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More adventurous than the average bear

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

'Free' 'My' Library?

If I ever start a public library, it shall stock this book:

The 120 Days of Sodom
Marquis de Sade

As Wikipedia puts it:

It tells the story of four wealthy male libertines who resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification in orgies. To do this, they seal themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, France, with a harem of 46 victims, mostly young male and female teenagers, and engage four female brothel keepers to tell the stories of their lives and adventures. The women's narratives form an inspiration for the sexual abuse and torture of the victims, which gradually mounts in intensity and ends in their slaughter.

The whole furore with the National Library Board's (NLB's) removal of the pro-LGBT books has homophiles distracted by red herrings:

- It being painted as an issue of censorship
- The question of representing and endorsing public norms
- Books for children are not books for adults

This leads to the problem being misspecified.


In the first place this is not a censorship issue.

Some compare this to internet censorship, but that affects everyone in Singapore and must be actively circumvented (which is possibly technically illegal); NLB removing the book doesn't stop you from getting the book elsewhere in Singapore (books that are banned in Singapore are another matter) - it is slightly less easy to obtain, but still easy.

Suppose a public library stocked pornography. If it removed this from its collection, could the government of this country be accused of 'censoring' pornography, if pornography were still legally available in the country?

Surely not.

Accusing NLB of censorship is like accusing gay activists of censorship since some shops don't stock Orson Scott Card's works.

Public norms

A library collection is actively curated and has a stamp of respectability, and is expected to follow public norms - unlike the Internet, where what you find is up to your wandering - there is no curation and arguably less serendipity.

Where do public norms come from?

Of course, that is a valid question, but there is no neutral, objective position here. Even if it were possible to distil "public norms" into a coherent whole, they would still have to be weighed against other factors like public education and neutrality (e.g. in a town where everyone is Creationist, if I were a librarian I would still include proper Science books to represent the scientific consensus and provide a different viewpoint).

Given that the library is the one responsible for what they have in their collection and is facing the collective consequences, it is reasonable to have them as the judge (insofar as 'public norms' are represented by their collection).

To think about it the other way: if homophobes submit a homophobic book to the library and the library rejects it, the library is again being the judge of social values (as well as opening itself up to charges of censorship by the homophobes).

On the other hand, if the library accepts the homophobic book, then they are responsible for it and get flamed by homophiles.

They are not in an enviable position.

Children vs Adults

Yet another confusion in this saga is the fact that the books were in the NLB's children's section.

Parents are understandably worried about what their children are reading (as is everyone else - moral panic about the nasty things kids are reading/consuming are hardly uncommon). This is especially so when they are worried about their children being converted to homosexuality.

Meanwhile, concern about what children are taking in from media (in the broad sense of the term, not just covering the mass media) is hardly limited to conservatives - liberals fret about media violence. Ditto for sex - while liberals might be happy with many manifestations of sex, they do not want children viewing them.

So we can see that wanting to restrict what children read is not inherently objectionable (and certainly, it is not 'censorship').

Meanwhile, it is reasonable to assume that many of those who object to the pro-LGBT books would be okay with having them in the adults' section (note that there's lots of gay fiction and gay themed books there - there're 188 works under the subject of "Gay men" alone, including "Angels in America : a gay fantasia on national themes" by Tony Kushner, which is highly unlikely to be homophobic).

What is appropriate in a public library collection targeted at those of a young age, then, depends to a large extent on one's values.

Ultimately, then, it all boils down to a culture clash. Once again, between the homophobes and homophiles

The Crunch

All this is basically a fight over underlying values - not about the place of a library (or even about 'censorship').

It also reveals that the gay agenda is about more than just equality and non-discrimination - it's also about claiming the public space in full.

In a broad sense of equality this might be true but narrower forms of equality are not necessarily more oppressive. If nothing else the public space (and public attention) are not unlimited so you can't give everyone an equal share.

For example the swinging community doesn't see itself represented in mainstream media (e.g. children's books - "Uncle Bob and Auntie Jane are coming over tonight. If you hear weird noises from our room go back to sleep") but I don't think they are discriminated against.

So, expect to see even more culture clashes in coming years as both the homophiles and homophobes feel threatened and that the other side is trying to be oppressive. As we have learnt from the US, culture wars are nasty and long drawn.
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