The recent attempt by the Ugandan government to ban an anti-Museveni book got me thinking about why the concept of book banning endures to this day.
Book banning has a long history. Dating back to the 15th century, the Catholic Church frowned on people owning bibles because they felt the clergy should have a monopoly on reading and interpreting the bible. Owning a personal bible could get you in all sorts of trouble, and the church was not shy when it came to finding creative ways to remind you of your mistakes.
Others took an even less enlightened approach. Baghdad once had the world’s most advanced libraries until the Mongols invaded them in the thirteenth century. The invaders were not particularly fond of the written word and destroyed the libraries, tossing thousands of books into the Tigris River. It is said that the river ran blue with ink.
And yet even in the 20th century, book banning turned out to be an addiction that was too hard for the human race to shake off. It wasn’t only governments that were prone to this kind of behavior; schools were often quick to ban—or at least attempt to ban—books that might ‘corrupt morals’ although frequently, this was a euphemism for books that might ‘put ideas in their heads.’
Whether it was offensive language or incendiary ideas—often linked to religious or sexual mores—there was always a convenient reason.
Frequently, the most banned books were fiction and a surprising amount of these books turned out to be science-fiction. The George Orwell classic 1984 and the Aldous Huxley book A brave new world were two books that were repeatedly banned or nearly banned.
Both portrayed a less than ideal future for the human race highlighting either totalitarianism (1984) or a world in which personal identity is suppressed and genetic discrimination is the norm (A brave new world).
As such, book banning was carried out not for national security concerns, but supposedly for the sake of the children or adults who may be susceptible to receiving ‘new ideas’ that could clash with the established ones. Here the authorities acted like the parents who cover the eyes of their children during a scary scene in a film.
The authors had slightly different concerns, despite the similarities of their books. As a critic once said “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”
Sometimes this leads to unintended and frequently amusing ironies. Ray Bradbury’s book Farenheit 451 was about a society that had banned ownership of books and burned any copies it found. It would take an astounding lack of self awareness to attempt to ban such a book but this is what happened in many schools in America. Meanwhile, in another classic case of missing the point, a play based on George Orwell’s book Animal farm- was banned in Kenya in 1991 because of its explicit criticism of corrupt leaders.
In these instances, offensive language, controversial ideas and razor-sharp satire proved to be the catalysts for the books to be challenged.
Sometimes book banning is only initiated by authorities but driven by the enraged passions of the people: A case in point being Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic verses.
The book was deemed to be blasphemous by millions of Muslims, the vast majority of whom had never read a single word of the book, and was banned in most Arab Countries. In this case, censorship becomes more complicated than the standard top-down order and enforcement model.
However, what we repeatedly fail to learn when trying to ban books is that this merely gives them the oxygen of publicity and achieves the very opposite of what those trying to ban the book are aiming for—a result that can clearly be seen in the case of the banned book in Uganda.
All over the world, authorities and individuals are attempting to ban books to ‘shelter’ people from their supposedly corrosive effects. It is a ceaseless effort that would be more productive if channeled in another direction.
The author is a contributor at The New Times.