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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Banned Book Week and Censorship

Censorship is bad.

Did I really need to type that?

October 1-7, 2023 is National Banned Books Week and this year's theme is Let Freedom Read. I can't think of a more appropriate theme given our political climate. Banned Books Week is a time to recognize the importance of free and open expression. It is a time to celebrate and understand that with which we may be unfamiliar. It is a time to learn so that we may be more empathetic. It's also a time to give the proverbial middle finger to those who tell us what we shouldn't read or listen to. Bah!

The @American-Library-Association compiled its list of the ten most banned/challenged books for 2022.

1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe 2. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson 3. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison 4. Flamer by Mike Curato 5. Looking for Alaska, by John Green 5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky 7. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison 8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie 9. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez 10. A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas 10. Crank by Ellen Hopkins 10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews 10. This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson

How many of the books have you read? Why not choose one as your next autumn read? (Sadly, I haven't read any of them. I better get on that. Recommendations as to where to start?)

Why are these books banned? Many deal with LGBTQIA+ topics, claim to have sexually explicit content, show drug use, use profanity, or depict abuse. In other words, they make some people uncomfortable. Isn't that the point?

Shouldn't we make people uncomfortable? Our comfort zones are lined with eiderdown ideals and served with a side of hot cocoa. They are also stifling. We need to understand the experiences of others if we are to be citizens of the world.

Speaking of recognizing free and open expression let's talk about disinformation. A colleague/friend forwarded a very disturbing article from the Washington Post. Let me clarify...the article isn't disturbing - its content is.

In a nutshell, those who study disinformation are being accused of colluding with tech companies to censor the posts of right-wing/Republican views. Some universities and others studying and flagging disinformation are worried they will face costly lawsuits or worse, face doxing and online harassment and/or threats to themselves and loved ones for pointing out dangerous and untrue content and asking that tech companies remove or flag posts. Essentially, those who create and spread disinformation are accusing tech companies and others of violating their First Amendment right to free speech.

Some may be surprised to learn that I am in favor of allowing people to speak freely even if what they are sharing is not accurate. This is a quandary for me because some disinformation may actually harm or kill you. (Hey, we all struggle.)

Several problems exist with asking that dangerous and untrue content be removed and/or flagged. First, it could be (and is being) argued that left-wing/Democrats are determining what is considered truthful. They are accused of bias. There are also those who feel that professionals and thought leaders shouldn't decide what is said or not. For example, I would argue that infectious disease specialists can and should comment on disinformation surrounding vaccines. They would be an authority in this area and we should trust that if they say a post is completely inaccurate and may be dangerous, we should remove it. Yet there are those who don't believe their credentials and doubt their credibility. They may see this as a conspiracy against those willing to speak out against the tyranny of science and elitism. It's a bit of a catch-22. Damned if you and damned if you don't.

I propose an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. What would that entail? Those creating disinformation (I've dubbed them 'disinformationists') are doing all the right things - minus the lies, deceit and evil intent. What do I mean?

One of the first rules in developing a communication campaign is "know your audience." Who are you trying to reach? What are their demographics and psychographics? What do they believe? What do they question? What do they not know? Who do they identify with? Those are just a few questions to ask.

Secondly, how do you reach them? Are they on Facebook? Instagram? Are they at church, school or work?

Then, craft a message with a call to action. That message should satisfy some need or answer some question for people. [To be clear, a communication campaign is much more involved than this. This is the abridged version. If it were this easy, we might not have any problems.]

Let me go back to a tried and true example - a dead horse that requires another beating.... We saw with Covid that people were frightened. They didn't necessarily know who to believe because we were all witnessing the scientific method in action. We were sharing information as we got it and then modifying it once we got new and better information. That led many to question scientists and health care practitioners. A kind of "see, last week they said X and now it's Y. Why should we believe them?" We saw a lack of science, health and media literacy. It didn't help that we had people in positions of authority, trusted by many, who were making false statements and spreading disinformation. Some of those people did believe what that espoused (so therefore misinformation); some were just assholes.

If we look at the recent push to get people to get the latest Covid booster and the flu shot, we can see disinformation rearing its ugly head.

Who is the audience? Those making health care decisions for themselves and their families regarding vaccines. That's the general audience. Who is the audience for disinformationists? Those who don't trust science, those who haven't gotten the initial vaccines, those who may have had a reaction to the vaccine, or those who got Covid even when vaccinated (as a note, vaccines protect from severe illness, they do not necessarily prevent you from getting illnesses).

How/where do we reach them? Social media is the great equalizer! It is also its own virus. Things spread on social media faster than Covid managed to circle the globe. I think the Covid virus has "spread envy" as a result. People are on social media. They see posts that may or may not be from people who may or may not be experts.

The call to action? Don't get the booster! It will kill you! (Completely untrue. COMPLETELY!!) How do we counter this narrative? We could tell Meta that it needs to police these posts and remove them. Censorship. Or we could use the same tactics to spread the truth. Again, this is a very abridged and simplistic approach. Much more goes into the process than I am outlining here but I hope you understand where I am going with this. I will certainly get into additional detail in future newsletters.

Who is our audience? Those making health care decisions for themselves and their families. Do we focus on the disinfomationists? We might focus on those who believe them instead of those creating the false information. We need to understand why they believe. Where do we get that? By understanding people. Reading. Listening. Observing. Putting our biases aside as much as is possible so that we may empathize. It is more than black and white, Republican and Democrat, high school educated and college educated, rich and poor. Where do we reach them? Same places. Social media. Perhaps where they worship, learn and work. We need to have established trust in order to be taken seriously. That takes time and that work needs to be done before a crisis like a pandemic occurs.

What is our message? The truth. If you can make the truth sexy and salacious, all the better. Sometimes that is difficult. When the narrative is, "don't get the vaccine because it will kill you!" you could say "get the vaccine or die!" but that isn't entirely true and "get the vaccine or maybe die!" doesn't have the same ring.

This is a complicated issue much as the issue of banned books. Empathy and trust are required. Also, a willingness to walk away from what you don't want to be involved in without rallying troops to an unnecessary crusade. If you don't want to read a book, don't. If you don't want to get the vaccine, don't. But don't tell me that I can't and I promise to reciprocate that sentiment. (Though I will admit that I will try to convince you that the vaccine is worth getting, but I won't hammer it into you.)

One thing I hope you won't do is censor my upcoming book.

Tentative publication date: May 2024. You will be able to preorder soon enough. I will certainly let you know when.

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