On The Symbolism Of Book Destruction

On The Symbolism Of Book Destruction September 19, 2009

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.

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