A friend of mine told me that he saw the “D” word in a book once, so he threw it away.

“It couldn’t possibly have any real value if it was written by someone who uses the ‘D’ word,” he told me. “Quite frankly, I just don’t want to have anything to do with any person who says ‘d--’ or ‘d--’, or even ‘d--ed’.”

He then proceeded to explain that the book had challenged his mind. Made him examine his beliefs. But that, you see, made him uncomfortable. And the language…well, that was just too much. He preferred the watered-down, “G-Rated” type of literature, where fake people living in a two-dimensional world never say anything harsher than “gosh” or “darn,” except for possibly (horrors!!) the occasional “fiddlesticks.”

So he threw the book away. Tossed it right in the circular file at the end of his desk. Then he curled up on the bed and read some inspirational Words of Wisdom from a little pamphlet with pretty flowers on the front cover. Clean. Safe. Comfortable. And eventually he fell asleep feeling pretty good about himself.

From time to time he would chastice the rest of us for reading such trash as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“They use the ‘N’ word a lot, don’t they?’), or Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“Too much violence…”), or even "Little Red Riding Hood" (“Sexual metaphors, you know…”). Surely, he warned us, we would one day pay for our wanton and reckless reading habits.

I asked him once if he didn’t think he might be missing out on something by having cut so much great literature out of his life. After a moment’s thought he admitted, with a certain amount of reluctance, that there were times when he did not feel quite as well-rounded as the rest of us. Sometimes he felt out of place, and had trouble relating to the rest of us because we had all done so much more reading than he had.

“On the other hand,” he noted, “in the long run I’ll only be missing out on a couple of thousand books in my lifetime…only a few of which might have ever had a chance of actually affecting my life in some profound way. Better to cut the cancer of profanity out of my life than to read so many books…”

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The old copy of the Oxford American Dictionary I keep on my desk at home lists the word censor as “a person authorized to examine letters, books, films, etc. and remove or ban anything regarded as harmful.”  

Traditionally, most censors have tended to be religious leaders, claiming to have the sanction of a Higher Authority. Christianity, Judaism, Islam...the Higher Authority may vary from one group to the next, but the basic message was the same: “Only we know what is good for you.”

Then a certain group of Europeans decided that such activities constituted a form of persecution. So they fled their homeland, settled on a new continent, and eventually fought and won a revolution in order to form a new nation where such things could not take place. And over the course of the next 235 years their descendents have perfected this new nation to the point where today we seem to be right back where they started from.

Ironic, isn’t it?  The same First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that gives a "thumbs down" to censorship also forbids the establishment of a single state religion. And yet there is a great many people in this nation who would have us believe that you can't truly be an American unless you swear fealty to one particular religion. Which, of course, is the very kind of attitude that original group of settlers were trying to flee in the first place. 

The tradition that America was founded as a Christian nation isn’t necessarily true; it WAS founded by men - many of whom happened to be Christians and were guided by Christian principles, but not all of them by any means - who understood that religion should play NO role in governmental affairs. They knew that while individual men and women may each be guided by their own religious principles, the government represents ALL of the people REGARDLESS of their religious affiliation.

America may be a Christian nation, but it is also a Jewish nation, a Moslem nation, a Hindu nation, a Tao nation, a Druid nation, an Atheistic nation, and in some quarters - like it or not - a Satanic nation. Those of us who worship as Christians (and lest there be any misunderstanding, I count myself among that number) may not agree with the tenets of any other religion, but that doesn’t make those religions any less important or meaningful to those who do not agree with the tenets of ours.

With me so far? Now consider this: If the government’s acceptance of one religious doctrine above all others conflicts with the notion of the separation of Church and State, as set forth in the First Amendment, then it stands to reason that using one religious doctrine as a basis for censorship - which is supposed to be illegal anyway - must also be in conflict with that idea.

But never underestimate the American ability to find a loophole. Somewhere along the way it was determined that there is a difference between censorship and keeping something from the public for its own good.

In other words: “Censorship is evil; but not when I do it.”

Take a look at modern school textbooks, for example. Just a little ways south of here, in the state of Texas, there is a state-operated Textbook Commission which has the job of approving all textbooks used in Texas public schools. Texas has the largest public school system in the United States; as a result, its decisions have great impact upon how students in the rest of the country are taught.

In order to keep from losing their existing accounts in Texas, textbook publishers censor themselves. The cost of printing “regional” versions of a particular textbook is much too high; what Texas wants, therefore, the rest of America gets. Whether we want it or not.

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So the question remains: Is censorship necessarily a bad thing to have in our society? 

With censorship, you are guaranteed the right to never read or hear another view that isn’t your own. You’ll be protected from heretics, radical politicians, teenage rebellion, and a three-letter word which begins with “s” and ends with “x.” 

Is censorship a bad thing? You tell me… 

The thing that has always bothered me about most attempts at censorship is that so many of them appear to have been the result of pure ignorance.

It’s one thing for a person to have an informed opinion about any given work - whether it be a book, movie TV show or even a newspaper column - and to develop an argument, based upon that informed opinion, disputing the merits of that work. But it is quite another thing altogether for a person to speak out against something about which he knows nothing at all. Or to say that something is bad just because he as an individual tells us that it is bad.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what most of these would-be censors are trying to do. There’s a vast herd of so-called “experts” out there who have dedicated their lives to trying to dictate to the rest of us what we should or should not read, watch, hear or even think. 

And worse, some of us let them. We listen to their lunatic rantings and scratch our heads and say, “Well, gee, he says he’s an expert. Guess he must know what he’s talking about, then.” 

And then we hop right on up onto the bandwagon and assist in spreading a gospel born not of fact, but of ignorance.

Ignorance of the fact that everyone has his own distinct likes and dislikes when it comes to such things. Ignorance of the fact that nobody - and I mean nobody - has the right to forcefully inflict his own tastes upon anybody else.

It’s true that confronting a disagreeable idea may just cause a person to back up on occasion and re-think some deeply held conviction. Sometimes that’s the whole idea, and sometimes the exchange of an old way of thinking for a new point of view may ultimately even improve the quality of a person’s life.

But such confrontation can, and has, also caused a person to hold on to his original ideals and beliefs with even greater conviction. Sometimes this, too, is the whole idea. Because sometimes the very best way to strengthen our convictions is to be challenged by new ideas - ideas which can be dissected and, if need be, tossed aside.

*      *      *

The point is this: no matter what the outcome, honest and careful consideration of new and occasionally uncomfortable ideas can be beneficial to the individual who is willing to put up the effort to do so.

But far too many simply are not willing. They immediately slam the door upon any idea or notion they feel to be “wrong.” They are afraid of change. And their fear of challenge will more often than not be expressed through antagonism for the challenger.

And fear begat hatred, and hatred begat censorship. And censorship begat…

All that’s left is ignorance. And that’s what started the whole mess in the first place.

Talk about your vicious cycles…

Given that this is America, and that we’re not supposed to stand still for such things, the idea that some are out there trying to “protect” the rest of us through censorship and the supression of ideas becomes all the more frightening.

Or at least it should…

*      *      *

Once that old friend of mine thought that he’d heard God say, “If you keep judging people by what they say, and stop loving your brother, you just may d-- yourself to H--.”

But God said “d--” and “H--,” so my friend just threw him away…

(Copyright 2011 by John Allen Small)