Martha Thomases: Dog Day Censorship



These are the dog days of summer. There is relatively little news. The only movies being released are ones expected to tank, at least critically. Comics and television and other serial media are idling, getting ready to ramp up for their fall seasons.

I thought I would have nothing to write about.

I thought I would have to create a story that would be a metaphor for my recent battles with the health care industrial complex, which in this case means the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. I would name the villain after the medication prescribed by my doctor because of the super-human battle I had to wage to get my insurer to cover it.

And then this happened. Some Duke University freshmen objected to the fact that Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home is on a suggested summer reading list.

Big whoop, right? It’s a “suggested” list. No one was making anyone read anything. There are lots of other interesting titles on the list. And Duke is a private university, so there is no overt issue of government coercion. No one makes you matriculate to Duke. If you don’t like what Duke offers, go elsewhere. Marketplace of ideas. Yada yada yada.

Even so, there are many who consider this an example of discrimination against Christians. They claim Fun Home is lesbian pornography and to read it would violate their consciences.

I’m not a Christian, so maybe I’m ignorant about certain inner-circle rules and regulations. Still, I’ve read all the testaments, and I don’t recall any injunctions against reading things with which one disagrees. Not even in Leviticus.

And I’m not a lesbian, nor do I consume a lot of porn (except for this, which makes me swoon), but I don’t know anyone among the millions of people who read it who have celebrated Fun Home for its ability to arouse the reader sexually. Again, it’s possible I don’t hang out with a fun crowd.

What’s so horrible about reading a book that contradicts your core beliefs? Most of us hold at least one or two ideas that are out of the mainstream, which means that we are bombarded daily with things with which we disagree. As a Jew, I’m subjected to two months of Christmas celebrations, plus Easter in the spring. As a New Yorker, I still get stuck watching news reports about fires on the West Coast. As a person who appreciates healthy food, I still have to pass the McDonald’s on my corner too many times.

It’s not all about me and what I want. (Hard to believe. I know.) And that’s something I learned in college, when I was exposed to ideas and ways of thinking that were different from those with which I was raised.

The straw-man argument usually made at this point in the discussion is to accuse those of us who are not conservative Christians of doing the same thing, banning books with which we disagree. I know this is something that so-called liberals occasionally do, because we are all humans and almost all humans act like assholes sometimes. Still, when I Google “liberal book-banning,” I don’t get any recent results.

I do, however, get links to articles that bemoan “political correctness” and “trigger warnings.” In my experience, both terms can be used to limit discussion, but that doesn’t mean they are the same as book banning. It is my observation that people who bring up political correctness have most likely already lost the argument. And people who dismiss trigger warnings don’t understand what they are.

This essay describes the situation well. The author says

“I also take issue with the idea that trigger warnings “coddle” college students and perpetuate hyper-sensitivity. Trigger warnings notify people of potentially triggering content, which means that they’ve already gone through the traumatic experience in question….Trigger warnings are not a form of censorship, but a form of courtesy. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t write about controversial or painful topics.”

Trigger warnings provide more information, not less. Providing more information is not usually considered a form of censorship. It does, however, require more work.

To me, the best part of college was the smorgasbord of ideas that were offered to me to sample. I could taste as many as I wanted. I learned that I liked Chinese literature and African history. I learned I didn’t like lentil loaf, a dish that didn’t exist in either Youngstown or boarding school.. I learned about conceptual art and Soviet-era cinema.

I didn’t have to read Fun Home, because it didn’t exist yet. Which is too bad. Fun Home showed me that accepting your parents for who they really are is the only way to love them, and to love yourself.