On The Symbolism Of Book Destruction

Over the past few days we’ve been discussing creationists Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s plan to freely disseminate 50,000 copies of a new version of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species which they are putting out and which contains a deceptive, creationist introduction filled with bad science and false history.  RichardDawkins.net and Pharyngula have encouraged people not only to take the free copies and throw them out, but to go so far as to rip out the introductions from the book and donate it to charity.  Justin thinks that this is a form of censorship.  He  and other readers, including friend of Camels With HammersSendaiAnonymous” have taken my invitation to debate the issue and I hope you take a few minutes to read and participate in their excellent exchange here.

After sleeping on the issue a bit and reading some of the comments, I am against a concerted, organized, and publicly prominent plan to rip out Comfort’s introduction from  copies of the book.  It’s not because I think that creationism is at all a viable scientific theory or that it deserves the academic respect of presentation of its refuted theories in science classrooms, because I don’t think any of that.  I don’t think schools ignoring creationism is “indoctrinating” them.  Peer review standards are what make sciences and other academic disciplines credible and authoritative as institutions of learning and academic institutions from elementary schools to graduate schools educate precisely by excluding the voices of those who only want to indoctrinate and whose theories have no peer-reviewed credibility.  So, I am unequivocal in opposing the teaching of creationism or intelligent design theory in schools as though they were scientifically credible.

I also think Comfort’s stunt is intellectually dishonest, indecent to Darwin’s memory, and potentially damaging as any other campaign of misinformation and indoctrination would be.  Again, I’m unequivocal in hating the idea of this book.  And I also have no problem with the Abimalech Society’s tactic of throwing away freely doled out Gideon Bibles and other freely received religious propaganda.  I have to admit an irrationally high amount of relish when I can take religious pamphlets being handed out and promptly dispose of them.  (Though I personally could probably not throw out actual Bibles simply because I have an admittedly irrational aversion to destroying any books whatsoever.  I never throw them out, even the most useless and insidious ones I own.  I don’t mind the Abimalech Society feeling otherwise.)

But nonetheless, I think we should show be very cautious of public, symbolic gestures of destroying books.

Of course this is not because books are sacred objects. When PZ Myers “desecrated” a “consecrated host” from a Catholic mass he also rightly desecrated a page from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion to make the point that his gesture was anti-sacralization. It was against elevating any object to a level of intrinsic holiness and inviolability.  And I think that was great.  (In fact, there’s a longstanding theological idea that one of Judaism’s primary religious innovations in rejecting worship of graven images was that it helped to reverse the tendency to fetishize mere objects over more abstract ideals which alone could give an object meaning and value.  In an odd sort of way, Myers had precedent in a long line of religious reformers in what he did.  But maybe that’s just the former Protestant in me speaking.

So, even though I personally have an irrational aversion to actually destroying or throwing out any books out of a sense of respect for books as such, I know that there’s nothing wrong with it and especially nothing wrong with throwing out a Gideon Bible which you are free to take.  But labored symbolic, public displays of destruction of art, be it books or music (like when converted evangelical teenagers are coaxed into ceremoniously destroying all their “evil” “satanic” secular music as a sign of their conversion) convey a sort of symbolic threat against the rights of those works of art to exist.  Why deliberately, systematically, and symbolically destroy, and why do so as an act of group solidarity if not to express a deeper desire for the utter obliteration of that counter-viewpoint’s right to exist?

As I discussed a bit at the beginning of last week in the context of talking about Joe Wilson interrupting Barack Obama, a crucial element of open, democratic speech is that it happens in a context in which the right of one’s enemy to explicitly disagree is not only legally but symbolically respected and affirmed in one’s speech and speech acts.  Wilson’s outburst was a mere interruption that did not censor or silence Obama but betrayed in Wilson a contemptible contemptuousness for the right of his opponent to speak.  All it was was an interruption of course.  And, yes, it’s covered by free speech protections.  But symbolically it represented an anti-democratic impatience with the process by which we take turns speaking as a way that we manifest and embody our ideals of free speech for all.

Of course, it would have been different if we had different customs of decorum in our culture.  Were we England and we had a tradition of our heads of state confronting rowdy dissent from legislators when they addressed them, then Wilson’s interruption would not have had the symbolic weight it did.  In fact, I probably prefer England’s approach, but that’s another story.  According to our customary ways of showing respect for opponents’ rights of free speech, Wilson betrayed a contempt for Obama’s right to be heard in full.  And it’s a manifestation of an authoritarian right wing’s widespread disrespect for civil rights and for the rights even of their congress people to be heard during town halls.

Similarly, as a matter of custom and meaning, while we are certainly free to take freely given literature and quietly go destroy it, to make a public demonstration of destroying it is to symbolically express a desire to destroy our opponent’s right to be heard.  When you see someone who likes to publicly burn books, or even just mutilate them, as a political statement, how can you not infer that they are manifesting a desire to ban those same books if ever the opportunity arises?  If their words give lip service to free speech but then their hands symbolically destroy the corporeal manifestation of others’, which will you believe expresses their heart—their lips or their hands?  Which would you believe if it was your books being symbolically and purposefully destroyed or mutilated in a public campaign?

Yes, it is not government enforced censorship to privately wage a campaign of destroying Ray Comfort’s introductions to Origin of Species.  But that’s irrelevant.  The question is not whether the countries where atheists might do this are presently free from oppressive censorship, it’s whether the atheists are expressing attitudes that lead people to or away from censorship laws.  Laws start in hearts.  Atheists’ hearts must remain devoted first and foremost to the principles of liberty and rational debate.

If I learned of a concerted campaign of Christians to pay people for their copies of The Greatest Show On Earth as they left the bookstore and then to destroy them or if I heard of it being systematically burned or having one of its chapters destroyed, etc., I would be offended and label them theocrats and denounce them on Camels With Hammers.

The reason I would be offended is not because they don’t have rights to do those things and not because the government has turned against me.  They may burn Dawkins’s book as an expression of free speech.  But they shouldn’t since it is a symbolic gesture that undermines the very principle of free speech.  I think Americans should be allowed to burn the American flag but I don’t think they should unless they want to send the message that they believe in the overthrow of the country—since that’s what the gesture reasonably can be expected to convey, regardless of the flag burner’s intentions even.

Book burners send a message to all those they influence that destroying books is the way to stamp out ideas one disagrees with and give a clear impression that if they ever get into power they might just be willing to destroy the right for those books to exist in the first place.  This is because if they cannot stand the mere physical existence of a book they disagree with but rather must destroy it in a cathartic and symbolic manner, then how can I trust such people to protect my right to publish such books in the first place?  If they symbolically and communally obliterate those books physically, what is there to tell me that they will not write laws that save them the trouble of having to destroy books by just censoring them in the first place?

The politically motivated and coordinated burning or mutilating of books sends an anti-free-speech message that one’s opponents are not to be debated but to be silenced.  There have been enough religious and atheist governments that have legally obliterated rights to disagreement and they’ve many times been preceded by physical campaigns of book destruction.  It’s an act with customary political, symbolic, threatening importance.  It is legitimate to take it as a harbinger of future legislation from those who do it.

It is also irrelevant that in the West right now atheists are powerless to effect any kind of genuine, unjust censorship laws.  It is important that we do not undertake symbolic gestures that send the message that we would use available irrational means of force, be they the force of law or the force of physical destruction, to silence our opponents or stop them from being heard in those zones of free speech in which freedom of expression must be kept sacred.

So, because of these considerations, I agree with Justin that it sends a bad message, intended or not, for atheists to rally around a plan of book mutilation.  It’s not manipulative to use the word censorship and it does not disrespect the memory of those who have suffered under full-out government enforced censorship.  Quite the contrary, it honors the lessons of history and the plight of those who have fought (and who presently fight) censorship to denounce organized, politically or religiously (or even anti-religiously) motivated book destruction, even where there is no explicit intent to ban books or calls for that.

Again, this is not to say that burning books should be illegal.  We should have free countries where we may even express  authoritarian sentiments and ideas freely as long as we do so nonviolently and non-threateningly and as long as those who oppose authoritarian sentiments and ideas have equal access and opportunity to counter such speech.  But with our free speech we should always be careful to remember that repressive laws start in repressive attitudes and therefore be vigilant about discouraging them the latter.

I also don’t mean to say that the RichardDawkins.net plan does intend to send a message that it desires to censor books.  I think no such thing.  But I think that the symbolic connotations of the act itself give theists every right to infer they should be wary of the kinds of atheists who physically destroy religious books in coordinated, publicized campaigns related to politically contentious issues.  They may be wrong for inferring that the given atheists at hand would abuse power and restrict religious speech should they ever have power.  But their inference is still defensible and therefore their mistrust of atheists would gain some credibility.  Why give our opponents the opportunity to defensibly mistrust us?

I understand the practical motivation.  There is a great need to keep lies and slanders out of people’s hands.  So feel free to gobble up as many as you can and personally and quietly throw them away.  But the exercise of ripping pages out of books as a way of destroying what one perceives to be standing up for truth is a bad training in respect for disagreement and for the contest of ideas through debate rather than force.  And sending people mutilated books sends the recipient a confusing message about what rational debate looks like.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://christianincollege.com Justin

    What an interesting and informative post. I’m glad you see my point.

  • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

    I must say that vandalising will always feel like vandalising to me, so I sort of see your point. I’d rather have them throw the books away instead of ripping parts of them out or something.

    However, using the word “censorship” for anything that a right-wing person deems inappropriate is in my opinion nothing short of a cheap propaganda strategy. Both sides have the right to do what they’re doing, and yet it’s the offended Christians decrying censorship *again*, and not the evil atheists claiming persecution by “Christofascism”. Either you decide to discuss things in a civilised serious manner, or you don’t.

    Also, the evil atheists are not going out of their way to prevent people who want to read the Ray Comfort introduction from reading the introduction, so it’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, actually.

    It just leaves one with a queasy feeling because of the vandalism.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I don’t think this is “using the word censorship for anything that a right-wing person deems inappropriate.” Yes, when the right-wingers claim that excluding creationism from the classroom is censorship they’re full of it and should be called on it. And I was careful, as I’m sure you noticed and appreciated, to make clear that censorship was not at play in academia at current. So, on that point, I disagreed with Justin’s post and he didn’t dispute me in his comment on what I wrote.

    But the case at hand when you’re talking about taking out pages of a book and then giving them to people does fit the form of “censorship” even if it’s not government run or anything. And you can’t say a priori that the right wing can never ever be the victims of censorship. That’s just prejudiced against them to say they can never be wronged. EVEN IF they complain all the time for no reason and would have complained in this case no matter what we did, that’s irrelevant. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

    I don’t really know. I’ve this very very strong impression that censorship is something that the powerful group uses against the powerless group. In this case, there is no way the atheists are the powerful group.
    This is why I simply can’t call it censorship. It might be arseholery, it might be vandalism, but censorship? No way.

    I’m not saying the right wing can’t be a victim of censorship. Hullo, communist countries, anyone? It’s just that, I dunno, it might be a bit of a cultural difference, I suppose? For me, censorship is a tool of oppression, and how could possibly a powerless group oppress the powerful group? It’s just, I don’t know, unfeasible.

    In my mind, censorship and power are inextricably interwoven. It doesn’t matter whether it’s government that does the censorship, what matters is that it’s a group that wields sufficient power to force people/other groups to comply. There’s no way atheists are such a group.
    Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything, either. It’s just, it feels terribly inappropriate to call what they’re trying to do “censorship”, and also a lot like the meme that starts with “just like” and ends with a completely inappropriate and overblown comparison.

  • Daniel Fincke

    What I am arguing has to do with the heart and one’s attitude towards one’s opposition. The question is whether you have a censor’s heart, not whether you have one’s power. There HAVE been many oppressive atheist regimes which imposed censorship on the populace. Like the Soviets when they dominated very country you hail from, creating the regime you’re most likely referencing foremost in your mind during this debate.

    So, my point is this—atheists in America are insisting that atheism doesn’t lead to communism or Robespierre style crackdowns on religious freedom, etc. The reputation of atheism whethered decades of bad PR in America due to the Soviet Union and now there is a younger generation growing up more secular and open to rationalism than any before, and atheism is getting a clean slate with more of these young people than it will ever have with their cold war dualist parents. So, in this context, what sorts of mindsets do we want to show people we have? The kind of mindset that destroys books it disagrees with and rips out pages before giving them to people? Do we want to confirm that we have censorious hearts like the paranoid right wing accuses us of? Is THAT the way to prove we can be trusted as moral and just and deserving of equal power and respect in society?

    It’s not about whether atheists have power, it’s about our hearts and our ethics and what we do with little power says about what we would do with much power. It’s one of those rare cases where I’ll cite a parable of Jesus that I actually love. He who is faithful with little will be trusted with more and he who is careless with the little with be trusted with nothing.

    The burden on atheists is to prove that mainstream atheism doesn’t equate to the silencing of free expression of religion. Preserving the separation between church and state in government and fact and myth in education are our crucial battles. We need laws that are determined according to secular reasoning processes and truths that are determined with no reference to the influence of arbitrary religious posits. If we go around censoring books, we give our enemies reason to conflate our attempts to suppress theocracy and anti-intellectualism as just further acts of our censorious temperaments. We should send a clear message. No religious determination of laws, no religious ceremonies for public institutions, no deference to religious arguments in fields of knowledge. In exchange though, freedom of religious people to disseminate their literature anywhere else they’d like in keeping with a free society. And no symbolic acts that can be interpreted as a desire to squelch that last and most vital concession to the freedom of conscience.

    Does that make sense?


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