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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Banned books: The unhealthy relationship between censorship and literature

When words are restrained and pens are allowed to scribble only in praise of ‘Big Brother’, how long can ideas survive?

Whether it is the Records Department spitting out fiction in Oceania, the Afsana Department in Yoknapotawaha ‘creating’ stories in less than three minutes, or Guy Montag burning piles of books every single night, dystopia had had a connection with words, books, and literature.

Why this fixation with books in a disoriented world?

Why does Ingsoc keep shrinking the Newspeak dictionary? Why does Alex rip the copy of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ apart without even caring to give its contents a ‘malenky’ glance? Why does the mere possession of a book become the cause of a death sentence in Bradbury’s world? It won’t be wrong to say that the political and social atmosphere had a deep impact on the thoughts of many creative geniuses, resulting in the enrichment of the twentieth-century dystopian literature.

Fascist regimes and two great wars, followed by the cold-war period and the power politics in every region, left a significant mark on fiction. However, the worlds most of the writers created were even more dangerous than the one they were living in. Ironically, a majority of the books criticizing the status quo themselves got banned.

Authorities always found one way or the other, from the use of ‘offensive language’ to ‘lack of patriotism’ and from ‘blasphemy’ to ‘obscenity’, to restrict the distribution of books. The causes could always be twisted to meet the needs of those in power. Whatever the reason for the bans, one thing is for sure that even the mighty emperors with invincible armies were afraid of mere words.

Read More: 75% of Pakistanis don’t read books: Gallup survey

The relationship between censorship and literature 

The (unhealthy) relationship between censorship and literature goes way back in time. When Hitler burned over 25,000 books for being ‘unGerman’, he was, by no means, the first to wage war on words.

Under the Qin dynasty (3rd Century BC), hundreds of Confucian scholars were buried alive, and numerous historical records were destroyed, so as to wipe the slate of history ‘clean’ – only the wipes were soaked in the blood of ideas. Looking back at such instances, one is bound to think that Darwin, Voltaire, Hugo, and Twain were among the lucky ones: they got to live and their books survived.

The strategy to attain and exercise power by silencing ‘disagreeable’ voices was not just restricted to fascist regimes. The practice has been used, and abused, by democracies, monarchies, and autocracies alike.

The US-South acted quickly to ban ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’; Zamyatin’s ‘We’ was published in its original language (Russian) half a century after the author’s death; Manto was persecuted both under the British rule and in the independent state of Pakistan; and Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ got banned in the UAE in the twenty-first century.

This book-banning ritual has little to do with the form of the government as compared to the stakes and narratives of those in power.

Read More: Islam is not threatened by TikTok and books, Fawad Chaudhry

Implications of governments banning books 

When a government bans a book, it is not just banning words, it is banning an idea – an idea that can engender change, massive change. More importantly, it is a collection of such ideas which then forces the people to think and to ask questions. The very fear of the truth being ‘ugly’ or ‘not favorable’ for the ones calling the shots, leads to censorship.

In the words of Zahid Hussain (writing for Dawn), these bans are ‘a manifestation of a culture that is afraid to face the truth’.

How afraid are we to face the truth, or the questions raised about ‘our’ truth?

The answer is evident from the current book-banning spree in Pakistan, where fiction, nonfiction, and even textbooks have borne the brunt alike. When Maktaba-e-Danyal was raided and the Urdu translations of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ were confiscated by some ‘Intelligence Personnel’, that was just the beginning. Next came the ban on Hazleton’s two bestsellers for allegedly containing ‘blasphemous’ content, followed by dozens of textbooks banned for a variety of reasons.

And quite recently, a collection of columns by Sohail Warraich vanished from the shelves because the authorities were offended by the cover – the cover that was a mere cartoon.

Read More: No more ‘Nazi propaganda’ books on Amazon

In the current state of affairs with muffled voices and chained ideas, how can there be any discord in thoughts? The very same discord that, according to Harari, compels us to ‘think, re-evaluate, and criticize’. The absence of this freedom, the freedom to be able to disagree, leads to consistency, and consistency ‘is the playground of dull minds’. It is this rigged game with no concept of a level playing field that the people in power love to exploit.

When words are restrained and pens are allowed to scribble only in praise of ‘Big Brother’, how long can ideas survive? Sometimes, I fail to draw a line between reality and dystopias.

Khawar Latif Khan is a Fulbright Scholar and a Communications Specialist with a graduate degree in Technical and Professional Communication. He has previously worked as a Sub-Editor at Global Village Space. He tweets at @khawarlatifkhan. The views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.