ELAYNE RIGGS: The Fifth Freedom
Last week was the American Library Association’s annual "Banned Books Week." What bothers me most about Banned Books Week isn’t its concept, but its name. Even its proponents admit it’s not about banned books, but challenged ones. Even at our country’s most fascist periods (like, um, now), I don’t believe our federal, state or local governments have actually banned books in decades, if ever. But apparently "banned" has a more alliterative cachet than "challenged" or "endangered" or even scrapping the misnomer altogether in favor of something like "Freedom to Read Week" which is more in keeping with the point of the event — to "celebrate the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stress the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them."
Oh sure, lots of backwards-thinking people, the kind who usually believe every word in the Bible is true (rather than seeing the book as allegorical fiction and an interesting take on history by multiple authors, the way a lot of rationalists view it), seek to limit others’ imaginations and freedoms and generally stir up trouble by whining in the courts about any piece of fact or fiction they don’t like, from science texts to Harry Potter. And these attempts at censorship should be and are condemned and fought by patriots and book-lovers everywhere they crop up. Partly because of these efforts, no attempts have succeeded.
And yet, people’s hobbies and even lives have been ruined by this repression. Even in our hobby, the CBLDF abounds with stories of comic shop owners who paid for a misstep or a failure to predict ever-shifting "community standards" usually embodied by the community’s loudest kook.
Sure, some of these cases might have been avoided if the defendants had employed a little common sense and caution, like understanding that what reading material is considered appropriate to sell or give to minors isn’t up to the opinion of the seller or giver, but to the parents or guardians of those minors. But the fact still remains that we operate in a litigious, scare-mongering society, and it’s important to recognize the importance of fighting those who would suppress our freedoms in the name of protecting themselves from ideas and images they don’t like.
In his 1941 State of the Union speech, President Roosevelt spoke of the famous Four Freedoms — freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and hunger, and freedom from fear. Those freedoms, visually memorialized a couple of years later by Norman Rockwell, are pretty much at the heart of what I believe every democracy should stand for. (And notice how the current administration is pretty much diametrically opposed to all four, in their warped definition of freedom as "freedom to spend money"?) But along with the first one, I think we need to place greater emphasis on the freedom to think and imagine.
And yes, you’d think the other two "freedoms of" would cover this; thought is a part of expression, imagination is involved in belief. But we’re living in such a damn literal age now, where people seem proud of dumbing themselves down to the point where they no longer get nuance, so we’re forced to spell everything out the way George Bush does when he’s "explaining" things to people like you’d talk to a child because, presumably, that’s how those things were explained to him. Heck, most people have trouble with the idea of freedom of worship also encompassing freedom from worship, so we can’t take anything for granted any more. So we may as well refer to freedom of imagination, freedom from repression of our imagination by people who don’t agree with it, as the fifth freedom.
Without the ability to think for ourselves, to imagine a better world, we can never hope to surmount this one. Christian fundamentalists are allowed to read their Bibles all they want (provided they don’t force others to do the same outside of comparative religion curricula). I only want the same freedom in my choice of fiction reading. They’re happy conforming to a rigid hierarchal structure? Fine, I want the same freedom to be able to formulate my own ideas and join different communities based on my reading choices. Even when those ideas don’t march in lockstep with people who tout "Banned Books Week" when no books are being banned.
I’m not afraid of dissent like they are. That’s the power that ideas give me. They open my mind to the possibility that what I believe now might not be what I believe in tomorrow, and the certainty that my current beliefs don’t entirely resemble my past ones. And I’m okay with relying on my own mind, fueled by my reading material and discussions with friends and loved ones, to get me through my life, rather than edicts by authority figures who usually have their own interests at heart first and foremost. And I’m not afraid that my ideas might be challenged, or even wrong. That I might learn something.
And hey, nothing like reading to help you learn things.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and wants to remind everyone that October 14-20 is Teen Read Week.