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Monday, June 09, 2008


Banned books

Noodling around on the internet the other day, I discovered that one of my childhood favourite authors, Judy Blume, holds the status of one of the most banned authors in America. That's an odd kind of compliment, really, but it is a compliment if you've read her books: they raise issues that children really ought to think about, such as racism and sex, and deal with them intelligently. To take an example, Blubber is a book that covers bullying, but our narrator Jill is, in fact, one of the bullies. Not the ringleader, but an active lieutenant, who cheerfully believes the victim, Linda, 'deserves' her persecution - only to find herself under fire when she stands up to the class leader, and bullied by, among other people, her former victim. Jill's period of suffering is shorter than Linda's because she's more assertive and her tormentors eventually get bored, but there's no triumphant moral victory, just a broadening in the understanding of an unremarkable girl. Apparently the book is challenged for 'offensive language', by which I assume they mean an occasion when the class ringleader calls Jill's Chinese-American best friend a 'Chink'; now, Jill immediately yells 'Don't you dare call Tracy a Chink!', and we're clearly not supposed to approve of the word, but, looking back, I do think that was the first time I'd encountered the word as a child, so possibly censors are worried Blume might be teaching bad language. Frankly, that's a stupid idea: kids are going to encounter the bad words at some point, and for my part, encountering it first in a story where only the nastiest kid in school thinks it's okay to call someone that gave me a swift and thorough demonstration of why it was a word I didn't ever intend to say.

Similarly, Forever, the book that everyone passed around my class when I was about twelve - which is very likely how it was intended to be read - apparently remains a huge scandal, because it's frank about a sexual relationship between two seventeen-year-olds. Actually the book has a big invisible sign nailed to it that reads 'BE RESPONSIBLE!', because the plot details cover, as well as technical details about stuff like premature ejaculation and the non-inevitability of female orgasm, risk factors like STDs, unwanted pregnancy, infidelity and the effects of sexual pressure on, horror of horrors, boys as well as girls - one of the characters is an emotionally unstable and confused boy who, distressed at his girlfriend's continual attempts to coax him into a sexual normality he's not sure he's comfortable with, ends up making a suicide attempt. All in all, it's a guide to the pitfalls of sex as much as the pleasures - but, of course, it does present unmarried teenagers having sex as a perfectly normal event, and, well, you can imagine the consequences on an innocent mind.

Judy Blume deserves to be defended not just because censorship is a bad thing, but because she's an excellent writer. There's a reason why her books are so popular, and it's not just because she mentions masturbation. Her popularity made many adults in my day assume she was trashy, but kids are often more acute readers than adults, and Judy Blume is good. Her grasp of character is subtle and and acute, her ability to convey drama in small everyday details is striking, her insights are sharp, her dialogue is convincing and her views are humane. What she also is, as well as educational in the best sense, is a good start for kids who want to love literature. A tremendous proportion of children's fiction is fantasy fiction; magic and such is so common in them that you hardly notice it. But while many reading kids grow up to be fantasy readers, many more do not. Judy Blume, Jacqueline Wilson, Beverley Cleary, Anne Fine - all are, to a greater or less extent, 'issue' writers, but they're also mainstream books for kids. They're about everyday worries, and domestic frictions, and naturalistic crises, and social concerns - all the things that are the staple of mainstream adult books. Speaking from personal experience, I never had anything against books-with-magic when I was a kid, but Blume and Cleary meant a lot more to me than the more fantastical stories, and while I write fantastical stuff now, as a reader, my tastes still tend towards naturalistic drama. It's good to have access to books of that kind as a child: people's tastes begin quite early, and without writers like Blume and Cleary, I would have been missing out. These books are good for children artistically as well as socially; only one genre on the shelves is never good for anyone.

But the issue is wider than this. If you look at the list of the top 100 banned books in America, you'll notice something: an awful lot of them are really, really good. I'd actually call this list to the attention of anyone who has teenage kids or teaches English: it's got a lot of outstanding books on it. Mark Twain is on it. So is Toni Morrison. So is Margaret Atwood. So is Aldous Huxley. So is John Steinbeck. So is J.D. Salinger. So is Harper Lee. So is Maya Angelou. So is Isabelle Allende. So is William Golding. So is Kurt Vonnegut. These are authors that adults read and admire, never mind kids. There are a lot of teenage classics there too: S.E. Hinton, Lois Duncan, Lois Lowry, Paul Zindel. Anyone who makes it onto that list is in distinguished company; as a writer, it makes me wish more people were offended by my books, just so I could rub shoulders with so many people I admire. There are some horror stories there, plus a bunch of sex-ed books; my personal favourite juxtaposition is around the fifties:

52. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
53. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
54. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
55. Cujo by Stephen King
56. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
57. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell

Major literary/political classic; sado-masochistic porn; educational guide; mass-market horror; charming children's classic; bomb-makers' manual. And the children's classic gets more complaints than the bomb-making book. Amazing.

What strikes me about this is that a lot of the books complained about have very little morally wrong with them. James and the Giant Peach, for instance, the only objection I can imagine is that James's horrible abusive aunts get accidentally squashed by the peach and nobody is sorry - that is, obedience and respect for your elders are not considered necessary if those elders are mean to you. It takes a profoundly authoritarian way of thinking to consider that idea one that children should be kept from. But book-banning is always authoritarian; that's what so bad about it. The idea that people should not be free to consider the world for themselves and make up their own minds, that they can't be trusted with that responsibility, is a terribly dangerous one.

Even so, the moral lessons of the books are often such that it's hard to see what the objection is. Hinton suggests that violence is bad. Duncan suggests that irresponsible malice leads to tragedy. Lowry suggests that secure conformity backed up with brutality is not worth having. Zindel suggests that you shouldn't manipulate people for fun. These authors depict kids who are cannot rely on authority for everything, who are free to make bad decisions and often do so. They suffer for it, they regret it, but they were free to do it in the first place. It seems like the complainers feel the idea that it's possible to do such things completely trumps the idea that it's wrong to do them. By this logic, kidnapping your teacher (Duncan) or lying your way into an old man's affections (Zindel) shouldn't just be bad, it should be inconceivable. Even countenancing the idea that real people might ever do such things is too close to an endorsement.

I wonder if the idea of Biblical inerrancy has something to do with it. A fundamentalist Christian - and I'm fairly sure that a big proportion of the complaints come from that direction - is, after all, someone who has an intense belief in the power of the written word. The Bible is infallible, the ultimate guide to everything in this life and the next, and you disobey it at your peril. That's attributing a lot of power to a book. And from there, it's perhaps easier to attribute tremendous power to books in general. If the Bible is infallibly true, then perhaps every book is making an equal claim to truth: if J.K. Rowling depicts wizards, it must be because she wants people to believe there really are wizards, rather than because she's asking them to suspend disbelief.

But it's even more than that, I think: a truly authoritarian Christian seems to have difficulty with the idea that, unlike the Bible, most books aren't primarily didactic. If an author is writing a story, it must be a parable - and not just a parable that the reader can consider and reject if it doesn't ring true, but a parable the author demands that they accept.

This, I think, is why so many Christian knickers are in a twist about Rowling. I used to assume that they thought, rather naively, that she was advocating black magic, and if they grasped that she was actually writing an epic of good versus evil that happened to be ecumenical in its religion, they might calm down. But actually, I now think that's the whole point. Rowling's good-versus-evil struggle is more threatening to a fundamentalist than a simple depiction of Sin. She's positing a world in which a struggle between good and evil can take place without reference to Christianity - and that's a massive, profound challenge to the fundamentalist worldview. A fundamentalist believes that only Christians can be goodies and tackle evil; Rowling invents a world in which not-particularly-Christian goodies tackle evil. To a fundamentalist, she's demanding that you give up the idea that you have to be a Christian to be good. There's a tremendous spiritual greed in such objections - basically, if you're not Us then you're not entitled to any moral claims at all, and anybody who says otherwise is evil - but it does explain why a book that portrays anything an authoritarian Christian dislikes sympathetically is such a big deal. Identifying writing and preaching as identical, and utterly opposed to their children hearing the preaching of other faiths, fundamentalists have to kick off about every book that presents a convincing and sympathetic depiction of human behaviour.

Hence, the banned-books list is a particularly good guide to anyone looking for challenging and well-written material. Odds are, if it's convincing enough to get a complaint, it's probably good, and if it offends authoritarians, it's probably got something sensible to say. Obviously not every protested book is a classic; the Goosebumps series gets a lot of complaints as well, and those are competent but undemanding spook stories rather than great works of literature - but it's notable what a lot of good stuff raises a fuss, and I, for one, feel motivated to check out some of the titles on that list that I haven't read, because I bet they're good. If we're Thinking Of The Children, obviously there's no need to forsake common sense; Anne Rice's erotica and the Anarchist Cookbook should not be on the same shelf as Roald Dahl, and if a librarian refused to check them out to a six-year-old, I doubt anybody reasonable would object. But to insist that such books shouldn't be available at all is not just Thinking Of The Children: it's demanding that adults can't read them either; it's asking that your library, which is supposed to be a cross-section of available literature, joins you in pretending that they don't exist at all. And that's a fantasy you've no business getting didactic about.

One of the things that interests me about lists of books that have gotten banned is that I never had any trouble getting my hands on them, at the appropriate age, which is a pretty ineffective sort of banning, to my mind.

I am curious to know how effective this banning is. Is it individual cities' or states' Boards of Education doing it, and does it stop kids from getting the same book in the public library, or from the store? (My experience of school libraries is that they were rarely open and rarely updated, due to the fact that I attended small religious private schools with little funding, so we were instructed to head on down the the main branch of the public library. There was a separate card for under-12s, if I recall correctly. But I'm aware that in some towns, public librarians get put under some pressure.)

I'm just wondering "aloud" here, not expecting you to do my research for me. :-D

What sorts of books have been on Banned lists in Britain? And what criteria drive this? (I wouldn't use "list" in the singular -- certainly there's never been one nationwide list for the U.S.)
@anthrophile, I don't know where you live, but in the United States, most book banning takes place in the "bible belt" southern states. It's a whole 'nother world down there, with fundamentalist beliefs getting in the way of civic life. In many ways it is as scary as the taliban.

Most book banning is local, done by a school district (parents pressure the school board, who are elected people) or a library. Rarely is it even town-wide, much less country-wide.

Because of that, it is pretty easy for someone to get their hands on a "banned" book. It might be banned from the school and local library, but freely available in the bookstores.
@Margaret Yang -- do you find that there are some situations where a kid would only have access to a school library? Okay, sorry, obviously there have got to be some situations where this is so, but is it really prevalent?

Or where a kid has access to a bookstore, but wouldn't read the banned book due to peer pressure? (Actually, I can see that happening pretty easily, never mind location.)

I'm from NYC and have absorbed, via location, a terrible phobia of everything below the Mason-Dixon line, which I'm trying to curb. We make a lot of wrong assumptions and generalizations up here. :-D (But I do have some friends who've told me some pretty scary anecdotes. But then, I have some of my own scary anecdotes.)

When I was a kid, we read Judy Blume and her ilk as a sort of group project -- we'd all be reading a paricular book at the same time or passing it around, but we never did it secretly. The concept of book-banning was always very esoteric to me. (Okay, so we didn't actually advertise that we'd gotten our hands on "Wifey" at age 11. But we did get our hands on it.)

In high school I remember the kids suggesting some books for class study and the teacher sort of shushing us ("Weeeeeeelll, no, we probably can't do that one") but not taking it away or advising us not to read it.

I did see some books confiscated as summer camp, though. Ha ha -- but as a nine-year-old I was mostly offended by the financial aspect of it. "They should pay her back her four dollars!!"
"at" summer camp. (I've gotten much too spoiled by the edit feature on my LJ, I tell ya.)
One of the reasons for outcry against Harry Potter/J. K. Rowling in the US is fairly similar to that against James and the Giant Peach. The idea that one must always "honor one's father and mother" no matter what - and, by extension, one's guardians, elders, and/or other authority figures - is skewered by Harry's relationship with the Dursleys. They mistreat him, they are indubitably in the wrong - yet a certain kind of Fundamentalist sees Harry's disrespect for them as a threateningly bad influence on their own kids. When Harry says of the Dursleys, "I don't think anyone could live with them without hating them," or when Harry lies to adults in order to protect his wrongly convicted godfather, Fundamentalist readers see a clear and present danger of attack on their traditional family values. Kids that disobey, hate, or lie to their parents/guardians/teachers! Why, it'll be witchcraft and homosexuality next! (Wait...)
(by the way, your "Macho Sue" analyses are being discussed over at Making Light, whose regulars are loving it. You should visit. :-)
Praline (this is Cactus Wren from Slacktivist), I appreciated the point that "a truly authoritarian Christian seems to have difficulty with the idea that, unlike the Bible, most books aren't primarily didactic." There's a prevalent notion among the would-be censors that if a book mentions X, it's necessarily teaching X: witness the notion that Professor Snape's line, "I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death" is intended to indoctrinate children about the pleasures of using illegal drugs.

There's also Lois Lowry's novel, "The Giver"; at one point in this book the young hero, Jonas, learns that his father -- a professional care-giver for newborn children -- regularly, as a part of his everyday duties, gives defective or undersized newborns lethal injections. This is possibly the most distressing scene in the book, where Jonas watches a video of his father euthanizing a newborn whose only "defect" is that it's the smaller of twins; Jonas is horrified, and the reader is meant to be just as horrified. But some would-be censors' interpretation of this scene, "How horrible! This book is teaching Our Children that it's good and important to kill babies!"
Ooh! Do you have a link to the Making Light thread? :-)

Yes, it's the denial of context that's so odd about the censorship attitude. That's why I wondered whether it might relate to an excessive reliance on the Bible for literal truths: if you believe that anybody in the Bible doing anything counts as scriptural precedent, and hence if a Biblical character did it, so should you, then that attitude might cut-and-paste over onto fiction: if Harry Potter does it, you must be supposed to do it as well (even if Harry Potter later concludes that he shouldn't have).

It's odd, though, because if you applied that logic, you could apply it to Christian polemics as well. The authors of Left Behind are encouraging adulterous thoughts! Jack Chick is encouraging - well, pretty much every sin he can think of! It's-teaching-our-children-to-sin doesn't seem to apply there, even though it's just as logical as applying it to the euthanasia scene in The Giver.

I suspect the real problem is that the books aren't written by People Like Us, but by authors who are a bit more prepared to be forgiving of human foibles. And that can be powerful.

Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians cites a study in which a teacher 'comes out' to homophobic authoritarian students (Altemeyer tried it - he was actually heterosexual and married, but the students didn't know that), and then later tests how their attitudes changed. Generally, their opinions of him have dropped a little, but their attitudes towards gay people in general have improved - because knowing a perfectly nice, normal-seeming person who does something you've always been told is the sole province of monstrous freaks can, if not change your ideas, at least loosen them up a little.

Which is one of the things that fiction does best. Seeing behaviour from inside characters' heads enlarges our sympathies: you may not approve of everything Lois Duncan's protagonists do, but you can see how they get there. If your attitude is 'We need to condemn a little more, and understand a little less' (thank you, John Major), then an insightful work of fiction is the last thing you want your kids to read.

Trouble is, the devil has all the best tunes. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan points out that the standard of short stories in women's magazines had dropped sharply since the happy housewife became the icon of feminity, and comments:

Perhaps the new image ofwoman did not permit the internal honesty, the depth of perception, and the human truth essential to good fiction.

The idea that everyone who isn't exactly like you is bad is just nonsense, and there's a limit to how good a story you can write from a nonsensical starting point. It's building a house on sand. The authors who write from a solid foundation of human sympathy and open-mindedness are far more likely to write exciting and memorable stories. As long as kids have access to everything, the poor censors are fighting something of a losing battle: the didactic stuff they have to offer is simply not as good as the more compassionate stuff. That's why they have to remove them from the libraries outright if they want to stop kids getting their eager little hands on them: given the choice, kids will read the better stories.

One can only hope that the libraries are putting up a decent fight.
You're spot on about the authoritarian concerns. I read an account of a survey years ago that found that next to sex, the number one objection to books in school (whether taught or in the library) was that they showed kids making decisions independently of parents, solving problems on their own or (gasp!) parents being outright wrong.

But with Harry, it is most definitely the magic that's the issue (though the independent kids would probably bug some book banners too). Pretty much anything involving the supernatural is seen as coming between kids/people and God: Either it's "teaching" them magic (and some silly people do seem to think that Rowling's book is a reliable text on this point) or it's making them curious, but either way, it's making them think about the devil's stuff (Dark Shadows got a lot of this back in the day, too).

Similarly, the high school one county over had to cancel a student production of Blithe Spirit on the grounds it's a)anti-Christian and pro-magic (since the ghost is raised by a ouija board) b)anti traditional marriage; c)therefore a tool of Satan to corrupt innocent kids (no, that's not an interpretation, that's what some pastors said). Plus being full of darkness and despair.

Why yes, I do live in the Bible belt, how could you tell?
Lots of kids don't have ready access to public libraries, which often don't have that many open hours and which require a parent to drive them to. These are the kids who are unlikely to be able to afford new books either. "Freely available in a bookstore" is meaningless: the children for whom this is an issue won't know to look for banned books in general, even if they could afford to buy all the books their libraries didn't have.
There's a common theme I see running through, say, online reviews of quite a few children's and YA books that not only troubles but baffles me -- parents who don't want their kids (usually not tiny children, but 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds) "exposed" to the behaviors laid out in books written expressly for this age group. Would these parents prefer that the kid confronts these behaviors for the first time in real life with no experience or knowledge of how or when to defend themselves, or refuse, or run away?

There's a book I read recently called "The Edification of Sonya Crane," which was possibly the best book to ever come out of the "Kimani Tru" line just for sheer writing ability, let alone the originality of the subject matter -- a young working-class white girl transfers to an all-black school and finds acceptance and popularity in passing for half-black. (The author, J Guilford, is a gay black man who has written profoundly on issues of identity envy, passing, and adoption of culture.) She's the daughter of an unstable single mom who's boyfriend attempts to assault her -- this is integral characterization, illustrating the life she has and why she wants to reinvent herself (not to mention, she gets away, which is a nice lesson in itself). In recasting herself as a black teen, she finds a nationalist boyfriend, dreadlocks her hair, weaves an ever-deepening tissue of lies about her background, and out-zealots even her new best friend (a black girl who conceals her high grades, college acceptance, and middle class background) preaching and supporting complicated -- and erroneous -- facts about African history. Finally, after a few serious personal disasters, one of which is not resolved by the story's end, she comes to a realization about her motivations in this cultural appropriation.

In the negative reviews, this plot is reduced to "a celebration of pedophilia, oral sex, and the n-word." I wonder if the posters of these reviews think that their teenage children have not already come into contact with these things in the real world? Surely confronting the negative in fiction, where it can be digested and discussed and -- to an extent -- planned for, is better than being flung out into life unprepared.

The kerfluffle over the word "scrotum" in Susan Patron's "The Higher Power of Lucky" is an ever sillier example. What would these detractors prefer it to be called? (I know, I know, they would prefer to leave it totally unreferenced...)

If everyone is doing the right thing, there is no story.
Would these parents prefer that the kid confronts these behaviors for the first time in real life with no experience or knowledge of how or when to defend themselves, or refuse, or run away?

I think the idea is that if nobody talks about them, nobody will know that they're possible, and everyone will behave impeccably. Not true, of course, but this is an attitude that seems to have trouble telling reality from fiction anyway...
Well... I do know some churchfolk who feel that people should not read fiction, any fiction, at all. (Because it is not real and therefore lies?) It makes it all the more significant, I think, that a study or two in Toronto found that fiction readers score better on empathy and reading people.

Just because I have difficulty NOT going off on tangents -- what does it say, though, that by far most of these "banned" books seem to be the most enduring, or at least popular? Do people just inherently ban quality; does banning (and the resulting controversy) drive sales?

(By the way, "WHOSE boyfriend." *facepalm* I hate that mixup.)
what does it say, though, that by far most of these "banned" books seem to be the most enduring, or at least popular?

I'd guess that it's partly notoriety: nobody tries to ban a book they haven't heard of. Also, popularity makes a book look more like a threat. Christians are far more worked up about J.K. Rowling than Dianna Wynne Jones or Jill Murphy or any of the other authors who write about witches and wizards, because they're only very successful rather than phenomenally, literary-landscape-changingly so. Rowling's sales figures make her look like a massive cultural movement on the march: she has the weight of numbers behind her, and for people who think very much in terms of social grouping, that's scary.
I actually live in the Bible Belt. I have read Harry Potter and found the books distracting, a fast read, and pretty darn formulaic. And I have yet to sacrifice a goat to Satan or do anything worse than wave my pencil about and make a fool of myself with Rowling's doggy Latin in the privacy of my own home.

I think that's doing more than a lot of people who are advocating banning the books. I think they're utterly ignorant of the Harry Potter phenomenon aside from what's on the tube and hung up in posters and such. They don't read Harry Potter because they don't read. But their pastor has told them everything they need to know about Harry Potter, just as their parents' pastor told them everything they needed to know about the Beatles and, later, Dungeons & Dragons. A lot of people around here put much of their faith in their pastor, trusting him to be correct because the Holy Spirit is working through him (or so he claims). Who are you to doubt the pastor's word?

So the whole thing is just more snake oil. The pastor tells you he's infallible, not directly, but by claiming a calling to minister from the Big G Himself. That sets up a big network of social pressure that is brought to bear on the congregant. If the pastor tells you that Judy Blume is an Awful Woman, then she must be.

I hope I'm making myself clear. This is a more complex issue than I thought it was when I began this post.

There are also issues with the stigma of being a reader. Reading is what they want you to do in school. Reading is what nerds do. I have encountered at least one person who was fiercely proud of his non-reader status and was obviously scornful of my own reading habits.
I suppose, too, if you're looking for a big enemy to bang the drum about, which seems to be a major part of such traditions, books are a pretty safe target. Authors are single individuals, and publishers don't sue because they believe in free speech and because the right to give a book a bad recommendation is the underpinning of the whole reviews system. If you declare that nobody should read this or that book, you can claim there's a tremendous danger in the air, but you're not actually endangering yourself.

You get the satisfaction of fighting a war, without the inconvenience of an aggressive enemy. Which, from the outside, seems to be something that many Christian fundamentalists are fond of: the appearance of courage and heroism without actually risking themselves. All you have to do is declare yourself under attack by the fact of other people living differently from you - even when they're not trying to make you live like them - and you're fighting a war that can never cost you any casualties. (You can claim people who stopped going to your church as casualties as well, rather than having to acknowledge that they lost faith in you, which is an added bonus.)

Aggressive cowardice tends to lead to making other people pay the price, though, as witness the current fondness for wars overseas. Please vote Democrat, everyone!
Because it is not real and therefore lies?

I believe that's the same view the Puritans of England had of stage-actors.
“The fiction writer is paid for his day-dreaming. But as far as the effect on the reade ris concerned, it makes little difference whether the day-dream is one’s own, or whether it has been written down by somene else. Day-dreaming, whether original or second-hand, has the effect of taking a person away from the real world in which he lives. It causes him to live in a world of make-believe. This is the principal reason why the reading of fiction is not desirable.”—”On Being a Woman,” 1951.

More fascinating excerpts from this book (did you know that women who masturbate will lose bodily strength and cripple their immune system?) at blinkytreefrog's livejournal blog.
(Amaryllis on Slacktivist)
Hi Kit! I lurk on your blog occasionally, and just noticed this one. Interesting post.

One can only hope that the libraries are putting up a decent fight.
They are. That's a list of Challenged books, not Banned books. The ALA site confirms my impression that most of the challenges are unsuccessful. Of course, even one successful banning is deplorable, and these challenges need to be strenuously opposed so they go on being unsuccessful. As J.K Rowling would say in the person of Professor Moody: "CONSTANT VIGILANCE!"

I live in a pretty liberal area of the US, where this kind of thing isn't much of an issue. In the rare event that someone tries to ban a book from the public schools or libraries, the general reaction is, "You've got to be kidding."

(Also, to confirm that "one man's meat is another man's poison," I notice that several of the challenged books had appeared on required or recommended reading lists at my daughter's schools. I didn't think it was possible to graduate from an American middle or high school without having read To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance. And if Where's Waldo is the picture book I'm thinking of, all I can say is, Huh?)

Which is one of the things that fiction does best. Seeing behaviour from inside characters' heads enlarges our sympathies

Exactly. In my own childhood and adolescence, I wasn't particularly fond of the YA problem novel. I read lots of fantasy and historical fiction, just to imagine lives far different from my own. Eventually, of course, I realized that everybody's lives were different.

magnet5: I remember reading in Gillian Gill's biography of Florence Nightingale that she regarded daydreaming (possibly erotic daydreaming, speculates the author) as her besetting, life-long sin. And no one could say that she has no real-world effectiveness! But apparently she was ashamed of herself anyway.
Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians cites a study in which a teacher 'comes out' to homophobic authoritarian students (Altemeyer tried it - he was actually heterosexual and married, but the students didn't know that), and then later tests how their attitudes changed. Generally, their opinions of him have dropped a little, but their attitudes towards gay people in general have improved - because knowing a perfectly nice, normal-seeming person who does something you've always been told is the sole province of monstrous freaks can, if not change your ideas, at least loosen them up a little.

I'm just curious, Ms. Whitfield, have you ever even met a "fundamentalist Christian" of the kind you regularly excoriate? Altemeyer, by the way, is pseudo-scientific rubbish as is, sadly, a great deal of psychology.

Just for the record, I'm an atheist myself.
Sorry to return to this thread so late!

1) Another actual Fundamentalist Christian reaction to Harry Potter (why yes, andrew stevens, I have indeed met real people who fit the description, although I'm not Ms. Witfield and thus not the person you asked the question of) that totally made my jaw drop: The Fundie quoted Voldemort talking about how drinking unicorns' blood had given him extra health points or whatever--therefore the book was promoting the killing of innocent creatures!

So once again the context is being omitted, resulting in the mistake of tasking the author for promoting the antagonist's agenda.

(I will not go into the absurdity of the conflicting issues the Fundie has about magic, to damn magic but defend magical creatures, etc.)

2) Since I'm so late seeing your question, I'm not sure how useful a link will be, but here's the thread.

3) Request! Can you enable your comments page to show date of post, not just time? I have no idea quite how outdated I am here, but I do know that andrew stevens posted at 11:07 PM. On some evening or other.
Even later addendum:

Quoth andrew stevens, Altemeyer, by the way, is pseudo-scientific rubbish as is, sadly, a great deal of psychology.

Quoth Orcinus: The bulk of [John Dean's] Conservatives Without Conscience is based on the research of Dr. Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, a social psychologist specializing in the psychology of authoritarianism. Altemeyer received the prestigious Association for the Advancement of Science prize for behavioral sciences for this research, and it is widely accepted in academia (though, as you might imagine, not so much among conservatives!).

It sounds like a large bulk of the academic and scientific community is in disagreement with this-here andrew stevens as regards Altemeyer.
Patrick Heaven in 1984 did a general population survey to find what peer-rated behaviors the RWA scale significantly predicted. It predicted submissiveness (r=.22) and authoritarianism (r=.20), but with very low levels of correlation. It much more significantly predicted conservatism (r=.51). So what Altemeyer was studying appears to be largely just some form of conservatism (though note that the r for conservatism isn't very high either). Oddly, though, it is a very strange type of conservatism. Altemeyer himself tells us on p. 239 of Enemies of Freedom that "Right-wing authoritarians show little preference in general for any political party." So the conservatism Dr. Altemeyer was studying doesn't even correlate with voting for the more conservative party. Moreover, RWA types in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe showed that high RWA scores were correlated with support for Communism. So this "personality type" he's studying is non-political in America, but Communist in Communist countries. Very strange for a "right-wing" scale.

Having failed to show that high RWAs are more likely to vote Republican, he then tries to show that Republican lawmakers are likely to be high RWAs. In Chapter 6 of The Authoritarians, he gives the results of his mailing out his survey to thousands of legislators and tabulating the results. Since most legislators didn't respond at all, you'd think this would cause his results to be far too subject to self-selection bias to be meaningful. You'd be right and Altemeyer acknowledges this, but then decides to draw conclusions anyway and bizarrely claims that the results are probably even more pronounced had he been able to do a genuinely valid study. (He presents no evidence for this assertion.) It turns out that the Republican legislators who answered did score higher than the Democratic legislators (hardly surprisingly since the test certainly does seem to test for "traditional values" as well as authoritarianism), though everyone was apparently below 140 and it seems pretty clear that none of them are actually "high RWAs."

Altemeyer then gives his bias away with the following quote: "evidence was piling up that the Republicans had stolen the 2004 presidential election through voter fraud and dirty tricks in Ohio." I myself voted for Kerry in 2004. Only cranks believe that Ohio was stolen by Republicans in 2004.

On the general research, there is significant evidence from studies done by Ray and Lovejoy that there is no such thing as a consistent or overall attitude to authority, for the obvious reason that people are discriminating about what authority they will accept, so the entire issue seems to be a non-starter.

It is true, of course, that Enemies of Freedom won the prize you mention. It's impossible for me to say how well accepted Altemeyer's work is since not very many people do research in that particular field. I have no idea how widely cited he is and I doubt Orcinus does either. As near as I can tell, Altemeyer isn't so much accepted as ignored except for those who wish to push their own ideological agenda, which unfortunately includes a lot of academics.

There is one good thing that can be said about Altemeyer's scale. He did seem to do a good job of showing that his test was reliable. It is about as reliable as the better IQ tests, so it's clearly measuring something. What he does not actually show is that his test is valid, that it is actually measuring what he claims it is measuring. To the extent that he was trying to show that authoritarians in American politics tend to be Republicans, he was a clear failure by his own admission. Altemeyer is very candid about his own confusion about what he's measuring in a footnote which appears in Chapter 1 of The Authoritarians. He writes, "When writing for a general audience, I bandy about terms such as 'conservative' and 'right-wing' with the same exquisite freedom that journalists, columnists and politicians do. It's actually very hard to define these phrases rigorously, partly because they have been used over the ages to describe such very different people and movements. But we're all friends here, so let's pretend I know what I am talking about when I use those words."
This sort of thing continues to be a problem: recently a teacher was suspended for teaching a book because a member of the local schoolboard objected to the swearing...


And I can't speak for Ms Whitfield, but I know that I have certainly met fundamentalist Christians of exactly the type she excoriates. (Which is not to say that I haven't met a few authoritarian atheists in my time as well...)

Have you looked at Slacktivist, Andrew? Fred Clark, the blogger there, dissects the "Left Behind" books and repeatedly points out what seem to me (at any rate) to be literary examples of authoritarian thinking...
Have you looked at Slacktivist, Andrew? Fred Clark, the blogger there, dissects the "Left Behind" books and repeatedly points out what seem to me (at any rate) to be literary examples of authoritarian thinking...

I haven't read the blog nor have I read the Left Behind series. The best selling book in that series sold 3 million copies. Now, that's a pretty high selling book, but ten times as many people watch American Idol. I have no doubts that the Left Behind series are terrible books.

In any event, the biggest problem to me is what crucial difference exists between those on the right who wish to dominate the political process and those on the left who wish to dominate the political process. Bob Altemeyer is every bit as "authoritarian" as the people he's criticizing. He wants to crush these people and he makes no real bones about it. Indeed, he's gone to a great deal of trouble to try to demonstrate that their political beliefs constitute a pathology and, presumably, we should lock them all up for the good of society. Those of us with a genuine, rather than feigned, distrust of authoritarianism find the authoritarianism of a Dr. Altemeyer at least as disturbing as that of his opponents. Perhaps Dr. Altemeyer will one day realize that he's looking into a mirror, though I doubt it.

I live and work among a great many evangelicals. They are, in general, lovely people, devoted to charity and good works. They have opinions about, for example, homosexuality that I find distasteful, but even there they adopt the view of "hate the sin, but love the sinner" and I have never met one who was anything less than polite to an uncloseted homosexual, though they can say truly offensive things about homosexuals as a group. (No more offensive than what many people on the left say about businessmen and businesswomen as a group, though.)

Forgive my preaching, though. Since you acknowledge the existence of authoritarian atheists (Richard Dawkins anyone?), I presume that we probably don't disagree on much. Evangelical Christians may be the most unpopular minority in America today (well, perhaps second to smokers) and, to a very real extent, I am probably more concerned about the authoritarianism of their opponents, especially after reading the disturbing lengths to which opponents like Dr. Altemeyer will go to convince us that they are "sick."
1. Yes I've met fundamentalists. Don't assume ignorance on my part just because you don't like what I'm saying.

2. Bob Altemeyer is every bit as "authoritarian" as the people he's criticizing

'I'm rubber, you're glue' is not an argument I have any patience with. The word is very precisely defined in his book, and it does NOT mean 'holding a strong opinion'. It means a tendency to submit to authority, not to assert your own beliefs.

3. So this "personality type" he's studying is non-political in America, but Communist in Communist countries. Very strange for a "right-wing" scale.

Altemeyer clearly states that 'I'm using the word "right" in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English "riht" (pronounced "writ") as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said' (p9). Hence, it's not a political term; RWAs tend to be on the right in America, the left in Communist countries, but the word 'right' as he uses it is NOT a reference to social policies.

4. He wants to crush these people and he makes no real bones about it.

This is so far from correct that it baffles me; either you haven't read the book properly, haven't understood it, or you're lying on purpose, and I honestly don't know which. He makes no bones about not wanting authoritarians of ANY political stripe to dominate the arena, but that's far from demanding their destruction. If you read the final chapter, his suggestions tend towards joining them in community projects and holding ecumenical services together. Read p 244: 'Don't use violence as a tool to advance your cause' is his explicit advice. Altemeyer smash!

5. Indeed, he's gone to a great deal of trouble to try to demonstrate that their political beliefs constitute a pathology and, presumably, we should lock them all up for the good of society.

Wrong. First, he's gone to trouble to demonstrate that it's a personality type, not a pathology. 'Pathology' implies mental illness; what he's talking about are people who are mentally well, but whose attitudes can have have negative political consequences no matter what their political stripe. But, as anyone who reads the book will observe, it's about how people relate to their political beliefs, not the beliefs themselves, that's the problem. And he never advocates violence or oppression of any kind. His suggestions, as I've said, tend towards befriending and gentle disagreement, not imprisonment.

Your implication is that Altemeyer is attacking conservative voters under the guise of psychological study to advance his own political beliefs. This is incorrect. He explicitly addresses his readers on p 247 as 'you, and other liberals, other moderates, other conservatives with conscience'. That covers pretty much the entire political spectrum. You cannot make a convincing case that his beef is with conservatism rather than with fanaticism. Altemeyer himself identifies as a political Independent.(p 196)

6. Talking about authoritarian fundamentalist Christians is not talking about ALL Christians, or even all evangelicals. I'm no enemy to Christians; I regularly post, for instance, on the blog Roger points out, Slacktivist, which is run by an evangelical Christian and an excellent man. I have Christian friends. I'm an agnostic myself. I'm not insulting your mates, I'm insisting that anyone who wants to ban books on religious grounds is entirely wrong on this particular issue, and I stand by that.

7. Don't charge in like the Light Brigade accusing me of ignorantly supporting violence and oppression. It's not true, it's aggressive, and it's rude. I'm always interested in hearing people's opinions, so there's no need to trump up enmity between us if you want to disagree, but I'm not interested in being insulted, nor am I obliged to put up with it. It you want to make a point, make it civilly.
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