In praise of context

So far this month, two articles on a Milwaukee-area book-banning (and potential book-burning) kerfluffle have come across my virtual desk -- a piece from the ALA website, and a more recent article from the books page of the Guardian. Particular points should be awarded to the Guardian, I feel, for their deadpan quotation of some of the more hyperbolic charges made by the Christian Civil Liberties Union about the threat certain young adult novels pose to the good citizens of West Bend, Wisconsin, simply by remaining accessible in the public library (more below). As the ALA reports:

Milwaukee-area citizen Robert C. Braun of the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) distributed at the meeting copies of a claim for damages he and three other plaintiffs filed April 28 with the city; the complainants seek the right to publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop. The claim also demands $120,000 in compensatory damages ($30,000 per plaintiff) for being exposed to the book in a library display, and the resignation of West Bend Mayor Kristine Deiss for “allow[ing] this book to be viewed by the public.”

This claim follows unsuccessful attempts by area citizens to get the library trustees to remove the offending material from the library: in a June 2 vote of 9-0, the trustees decided to "maintain the young-adult collection as is 'without removing, relocating, labeling, or otherwise restricting access' to any titles."

As Allison Flood at the Guardian reports in more detail, the offending title which the CCLU wishes to publically burn (publically burn!!!) is a young adult novel that deals with issues of nonstraight sexuality and violence inspired by homophobia and racism:

The offending book is Francesca Lia Block's Baby Be-Bop, a young adult novel in which a boy, struggling with his homosexuality, is beaten up by a homophobic gang. The complaint, which according to the American Library Association also demands $120,000 (£72,000) in compensatory damages for being exposed to the book in a display at West Bend Community Memorial Library, was lodged by four men from the Christian Civil Liberties Union.

Their suit says that "the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library," and that it contains derogatory language that could "put one's life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike."

"The word 'faggot' is very derogatory and slanderous to all males," the suit continues. "Using the word 'Nigger' is dangerously offensive, disrespectful to all people. These words can permeate violence." The suit also claims that the book "constitutes a hate crime, and that it degrades the community".

While I haven't read this particular work by Francesca Lia Block, I have read others and Block's characters are often struggling in very messy ways with marginalization, poverty, their own complicated sexualities, and histories as perpetrators or victims of violence in one form or another. Her work, while often lyrical, is not for the faint-of-heart. It has never particularly spoken to me, but as an author she commands a wide audience of teens and adults who find her characters compelling.

What I find interesting about this lawsuit -- based, at least, on these two news stories -- is the way in which the CCLU has (1) adopted the language of the political left to frame their complaint and (2) the way in which they conflate hateful actions with descriptions of hateful actions. While I suspect that what traumatizes the offended parties is Block's affirmative depiction of characters with nonstraight sexual identities, and possibly (knowing her other works) instances of drug use, sex scenes, and the old standby, vulgar language, instead they claim to be concerned about the use of words such as "faggot" and "nigger." This isn't necessarily a surprising tactic, since the radical right has increasingly adopted leftist rhetoric in their effort to shift the culture wars in their favor.

What I find more stunning is their apparently inability to understand (or, possibly, their tactical decision to ignore) the difference between an actual, material act of violence or an act of speech that supports that violence and a work of fiction that depicts the reality of bigotry and violence in the lives of marginalized youth. Children face daily abuse at the hands of bullies for perceived or actual gender and sexual nonconformity; a novelist like Block, who depicts that violence in her work of fiction, is describing the reality of our children's lives rather than advocating such abuse. If uttering the word "faggot" actually constituted a hate crime regardless of context, we would be incapable of speaking out against the use of that language by individuals who actually seek to do harm.

While this conflation of thought or depiction with actual illegal violent crime is not unique to the Right (Exhibit A: the campaign by some feminist activists during the 1980s to have pornography treated as violence against women, whether or not actual individuals had been harmed in the making of the piece), it seems to me that it displays a legalistic, overly-simplistic, atomized way of thinking that is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among those on the left. Another example that comes to mind is the approach of the MPAA rating board in assigning ratings to American films (see This Film is Not Yet Rated), and the members' obsession with individual words or acts of sexual contact, rather than overall message conveyed. I find myself wondering if this is strategic blindness or an actual belief that a word or activity, devoid of its overall context, has a constant and unwavering effect (whether positive or negative).

As an historian (among other things) I have to cry foul and point out that context, while certainly not everything counts for a hell of a lot -- and as a librarian-in-training (among other things) I have to point out that words themselves are never, ever "hate crimes." Words are just words: it's what we do with them that makes all the difference in the world. Francesca Lia Block has done many beautiful things with the words available to her, and in my opinion her work is the opposite of a hate crime: it has made the world a better place.

Photo credit: "Mercy! Books Burning" (c) Catherine Jamieson @ flickr.


  1. Thank you for continuing to propagate our story across the blogosphere. Public attention from outside our little fishbowl has made a huge difference in morale. So, thanks!


  2. You're welcome, Mpeterson! Glad to be doing my part. I grew up in a town where we had stuff like this bubble over from time to time and it can certainly feel so exhausting and surreal to have to deal with it.