On reading Anne Frank/On censorship

by nike, April 30, 2013

Het_Achterhuis_(Diary_of_Anne_Frank)_-_front_cover,_first_editionWhen I was staying in Amsterdam, I visited Anne Frank House. It was a quiet January morning. I arrived early and wandered through the exhibition, which includes both introductory material about Anne, her family, and the other inhabitants of the Achterhuis during the war, the attic rooms themselves, and (once you’ve left those small, dark boxes) more contextual information about Anne’s life, and about discrimination and persecution of other minorities both historically and in the contemporary world.

One of the items on exhibit is Anne’s diary. I’m sure many of you have read it. The diary was first published, in a version edited by her father, in 1947 (Het Achterhuis). It was first published in English, in the UK, in 1952. It has never been out of print since.

Anne had produced two versions of her diary, usually referred to as Diary A and Diary B. Her father, Otto, drew on both of these in collating a version for publication, but he also censored the material he found in his daughter’s diaries, removing both negative commentary Anne had made about her mother, and passages about sex and sexuality.

Recently, FOX News in the US published a story about Gail Horek, who lodged a complaint with the school board in Northville, Michigan, after learning that her daughter was reading the unexpurgated version of Anne’s diary, including the following passage:

Until I was eleven or twelve, I didn’t realize there was a second set of labia on the inside, since you couldn’t see them. What’s even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris…When you’re standing up, all you see from the front is hair. Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside. They separate when you sit down and they’re very red and quite fleshy on the inside. In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris.

I heard about this by reading a post on Jezebel, including a range of comments from parents, readers and other members of the wider online community. Most commenters don’t agree with the substance of Ms Horek’s complaint, and point out that it’s perhaps odd to be concerned about her daughter being exposed to descriptions of female genitalia and teen curiosity when the book is also ‘about’ the holocaust.

This mother’s response to her daughter being exposed to this material is fascinating, as is the ongoing debate about what it means, who agrees with her and why, and so on. One of the things that fascinates me emerges in the comment thread on Jezebel.

Wax-Tapole: She’s suggesting that the parents be given permission slips to read it – not that the book be banned.

DangerTits: Sigh, I don’t think that is much better. Knee jerk parent are just going to say no I fear. Until one of the allowed kids passes their book around so everyone can read the good stuff.

Wax-Tadpole: But that’s their right. There’s nothing wrong with parents having a say in what their own kids read – that’s not censorship.

I think Wax-Tadpole (WT) starts off with a sensible statement clarifying what’s actually happened, in response to a whole lot of pretty predictable palaver/hysteria from uninformed people nevertheless ready to bad-mouth Ms Horek for participating in book banning. Then DangerTits (DT) makes a fairly informal statement pointing out that this simply shifts the power/decision about what books a student can read from the school to the parents. Then, and this is what I think is fascinating, WT claims that ‘that’s their right’ and ‘that’s not censorship’.

Not censorship? When is censorship not censorship? When it’s practiced by parents? Apparently, for WT, this is a meaningful distinction. What’s interesting about it, I think, is that it highlights the fact that censorship of what students in school read is an ongoing and perpetual activity. What shifts is not the fact that censorship occurs, but who makes the decisions about what will be censored, on what basis, and for which students.

Most people, once pushed, will generally agree that some censorship of some material for younger readers is necessary. They might prefer not to call this censorship, however, giving it a less ‘hot’ name, such as ‘screening’ or ‘protecting’ young people. And its no doubt true that young people should not, in an ideal world, be exposed to some images, ideas or stories. But which images, ideas and stories should they be protected from?

Censorship is, in its most basic and benevolent form, a means of protection. It protects people from being exposed to images, ideas and stories that might emotionally or psychologically damage them. It sometimes aims to protect people from being made to participate in the production of material that physically, emotionally or psychologically damages them. It is a function of society that presumes that almost everyone has a right not to be exposed to things that will hurt them.

On the other hand, when you say ‘censorship’, most people think of the less benevolent description/face of censorship. The silencing of minority voices. The refusal to allow adults to choose to express themselves as they see fit. The ‘nanny-state’ that restricts adults’ access to material that is deemed politically, socially or culturally inappropriate. I suspect that when WT uses the word censorship, that’s what she’s thinking of. Censorship as a (national) political activity applied to adults.

Not seeing them as part of the same continuum is a problem because it limits our capacity to discuss censorship in a clear and open way. Often, it results in a base argument that reduces you to taking a position as either pro- or anti-censorship, rather than a more nuanced stance. It cuts you off from being able to acknowledge that censorship does take place, and probably always will, in most societies. And it cuts short the conversation about what should be censored, for which audiences, by whom and under what circumstances.

Gail Horek’s complaint to the school board is an interesting act. As I understand it, what Ms Horek suggests is not that the school (or herself) be empowered, as censors, to make the decision to restrict access to the unedited version of Anne’s Diary, but that each parent be empowered to act as censor for their own child. In this, she’s asking that power be shifted from the school board to individual parents. From a third party, government-auspiced authority, to members of the community.

But, as DT questions in her response to this clarification, what qualifies parents as censors? Many people feel that it should be a parent’s right to decide what material their children should be exposed to, but on what basis should they be granted that authority? On the basis of the fact that they are reproductively successful? What other qualifications or authority do parents, as a group, have?

Notice, too, that nobody is suggesting that students – or a representative body of students – be empowered to make (or even contribute to) the censorial decision. While adults generally feel that it is appropriate for their peers to make censorships decisions about what they can read, listen to or watch on television, they don’t feel comfortable allowing young people the same representative authority over themselves.

Children are relatively powerless to influence decisions about what they can watch, read, or listen to. Adults generally consider themselves to be acting in the best interests of children when they censor their worlds. But what happens when adults disagree with each other about what children should be permitted access to? Or when adults serve their own needs, or preserve their own rights, at the expense of the child’s?

Here’s my two cents. I’m not at all comfortable with Gail Horek’s suggestion that individual parents be empowered to censor their child’s reading material because, even though I am a parent, and I want to be able to preserve my right to raise my child as I see fit, I understand that that desire to control my child’s world can be both protective and foolish. Selfish and limited. I cannot raise my child in a bubble, and at some point I have to relinquish control over my child’s experience of the world at least partly to others, and, more importantly, to my children themselves. Not all at once, and not without care and compassion, and a role as guide or companion or sounding board, but eventually. And starting from the moment they can crawl.

I also understand that there are no qualifications for being a parent. As a bumper sticker I read once said: you need a licence to get a dog, but any idiot can have a babyAnd, most particularly in the privacy of their own homes, parents are tin-pot dictators. Benevolent and wise at times. Confused, petty and foolish at other times. Mediating individual parental authority is, I think, a necessary protection against bad parenting. A social good that protects children from parents who are neglectful, uncaring, selfish, uneducated, frightened or simply naive.

In his letter in response to Gail Horek’s complaint, Robert Behnke, the Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, wrote:

Parents are considered partners in their children’s learning and when concerns surface they are encouraged to communicate with the classroom teacher and building principal to resolve those issues.  If the parent is not satisfied with the response at the building level, a committee consisting of parents, teachers, media specialists, and administrators will be assembled to review the concerns expressed by the parent using the Citizen’s Request for Reconsideration of Materials Procedure.

Although it’s officious and painful. Although I can feel myself bridling at the tone, I think this is a perfectly reasonable and acceptable response to Ms Horek’s challenge to the school’s curriculum. What it says is not ‘you have no say’ or ‘we reserve the right to decide’ but, in effect, ‘we will decide this together’. The process may not be perfect, and the way that the representatives of the committee who make decisions are selected, informed about the issues, and debate them could be problematic, it is the notion that the matter will be resolved through consultation and discussion that I think is an admirable starting point.

Perhaps the only thing I’d love to insist they add to the make-up of the committee is student representatives. People who can contribute to the debate being made about decisions that will impact on their education. Oh, and literary scholars (perhaps this is what is meant by ‘media specialists’) who can speak to the literary qualities of the work. And perhaps child advocates who can speak to the role of literature in children’s social, emotional and educational development, and to the role this work, in particular, might play in that development.

What about you? Do you think, as a parent, you should have the right to censor your child’s reading? What would you do if your child was asked to read something they, or you, found inappropriate for school? What role does censorship play in children’s reading life? Who should decide what children (can) read? On what basis?

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