‘Censorship’ at the NLB

Update (10  Jul 2014 4:30pm): the books will be pulped, so apparently they won’t even be anywhere in the library.

A few days ago, the National Library Board withdrew two books (And Tango Makes Three, and The White Swan Express) from the library system. The news broke on Facebook on 8 July 2014. According to Kirsten Han, “And Tango Makes Three is about two male penguins who paired up and nursed an egg, while The White Swan Express is a story about children being adopted not just by straight, white families but by gay parents, mixed race parents and even a single mother.” I see two particular areas of concern: whether NLB is indeed “censoring” books or if its actions are limited to withdrawing these two titles from children’s sections, and the lack of availability of books that show children positive portrayals of unconventional family models.

First, the NLB needs to clarify immediately if the books have been withdrawn entirely or just from children’s sections. The overwhelming impression, and the plain meaning of the email from the NLB’s chief librarian (quoted here as part of a Facebook post), seems to be the former. If true, this demonstrates two inconsistencies. Many books with far more “disturbing” content are in our libraries and on our school syllabi. And removing these two books entirely is clearly inconsistent with the libraries’ mission of educating the public. Leaving them available for adult lending only, while a regrettable situation, is a compromise which still allows parents to make choices for their children’s reading. On the other hand, removing them entirely is censorship. Besides, removing the books disregards the views of that segment of Singaporean society which is positive or ambivalent towards non-traditional family structures. Page 42 on this document, which reports results from the Institute of Policy Studies’ Survey on Race, Religion and Language, shows that 24.2% of respondents think that gay adoption is “not wrong at all” or “not wrong most of the time”. This is after being asked, in preceding survey questions, to reflect on their religious views, which I think would tend to bias most respondents towards conservative views. Clearly, if the NLB has withdrawn the books entirely, it is taking sides in a debate that isn’t settled yet.

Second, the NLB should not be passing judgement on what constitutes a family unit. Referring to a reductive notion of a father-mother couple as a “strong pro-family stand” is objectionable because there are and always have been different types of families—biological, adoptive, single-parent, grandparent-headed, even gay. None of these is necessarily better or worse (this article summarises the current state of our understanding of gay parenting). However, the normative judgement embedded in the NLB’s “pro-family” stance has at least two consequences. It stigmatises other family structures, and even the practice of adoption. Moreover, it harms the children who are too young to understand why society disapproves of their parents. These children particularly need positive portrayals of their family structures. Instead, the NLB’s purported “pro-family” stance hurts actual children in real families in the service of an imagined ideal. Let’s think, for a second, about the real harm that might be caused from these books being available to children: A child picks up a book about a cute penguin family (And Tango Makes Three). This child brings the book to their parent, and asks to borrow it. The parent (let’s say) is socially conservative, and scandalised that such a book is available for lending. The parent has to explain why their child can’t read that book—essentially, expose their moral reasoning to an innocent child’s questioning. They have to tell the child why certain kinds of families are unacceptable by their own standards, and justify to them why they think these families can’t be allowed. By removing books like these from the sight of children, all the NLB is helping to do is prevent (or delay) those awkward moments that result when a sanitised, reductive, simplistic moral universe comes into contact with a gritty reality it can’t deal with. The social conservatives are not engaged in a crusade to remove smut from shelves, as they would have you believe. Rather, they are acting to preserve their own worldview and remove anything that might cause them discomfort. Incidentally, I think those people who oppose this move on grounds of censorship are barking down the wrong alley. Censorship does not rouse Singaporeans to anger. What the social conservatives are really working towards is twofold: insulating their worldview from coming into contact with any other, and imposing it on the rest of society. Withdrawing And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express from the libraries is much more than just thought-policing. Louis CK has a hilarious joke about talking to children about gay people (warning: it’s Louis CK): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb-JZSyhWSc&t=1m04s

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