There’s a character in my YA novel Apparition called Kip who is a little irreverent. That’s just the way he is. My heroine Amelia first meets him at a Halloween party where they are both wearing Bob Marley masks (pure coincidence) while all the other kids are dressed either as zombies or vampires. Kip surprises Amelia with his take on zombies:
“Jesus was a zombie, for Christ’s sake. That’s what Easter’s all about.”
“I never thought of it that way.” Holy jeez. He’s different.
“Are you kidding? Don’t you know about the ‘resurrection of the body’ stuff in the Bible? The Bible’s all about zombies.”
“No, I seriously never thought of that.”
That’s just Kip being Kip. And yet, as the author, I worried vaguely about including that little exchange in my book. I wondered whether some Christians might take offense. Then some well-meaning person warned me that it might make it difficult to get my book onto reading lists in American schools. That made me gulp, and I asked myself whether I really needed to have Kip say it. I decided I did. Apparition hasn’t made it into American schools yet, but I’m not sure it’s Kip’s fault.
The point is that there’s more to the threat of censorship than book banning. There’s self-censorship, brought on by the fear that offending some people might hurt sales, the publisher’s bottom line, and eventually even my own already sad bank account.
But what really concerns me is not that some parent might take offense to the mild reference to the idea of the risen Jesus being a zombie, or even zombie-like. What bothers me is when people aren’t allowed to read something that others consider irreligious or irreverent. Being free to be irreverent about religion, about politics, about industry, about customs, in other words, about dominant views in society, is a critical part of every society that aspires to be democratic. The belief runs deep, even in western religious traditions, that the so-called “sacred cow” as fair game.
Those who take offense are always trying to protect their position, their interests and their power. I don’t blame them for wanting to, I just don’t think they should be allowed to shut other people up.
I’ve always had a soft spot for 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, no stranger to pissing off religious authorities, who declared in his Theologico-Political Treatise that governments should have the authority to restrict the actions of their citizens. No problemo, he argued. But he added one small caveat: their citizens must be free to think and say (and write) whatever they will. What he counted on was that a society that allowed freedom of expression was the surest way to shape and foster a democracy, to keep its politicians clean and its laws fair. Because in order to effectively control people’s actions, you must also control their thoughts, and even better, push thinking itself right out the door. What keeps thoughts free is when they are engaged, agitated and inspired by their free exchange through words, speech and print. Free thoughts and words are the foundation of a just society.
So book banning, censorship, and even the pressures to self-censor, are the enemies of democracy. And offending those with the most power in society, even and sometimesespecially religious power, is a right that we must safeguard. Not for the sake of my character Kip necessarily, but for the sake of the next Salman Rushdie, and everyone in between.