Prachi Gupta reports at Salon that Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere may be removed from the shelves at a New Mexico high school:
Gaiman’s fantasy book, based on his BBC television series, follows a London man who explores a magical world beneath the streets of London with a girl named Door. Although the school has been teaching “Neverwhere” since 2004, Nancy Wilmott complained about a sex scene and use of profanity.
“I reviewed the language personally. I can see where it could be considered offensive,” said Superintendent George Straface, who is reviewing Wilmott’s complaint. “The F-word is used. There is a description of a sexual encounter that is pretty descriptive, and it’s between a married man and a single woman. Although kids can probably see that on TV anytime they want, we are a public school using taxpayer dollars.
“On that basis, we have decided to temporarily remove the book until we can review it with our panels and make a decision,” he said.
Gupta is probably right about this: “If the ban passes, English teacher Pam Thorp (and possibly the rest of America) will rebel, saying, ‘I cannot and will not condone the censorship this parent is promoting.'”
I think censorship should be avoided whenever possible, and there are a lot of examples of school boards too eagerly censoring this or that book, often for reasons that have little to do with propriety. Political censorship is becoming increasingly problematic elsewhere and may become a problem here, too.
But censorship can be a good thing, too. Originally to censor meant to assess, to value. It’s a form of the much touted but rarely practiced “critical thinking,” which used to be called “judgment” before that term was sullied with a purely negative connotation. It protects the innocence of the young and, in moderation, is one of the oils of a civilized and pluralistic society. Where to apply that oil, of course, is difficult to determine in a society of widely divergent morals, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be applied at all.
Nick Gillespie argues that while society is getting coarser, “youth violence, sex and drug use are all trending down,” which would seem to suggest that exposure to “inappropriate” material has had little affect on morals. The statistics are interesting but cover only the past twenty-five years. Is this long enough to measure the effects of an increasingly “cruder” culture on morals? What other constraints were put in place over this same period? Are the effects of pornography or violent images always measurable in terms of crime and promiscuity?
I haven’t read Gaiman’s book so I have no opinion on whether or not censorship would be justified, but Superintendent Straface seems to be taking exactly the right approach: read and evaluate.