Column – Censorship hasn’t, and won’t, accomplish anything 

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The coming year is going to see some parents continue trying to protect their children from all that they — the parents — feel is harmful by imposing their standards on everyone else.

The battle is playing out across the nation in a new era of censorship. Locally, the battlefield will be the Isle of Wight School Board. Tragically, here and elsewhere, it will at times overshadow the real work of public schools, which is to prepare children for success in a horribly complicated and ever-changing society and economy.

I don’t blame parents for being frightened. Some of the material available on social networks and in books is startling and often downright fallacious as well as salacious. The internet’s potential for harm scares the bejeebers out of me as well. It has exposed us to all kinds of abhorrent content.

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Look, for example, at what internet-fueled lies have done to divide our nation. We’ve practically gone to war with each other, and there are those among us who are still threatening to do so. Yes, there is indeed plenty to frighten us. I’d frankly love to see the vehicles that allow and even encourage misinformation and disinformation on the net simply collapse.

But let’s focus on books for now, since that seems to be the medium driving much of the fear being expressed to the School Board and by what now seems to be a majority of its members. The censorship of books has rarely accomplished much that’s positive, though efforts to make it so are as old as the written word. For centuries after the Romans accepted Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church did everything it could to control the Christian message that lay people heard.

Gutenberg unleashed one of the world’s greatest revolutions when he invented a printing press and printed, quite naturally, the Bible. The book was in Latin, though, and the Catholic Church insisted it remain in that language and closely guarded so that common people, who were considered unable to properly understand its contents, didn’t have access to it.

Within a century, though, it had been translated into English. That’s when the Protestant Reformation began, coinciding with the Enlightenment, and the world would never be the same.

Positive change came about because knowledge was unleashed, and from then until now, knowledge has been the genie that simply cannot be put back in the bottle. As the general public learned to read, it became more difficult to keep a lid on information, but that only encouraged censors to increase their efforts.

Charles Darwin became one of history’s most lasting targets when he published his theory of evolution, “On the Origin of Species.” Evolution, and the vast discoveries made since Darwin that confirm it, has never suited some who take biblical teaching literally. The idea of evolution was so unpopular among some fundamentalist Christians that states simply banned its teaching. In the parlance of today, they found it “inherently divisive.” For some people, it still is.

Not to be outdone by American reactionaries, the Nazis held public book burnings to rid Hitler Germany of any literature deemed contrary to its fascist doctrine. The Nazis considered such books “inherently divisive” in a country trying to bring everyone into lockstep. Or was that goose step?

Our county is now seriously considering banning not only books but even conversations in the classroom that might be considered “inherently divisive.”

So what might that include? Our nation’s political system, and hence our governance, is largely driven by a two-party political system. Ever since the Federalists and Republicans slugged it out in the early 1800s, our political parties have been divided. That’s the whole point of having two of them. The very nature of partisan politics is “inherently divisive.” Thus, the teaching of the political system itself in high school government classes could well be banned under such a policy. That’s clearly not the intent of our modern censors, but that is the reality of the absurdity of their position.

It’s perfectly understandable that parents don’t want their children exposed to some literature that runs counter to their — the parents’ — beliefs and standards. They have the right to prohibit their children from reading that material and the school system is working to ensure that they can exercise that right. That’s as it should be.

That, however, is not what is being contemplated. The mantra of censors is always “If I don’t like it, you can’t read it.” Thus, what is being considered is the wholesale censorship of materials and, even worse, ideas that some might find uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable? Education must at times be uncomfortable if it is to broaden the minds of the young, rather than confine those minds in a neat little box — or a genie bottle.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is