I am a strong supporter of freedom of speech and the right to read, including books which I personally find offensive. If you follow news in the world of children’s books, you may have heard of the heated response to the American Library Association’s recent panel discussion on censorship. After a series of angry tweets ensued, School Library Journal apparently felt that they needed to address the issue, particularly since it involved Holocaust denial, and potentially racism. Rather than analyzing broader issues of free speech, I would like to focus on why this particular article is extremely slanted, functioning as propaganda for the ALA, rather than a carefully sourced report on a specific event.
I’ll begin with the title, and also refer to the language which the author, Kara Yorio, uses throughout the piece.
This article is filed under “News and Features.” The title, “With a Joyful Return to In-Person, ALA Hosted a Censorship Discussion. A Twitter Controversy Ensued.” The adjective “joyful” clues the reader in to what will happen next: a wonderful and open-minded forum is attacked by unreasonable people spreading rumors without information. If my conclusion seems alarmist, please note the following phrases:
“The… conference prompted a lot of book love, joy and celebration and at least one Twitter-fueled controversy threatening to shadow some of the positive feelings…”
The “Twitter firestorm” regarding the potential necessity of including Holocaust denial books in libraries was “joined by many who were not at the panel.”
I myself, when I first heard of the events, decided to withhold judgment until more information became available. However, almost all Twitter “firestorms,” by definition, involve people without direct knowledge of events. That is the nature of the medium.
Some of the Twitter “firestorm” involved accusations that librarian Nancy Pearl, who originally raised the issue of Holocaust-denying books, was provoking attacks on distinguished author Jason Reynolds. Yorio refers to the danger of Holocaust denial, and to “the pressures that people of color face in live, public forums.” The problem with this parallel is that, while people of color do face particular pressures in public forums, as do women, in neither case are either people of color, or women, immune to the possibility of saying something offensive or simply controversial. In this case, it seems obvious that people hearing of the event would be far more interested in anything Jason Reynolds said than in the opinions of Nancy Pearl. He is a highly successful and esteemed author who has earned numerous accolades and frequently makes public statements.
Then Yorio selects one librarian at the conference, Christopher Stewart, who expresses confusion and dismay over the response to what he experienced as a wonderful event:
“Christopher Stewart was shocked by (the) original tweet, saying that no part of the conversation felt controversial or tense to him…”
I am sure that Mr. Stewart is honestly expressing his feelings about the panel discussion, but his report of its collegial nature is not definitive, and certainly does not preclude the fact that other members of the audience might have felt differently. I don’t know if they did. I don’t know how many Jews were present, although I would hope that some non-Jews would be sensitive to Holocaust denial. Were some people afraid to speak out at the time? Ms. Yorio simply doesn’t include any contrasting or opposing points of view in her article. Mr. Stewart’s use of the word “shocked” is particularly emphatic, suggesting that any controversy must have been imagined.
Stewart then goes on to characterize the process of raising controversial issues as part of the “Socratic method” of learning. Here I was, if I may borrow his language, “shocked.” There is no Socratic method in considering the phenomenon of Holocaust denial. There is only deliberate, provocative, hate-filled disinformation, and the attempt to expose those who promote it. There are no “important conversations with those people with whom the students may vehemently disagree.”
Yorio explicitly states her interpretation of the controversy here:
“The emotional debate distracted from the original intent of the panel: a discussion focused on those fighting for the freedom to read…”.
I believe that this statement is perfectly clear. Those people upset by including Holocaust denial are “emotional,” and are impeding the struggle for “the freedom to read.”
Nora Pelizzari’s comparison of Holocaust denial to Hitler’s Mein Kampf is poorly chosen. Hitler’s odious book is a primary source in which he clearly proposes the Final Solution. It is absolutely necessary to read when studying the Holocaust, grade level is a crucial consideration when including it in a curriculum or a library’s collections. Holocaust denial, while necessary for attorneys, activists, and other professionals, is simply not in the same category. Where would the library include such materials? It certainly isn’t history, anymore that the denial of evolution belongs in a science collection. It is merely inflammatory lies meant to provoke hatred and violence. People claiming that the gas chambers which killed millions of Jews were a hoax do not need a platform for their mission.
Finally, there is a transcript of “relevant portions of the panel.” I will limit myself to Jason Reynolds, central contribution to the discussion. I do not believe that Mr. Reynolds is antisemitic:
“And books written by Holocaust deniers. And you know immediately my knee-jerk reaction is like ‘that feels dangerous.’ But…the hard truth is, that if we are going to fight against book bans, it includes all the books…it may not be a thing that you’re comfortable with…it still belongs on the shelf, it still deserves to live…because when that book comes up that triggers you, suddenly, you’re not there.”
The phrase “knee-jerk reaction” means something quite specific. It refers to an initial emotional response to learning new information before one then rationally reconsiders and realizes that the response was incorrect.
Here are some books that may “trigger” readers: Oliver Twist with its Fagin caricature of Jews, A Fine Dessert, in which some readers found the image of enslaved people “enjoying” their food, numerous books and films with degrading images of women. Holocaust denial is a cruel and purposeful attack on history itself. There are not two sides to the issue. The ALA and SLJ seem determined to blame the controversy on troublemakers upsetting a “positive” event, rather than wrestling with the underlying issues.