Censorship is a very prickly subject in today’s world, where principles of freedom and liberalism are touted by all those who want to be seen as modern and enlightened. In such a world, any act of censorship, which is the repression of public material to protect an agenda, is looked down upon as backward, a reminder of oppressive regimes that once tyrannized millions of people in times not too long past.
However, we must face the harsh reality that censorship is still being exercised in all parts of the globe, even in the places that are, or used to be, epitomes of freedom and democracy. This was recently shown to be the case when it was revealed that more than 2,500 book bans had taken place in America over the last school year. This revelation comes right after 5 Hong Kong speech therapists were sentenced to 19 months in prison for publishing “seditious” children’s books.
What does the tightening grip on literature and education in these alleged beacons of modernity and progress mean for those who believe their words and actions should impact how their home is run? I will attempt to answer this question while exploring the many issues that censorship of children’s books has on children's education.
The social problem with censoring children’s literature
The current situations in America and Hong Kong are both deeply problematic on a social and political level. Let us first explore the social issues by studying the American case. The figures compiled by PEN America are atrocious - 1,648 different book titles by 1,261 unique authors, 290 illustrators, and 18 translators were banned. At the same time, 5,049 schools across the nation have prohibited nearly 4 million students from accessing certain books.
To make matters worse, the bans had targets in mind. Among the 1,648 unique titles reported, 41% address LGBTQ+ themes, and 61% contain themes or mentions of race and racism. PEN America said, “The vast majority of the books targeted by these groups for removal feature LGBTQ+ characters or characters of color, and cover race and racism in American history, LGBTQ+ identities, or sex education.”
Furthermore, the report stated that 49% of the books banned were young adult books, but a significant amount of the remaining bans were enforced on books intended for younger audiences. Therefore, the prohibitions will significantly impact young children, especially those in their most impressionable years. The material they read will have a massive influence on the way they think and perceive the world around them. In severely restricting the amount and variety of content available to these children, the American government is effectively limiting American youths’ connection, and therefore empathy, with people of different sexualities, genders, ethnicities, and cultures.
Indeed, PEN America said in their introduction to the report that the bans are “having multifaceted, harmful impacts: on students who have a right to access a diverse range of stories and perspectives, and especially on those from historically marginalized backgrounds who are watching their library shelves emptied of books that reflect and speak to them; on educators and librarians who are operating in some states in an increasingly punitive and surveillance-oriented environment with a chilling effect on teaching and learning; on the authors whose works are being targeted; and on parents who want to raise students in schools that remain open to curiosity, discovery, and the freedom to read.”
PEN America has identified many communities affected by the censors. Still, I believe that the future of the country’s children has been the most seriously impacted. By exerting pressure on educators, librarians, authors, and parents, these groups will be less able to spread messages of inclusivity and acceptance of diversity to their children.
But why am I so concerned with the education of children? This is because children will one day grow into the pillars of society (to borrow an old Chinese expression). The generation of youth growing up under the increasing wave of book bans by the American government will likely be less well-informed about the diversity of the world around them, creating a more self-centered, conservative society that feeds right into the calculations of the American administration.
The political motive behind censorship
While the nurturing of children to fit a political agenda - at the cost of the children’s potential growth and accumulation of experience - is a long-term project, the impact of which will only be seen in the future, the consequences of censorship on the political scene are more immediate. In both America and Hong Kong, it is clear that the censorship of literature has been carried out to allow the literary background to conform to the ruling party’s agenda.
For example, PEN America stated that “This movement to ban books is deeply undemocratic, in that it often seeks to impose restrictions on all students and families based on the preferences of those calling for the bans and notwithstanding polls that consistently show that Americans of all political persuasions oppose book bans.” In other words, the book bans only serve the interests of a robust administrative minority, which contradicts heavily with the party that these administrators belong to.
However, I wish to focus here on the case of Hong Kong - the imprisonment of 5 speech therapists over publishing a children’s book series marked as “seditious” by the government. In the series, a village of sheep resists a pack of wolves invading their home, with the wolf pack's leader being called the “Wolf-chairman.” Moreover, though the defense argued that the story was “just a fable,” the presiding judge said that the first book’s foreword referred to the “anti-legislation movement,” which he claimed was a “clear reference to the anti-extradition bill movement” that started in 2019.
District Judge Kwok ruled, “The publishers of the Book do not recognize that the PRC has legitimately resumed exercising sovereignty over HKSAR, but the children will be led to hate and excite their disaffection against the Central Authorities,” and that the publishers “lead the children not to trust the administration of justice in Hong Kong and look down upon the police, the prosecution and the court with contempt.”
The conclusion of this case shows the fundamentally political nature of the charges - the prosecutors turned a children’s book into a political assault against the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, convicting the book’s authors using this logic. But regardless of the intentions of the authors, it is clear that the case is a prime example of the politicization of literature and the publishing industry, as well as the importance of literature in aiding the promotion of the political agenda of regimes.
However, censorship of literature does not just remove the immediate political threat; it also sends a cautionary message to other voices of opposition in the city - the Hong Kong government is warning those resentful of the government to stay silent. Just as action will get you arrested, now even words can ruin your life. And the government is doing all this to maintain an image of peace and unity in Hong Kong. This city, just months ago, was still embroiled in protests, street battles, and proto-military conflict between protestors against the extradition bill and the police. Now, all that ordinary citizens hear of the competition are about the persecution of the remaining few rebels. But highlighting the existence of active censorship in the city may remind us that opposition to the Hong Kong and Chinese regime still exist - they have just been driven deep underground, potentially lying dormant until the proper time arises for them to come back in full force, full of a burning desire to save their homeland.
In short, censorship of literature has recently been thrown into the spotlight as a prominent social and political tool for ruling administrations worldwide, not least in some of the most “democratic” countries. And if even places like America are amping up the level of censorship, we can only begin to imagine what other areas in the world - in sites even less accessible than Hong Kong - are experiencing in terms of repression. We now live in an age of enormous contradictions and disparities between expectation and reality, an era when freedom of speech is touted globally. Still, one’s word choices can be lethal. This is an unforgiving message from today’s rulers to their citizens: listen silently or be silenced.
Image source: Manchester City Library via Flickr
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