Saturday, November 5, 2011

Permission and Influence, a haphazard meditation on something, Part 5 of 5

Last time I talked a bit about strategies parents have regarding their kids' reading.  I advocated parental involvement to teach discernment, which seems to me like the best choice, especially for religious parents.  It puzzles me, then, that many religious parents are loudly anti-book.

I've always wondered why so many evangelicals are so hysterical about certain books.  I mean, I can see why they might get a bit bent out of shape about Philip Pullman's obvious God-hating in the His Dark Materials Trilogy (amazing books though they are) because it's hard for any parents to try to explain hatred to their kids in a way that's not stupid and trite. 

I never really understood the backlash against Harry Potter, though.  It was especially embarrassing to have friends at my decently-academically-ranked Christian liberal arts college forwarding around an Onion article (about Harry Potter making kids into real-life witches) as proof that HP was really a conspiracy of the devil.  (Pardon me while I relive the shame and try to move on again.  It hurts.)  Maybe if their parents or teachers had taught them about critical reading, they, too, would have been able to tell that the "arguments" in said article were a steaming pile of crap from a logic standpoint even if they didn't know what The Onion is (hint: not a credible source).

I never had a difficult time separating fiction from reality.  Well, on behalf of my mother, let me rephrase:  I never had a hard time separating fiction books from reality.  Apparently, many children do.  At least, they are accused of having a hard time with this by adults.  Lots of adults.  So it must be true, right?  So we need to keep them firmly grounded in the real world by preventing them from getting all these fanciful notions in their heads in the first place.  Burn the books!  Or ban them!  Or hide them away in the far tower of the castle where Aurora will never, ever go and get a paper cut and curse us all.

Some argue that fiction books don't influence people; books don't change minds and opinions.  They might make you re-examine or re-think, but they don't really have anything to do with changing your mind.  I've heard this argument from hard-core bibliophiles, often when they are arguing against anything they call censorship (including wacky things like not wanting your 8-year-old to read a Playboy magazine or a novel for young adults that deals with lust and sex).  Books are harmless, they seem to be arguing.  Books don't kill people; people kill people.  That sort of thing.

These same people likely have a list of books that changed their lives.  I certainly do.

Ideas can change people's minds, and books are full of ideas: that's why people think books are dangerous.  Is this something evangelicals acknowledge as true that many non-evangelical readers don't want to acknowledge?  What's wrong with just admitting it?  Does acknowledging the power mean acknowledging some sort of adult responsibility about it? 

Some think that if ideas are dangerous, then we need to protect our kids from the wrong ideas (the ones we disagree with).  Some folks take that to extremes and try to isolate their kids from those wrong ideas, leaving them ill-prepared to deal with the ideas that are all over the place in the real world they will have to live in more or less when they become adults themselves.  Unprepared, these idea-starved people can tend to rebel because they feel they've been deceived their whole lives (possibly starting with Santa Claus).  Others tend to isolate themselves further in the cloud of not-knowing because if they don't acknowledge something, that means it doesn't really exist and they don't have to take it seriously, right? 

From observational evidence alone, I don't think isolation is the solution to controlling dangerous ideas.  I think helping kids develop sharp minds that can engage with ideas and test what is good sounds like a better idea.  But it's a lot of work.  I know discernment is a lot of work for me; teaching it to children as they grow up seems genuinely daunting. 

Just because it's insanely difficult doesn't mean we should avoid it.  We're the grown-ups here.  We should lead by example.  Maybe the world would be a better place if we encouraged each other to read widely including books from viewpoints we don't agree with or haven't encountered before because ideas start conversations inside and outside of us.  Critically engaging with ideas can lead us to new insights that change us and help us love others more because no longer are we complete strangers.

I'm not sure how I got here from a little blog post about a book that possibly got rejected for questionable reasons, but thank you for starting me down this path, people who posted the original bit (even if it arose from a misperception on your part).  I appreciate the paths you've lead me down, even if they were completely unintended.  Words have that kind of meandering power.  Thank God.


  1. Oh you know, the Low King's chief adviser, the ideas taster? It's in the Fifth Elephant.

    People who are very conservative about their ideas could benefit from someone who will sample new ideas and demonstrate they're not poisonous.

  2. Ah. Want to read Pratchett now. Thank you for clearing this up.

    I wonder if there are people who serve that function in the real world? Not necessarily early-adopters, but . . . Hmmm. I wonder.

    I guess the fact that something that's not poisonous to one can be deadly to another makes things even more complicated.