“Florida could shield white people from the ‘discomfort’ of the racist past.” So read a recent Associated Press headline for an article describing a new bill that would ban in-class lessons that cause students to “feel uncomfortable, guilty, anxious or in any other form of psychological distress due to of their race”.
This is where the problem lies. Everyone is suffering. Any person, any group, can and will, alas, pretend to feel emotional distress in order to remove “disturbing” books from public libraries or remove “upsetting” subjects from the public school curriculum.
Florida is just one of 36 states that have introduced legislation targeting discussions of race, racism, gender and US history (“Book ban efforts spread across the US,” Jan. 31 ). Informed by former President Donald Trump’s defunct “divisive concepts” executive order, 14 of those states have already passed the bills, which affect more than 17 million public school students.
Free speech advocate PEN America rightly calls this wave of legislation “educational gag orders.” Targeting alleged teaching of “critical race theory“, the laws are already having predictable chilling effects, with teachers avoiding vital discussions of systemic racism, gender and sexuality.
We shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives are weaponizing the rhetoric of discomfort that has gained traction among many liberals and social progressives over the past decade.
People on the left, especially those with a strong social justice orientation, have been more inclined to turn to censorship of all kinds in order to protect people with minority identities from content deemed harmful.
This overriding concern to protect people from harm is evident in the push for trigger warnings, which are now being used to allow students to opt out of classrooms that elicit “difficult emotional responses”. This can also be seen in the expansion of “sensitivity readers” in young adult literature, whose job it is to examine manuscripts for racial stereotyping and other “problematic” content; in the rise of bias response teams on campus, which are tasked with investigating and responding to complaints about “incidents of bias,” ranging from microaggressions to “avoiding or excluding others”; and in the tendency to censor art considered offensive to certain groups.
Consider the San Francisco School Board’s decision (overturned by a judge, thankfully) to paint over the mural of Washington’s life at George Washington High School in San Francisco. With a panel prominently depicting a dead Native American, the artwork is said to “traumatize students and community members.”
Like campus speech codes and “hate speech” legislation, which aim to prevent harm to vulnerable populations, justification for discomfort is a boomerang that quickly returns to hurt people. very ones it is meant to protect. As former ACLU President Nadine Strossen explains, “hate speech” laws “inevitably weaken marginalized individuals and groups.”
In France, for example, a hate speech law designed to combat anti-Semitism has been invoked repeatedly to punish speech critical of the Israeli government. In 2015, Russian bookstores stopped selling copies of “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s searing Holocaust graphic novel, to enforce a law banning Nazi propaganda. Why? The cover of the book features a swastika.
In the United States, it is the most “diverse” books (texts featuring people of color, LGBTQ characters and themes as well as cultural and religious minorities) that are most often challenged following ad hoc complaints and concerted campaigns.
Ten years ago, a proud Polish American wrote to the Pasadena Public Library, asking them to remove “Maus” because his depiction of Poles made him “uncomfortable.” Last week in Tennessee, the McMinn County School Board voted unanimously to remove it from the school curriculum. Due to its “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide”, the board concluded that the book was “too adult-oriented” for eighth graders. As The New York Times reported, “Mr. Spiegelman said he felt the board members were asking, ‘Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?'”
To challenge the conservative assault on teaching and reading about sensitive topics, we should categorically reject the logic and rhetoric of “discomfort” when it comes to public education and public libraries. It is an escape route that will be cynically exploited by bad actors for ideological purposes.
Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” has been repeatedly challenged for its graphic sexual content and violence. But as Professor Emily Knox of the University of Illinois explains, what people find truly objectionable about the book is its “unsanitized look at the horrors of slavery.”
Applying a litmus test of “discomfort” to what we read and teach is fundamentally at odds with intellectual freedom, which the American Library Association defines as “the right of every individual to seek and receive information from all view without restriction”. If reading doesn’t evoke powerful emotions, including sadness, disgust, and terror, why do we even bother to read?
Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Educational Studies at Carleton College in Northfield.