runner," an important novel, but should have also assured everyone that classic Christian authors like C.S. Lewis retain a place at the curricular table. A broad education requires no less.

Sadly, both ends of the political spectrum now war to see who can censor more. We should instead honor our nation's founders with this goal: Let's censor less.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and has served on both his local school board, and a board governing a charter school. These opinions are his alone.

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