Michael Matteo: Banning fiction vs censoring falsehoods

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the banning of books and the charge by liberals that the banning of classic novels is the same as banning politically driven, factually inaccurate historical perspectives that are prevalent in critical race theory and the 1619 Project.  Those who take this position evidently don’t know the difference between facts and fiction.  One meme I saw stated, “You can’t ban books and yell about cancel culture.”  However, there is a huge difference between banning something that is a story because someone finds it offensive vs teaching students historical lies to promote a political schema.

A perfect example of the difference between novels that stimulate students to think or understand the literature of a time period vs teaching bad history is the case supporters make with their insistence of teaching the 1619 Project.  The 1619 Project is a series of essays that were published by the New York Times, which makes untrue claims about the founding of America.  It attempts to revise facts to support the narrative that America is systemically racist.  It is an exercise in errors of omission and attempts to pass off opinions of the authors as factual evidence.

The 1619 Project has been exposed by notable historians that include James McPherson, Gordon Wood, James Oakes and Lincoln Richard Carwardine.  Each of them specialize in the history of the Revolutionary and Civil War periods. They wrote a letter to the New York Time and demanded “prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in the 1619 Project.”  Yet, the response of Times editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, was that, “Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices.” In other words, the discovery of facts that were identified as blatantly false by experts would not be corrected and revisionist history is alive and well.  This is the equivalent of a scientist being told that people only use 10% of their brains, which has been refuted by numerous psychological experiments, and yet the scientists continue to present this fallacy as fact.

Some of the errors in the 1619 Project included the following: Abraham Lincoln was a major supporter of slavery by taking two brief quotes out of context, while ignoring numerous writings and speeches made by Lincoln that are quite the contrary.  The 1619 Project makes the ridiculous claim that the reason why the colonists declared their independence from Britain was due to their desire to preserve slavery, yet this is not supported by any historical records.

Another example of a fallacy-ridden book that has been used to teach a biased and false historical narrative includes Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States, which is an anti-American misreading of history that teaches the most important founding principle of the United States is racism. It is .a book that is filled with Zinn’s twisted views of American history, but contains not one single source citation, demonstrating that everything in the book is his opinion and not founded in fact. Historians have pointed out numerous flaws and factual inconsistencies in Zinn’s Marxist portrayal of American history for years, yet this book has been in history classrooms since the 1980’s.  In essence, this book is not a history book, it is a book of subjective ideas (Zinn even admitted this in the 1995 edition) and should not be taught as if it is historically accurate.

Those who equate book banning with censorship fail to understand that disingenuousness does not protect freedom.  A person cannot slander someone and hide behind a free speech defense.  Lying invalidates any argument that would legitimize a person’s argument, so why should lying be acceptable in the teaching of history. Yet, is it my contention that even materials that are untruthful can be used in the classroom.  Conversely, it should be counterbalanced with opposing views.  Teachers who insist on teaching critical race theory or the 1619 Project being taught in the classroom, should be provided with contradictory materials and allow students to develop critical thinking skills by determining facts from fiction.  Providing students with quotes from the Communist Manifesto and Wealth of Nations and having them compare, contrast and analyze them could be an excellent opportunity to allow students to think critically about economic systems.  The problem with this approach is that so many teachers are so biased, they would be incapable of conducting a fair debate of opposing views.  Therein lies the dilemma, which can only be corrected by training new educators and forcing old ones to use objective standards in the presentation of lessons.

Those who are vocal about the banning of books have been curiously silent when the topic of college speech codes have been imposed in universities all over America.  This is the true hypocrisy.  Speech doesn’t have to be pleasing, and unpleasing speech can serve the purpose of identifying views that we can argue, debate or disagree with. Censorship is a convenient, cosmetic fix to a much deeper problem since it may stifle the outward flow of an idea, but it doesn’t change what is on the minds of those who have been censored.

Banning books because of a word, as in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, is myopic.  This acclaimed novel is an opportunity to teach students about injustice and racism, and so are many other works of fiction that stimulate thinking, which is the primary purpose of education.  Banning books because someone finds something offensive denies others the opportunity to learn, which is the reason why ridding the world of something based upon the highly subjective nature of “I’m offended” is a terrible measuring stick on what is or is not acceptable, especially in a classroom.

Another issue that looms over the banning of books is whether the content of a piece of fiction is suitable for an age group.  This is a real concern, and it is not banning; it is making a determination of whether the intended audience should be exposed to certain content.  Is it appropriate to provide elementary school students with sexually suggestive material when they don’t understand anything about sex?  There is a maturity factor involved here, and providing young students with materials about subjects that they don’t understand due to their age could be intellectually and emotionally damaging to those students.

It is the height of irony when those who seek to cancel, censor or impose their moral compass on society suddenly become the champions against book banning.  As identity politics grows in its influence and authors are deemed good or bad, and their works are banned or embraced it is important to distinguish between fact and fiction and realize that it is one thing to stimulate thinking with vivid characters, specific language from a time period that may cause discomfort among present day readers, and innovative stories from the past, and quite another to promote the kind of misinformation, false narratives and fake news as a basis for learning about history because it suits someone’s political agenda.

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