The Right To Offend

by Tania Carver

I’m writing this just before leaving for Bouchercon in Cleveland. If all has gone to plan this should be going live while I’m somewhere over the Atlantic. Unless something horrible has happened I should have had four days catching up with friends in the States, promoting the new Tania novels, appearing on a panel entitled Heroes and Villains alongside John Connolly, Mark Billingham, Alafair Burke and Karin Slaughter, attending the signing as one of the contributors in Books To Die For (that David should have talked about last Wednesday) on Friday, carousing and generally enjoying myself. Hopefully I won’t have made an idiot of myself and come away with my reputation if not enhanced then at least not permanently damaged. At least that’s the plan I’ve got now.

I say all this because I was going to write about what I intend(ed) to talk about on my panel. Heroes and Villains (they’re all named after songs since Cleveland is the home of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame) is about just that. Everyone picks a hero and a villain and we talk about them. Interesting, maybe controversial, hopefully funny. Apologies if you’re reading this and you attended the panel and it all went according to plan and I was all three of those things because I’m going to talk about my subject again.

Or at least half of it. The villainous part. For the panel, I’ve chosen censors and censorship. I did this deliberately because this week (or last week, if you prefer) is Banned Books Week in the States. As you probably know, it’s the annual celebration of the freedom to read. This freedom is not automatically accepted, it’s not a given. It’s something that has had to be strived for and worked for. It’s hard-won and should be celebrated. According to the American Library Association there were 326 challenges to books reported to the Office Of Intellectual Freedom in 2011 and plenty that have gone unreported. These came from schools, bookstores and libraries.

For the record, here are the top ten most challenged books from 2011 and the reasons people claimed to find them offensive.

1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle 
Reasons: offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

2. The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

3. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence

4. My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

6. Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint

7. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit

8. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit

9. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
Reasons: drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit

10. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Reasons: offensive language; racism

If this list doesn’t make you angry then I don’t know what will. I mean, THE HUNGER GAMES ‘occult and satanic’? Only if you’re a moron. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and BRAVE NEW WORLD offensive? In 2011? Seriously, some people shouldn’t be given the vote.    

Looking at this list, two complaints seem to pop up more than any other.  Sexually explicit and religious viewpoint. I’m not a betting man, but I’d put money on those two things being linked. The religious right has traditionally had a knee jerk reaction against people enjoying themselves and it seems to be continuing that fine tradition. They’re always the first to complain about any perceived erosion of their freedom but equally the first to curtail anyone else’s idea of it if it differs to theirs.  Now when I say ‘religious right’ I’m not specifically talking about Christians, although I’m sure they make up a large part of this. I’m talking about any religion that uses its beliefs as tools for repression and censorship both against its members and those outside of its beliefs. Muslims, Scientologists (if they can be dignified by being described as a religion), Jews, Hindus, whatever. None of them have any business telling the rest of us what to think, wear, listen to, watch and certainly not what to read.


It’s only a small step from book-banning to book burning. And it’s not just something that happened in old newsreel footage from Nazi Germany. Twenty years ago in Britain Muslims publically burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s THE SATANIC VERSES. He received a death threat from the Ayatollah Khomenei and spent years in hiding. More recently, morons from the Bible Belt in the US publically burned copies of the Harry Potter novels because they said it turned children to Satan. These people are staggering in their casual monstrosity.

Because that’s what it is. Monstrous behaviour. They find these books offensive. Well we’re equal, because most decent people would find their behaviour offensive. And so what? We all have the right to offend. We all have the right to be offended. That seems to have been forgotten by some people.       

If they want to think that for themselves then fine. Let them. But keep away from the rest of us. We’re literate, we’re open-minded. We’re intelligent and can make our own minds up. Because that’s another thing. These terrible books listed above not only shock and offend, but they could expand someone’s mind. Give a reader a different viewpoint. Let them ask questions, reach a different conclusion. They’re challenged because they act against rigid, dogmatic systems of control. Yes, even GOSSIP GIRL.

We should always be vigilant, we should always fight against censorship whenever it raises its head. Otherwise we let them win. So how do we do it? Well, obviously getting angry helps but make sure it generates more light than heat. I think the best way to beat them is to keep reading. Go to the library. Borrow. Go to the bookstores, to Amazon. Whenever, wherever. Read what you like. Enjoy it. Celebrate that fact. And the book burners and the censors? Laugh at them. Pity them. Be offended by them.  Offend them, even. But don’t give in to them. 

‘The important task of literature is to free man not censor him’. Anais Nin said that. She was a great writer who wrote about sex. I’m sure she’s on the list somewhere. 

And for that reason alone we should read her.

3 thoughts on “The Right To Offend

  1. Sarah W

    I absolutely agree.

    The American Library Association has provided a terrific timeline of Banned Books, highlighting one for each of the thirty years the Week has been celebrated:

    One of my favorite banned books of all time is the picture book AND TANGO MAKES THREE. It's been attacked ever since it was published and received more complaints and challenges in 2010 than any other book that year.

    It's the true story about two male penguins at a zoo who choose each other as partners and are given an egg to hatch and raise by their keeper, as they aren't able to produce an egg of their own.

    A child reading this book will take away at least three ideas: Families of all gender combinations occur in the animal kingdom. Penguins Roy, Silo, and Tango are liked by zoo visitors and loved by each other. No animal was harmed during the original events of this story.

    No wonder it's so threatening to certain people's peace of mind . . .


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