Skepticism

Are ratings harmful?

This morning I read a short bit in the Denver post about a high school student in West Virginia who was going to sue his school for removing Pat Conroy’s books, Beach Music and The Prince of Tides from the library because the books contain “graphic depictions of violence, suicide and sexual assault.” In the end, it looks like the school decided to start using “advisory labels,” to warn students about books containing “violence, language, sexual content or adult situations.” (Language? Don’t all books include language?)

I’m really getting sick of all this self-righteous censorship BS. The world sucks and bad things happen to good people. High school students should know about this. They shouldn’t be protected from it. They should be prepared to live in this world that contains good and bad, love and hate, peace and war. It seems to me that rating movies, games, and now books, does nothing but help closed-minded people protect themselves from reading and viewing things they don’t agree with, things that distrube their cushy little fantasy worldview. What happened to reading widely to learn and expand our minds? It is not a virtue to crawl into a hole (even — no, especially — a religious one) and to pretend that these bad things don’t happen in the real world. These people should stop fighting against literature and start fighting against real violence and sexual abuse.

I think ratings are offensive and condescending. If parents are too lazy to help their children decide what to read (or what movies to see or what games to play), that’s not my problem. I don’t think high school student’s should have their reading censored at all, not even by their parents. It’s too late, anyway.

So, what do you think? Are ratings harmful? (Besides, if you were a hs student, wouldn’t you just make a beeline for the advisory section, knowing that’s where all the good books are hiding?)

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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30 Comments

  1. Ratings are as harmful as the implementation. If 'rating' means 'possibly not available', yes, it's bad. The fact that someone decides to use sex, abuse and violence in his books (descriptions thereof), does not mean I have to read it. The right for freedom of expression != the obligation to listen.

  2. Well, if all of these others books are labeled for "violence, language, sexual content or adult situations.", then shouldn't the bible have been the first book with such a label? The bible should be banned from schools if those are criteria to give a book a special label or ban it.

  3. I honestly don't think it's bad to put a rating on a book in a high school. As long as the book is still available to those who truly want to read it, there's no harm done.

    But it's also a service to those who want to shield their virgin eyes from naughty words and ideas. Let them. If all they read is the Bible and the Boxcar Children, then they can shut up and be happy. More time for me with the good books.

  4. Slippery slope? Depends. You can argue the, "where do you draw the line?" point by asking whether parents would like their school library stocking porn. I don't see a problem with putting a "rating" on publications provided it's just a guide. Like what the rater enjoyed about it, what courses it might be useful for, why people might *not* like it. Teach the controversy…?

  5. Swami, I think it's unhealthy to sheild yourself from the real world. I can't and don't want to FORCE people to read certain things, but I don't want to make it easier for them to avoid reality. Having "been there, done that" and having experienced the freedom that came from broadening my horizons, I don't want to support anything that makes it easier for people to wear blinders.

    And who decides how to rate things? The original movie of Planet of the Apes was rated G. It would probably be PG or maybe even PG-13 with today's prudish raters. Why should someone else decide what rating is appropriate?

    You could take the slippery slope the other way as well. Why isn't anything that's not Christian, or a textbook, or XYZ disallowed? How about the books being censored because a character in the book has "two mommies"?

    The problem I have is that people don't want to limit what they read themselves, they also want to stop everyone else from reading it. They are the same people who don't know how to use the V-chip in their TVs and who, apparently, have never heard of the concept of changing the channel.

    Just thoughts.

  6. I read this week that the first season of Sesame Street on DVD will carry a warning label stating that the show I watched when I was 3 is not suitable for children. According to various articles I've read, if Sesame Street was produced today, it most likely would not contain characters like Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster.

    I don't want to live in a world without Cookie Monster.

  7. When my twelfth grade English teacher told us not to read The Miller's Tale from Canterbury Tales, I made it my top priority. Labeling books as indecent in high schools will undoubtedly cause them to be read even more.

    This really bugs me. Schools have become the proxy war for the clash of ideologies. Right-wing fanatics have discovered that they cannot stop adults from reading freely and forming opinions, so they try to stop the ability of our children to fully educate themselves for today's world. They quite obviously can't win on the open playing field of ideas… and now they're coming in for a sneak attack.

  8. Hmph! When I was a schoolteacher in the inner city of Philadelphia, I taught a fifth grade class a unit on Richard III. The naked ambition, ruthlessness, violence, and deviousness were ALREADY perfectly well understood by these children.

    I found it quite useful to use Shakespeare to facilitate discussion on such topics of immediate concern to them.

    Our kids are already far more aware of Evil in this world than we give them credit for knowing. How the frell do these censors justify hiding their heads in the sand? Do they really believe that if the weans read about crime and horror that they will then be compelled to go out and committ crime and horror themselves?

    Grownups really suck a**e sometimes.

  9. I think it's significant that we're talking about high school here, which in the US, if I understand correctly, essentially refers to grades 9-12.

    Here in Australia, "high school" is grades 7-12. Thre's a certain amount of development in the emotional maturity area that happens around grades 7-8 which I think is important to handling certain kinds of material.

    To answer writerdd: My opinion is that expressive consumer advice is more important than a single catch-all rating. I know, having young kids myself (aged 5 and 8) that I'd prefer to decide what they see based on what's "in it" rather than an arbitrary single scale.

    This is one reason why I like the Australian ratings system. It has a single rating, but then it gives the reasons why it has the rating. So, for example, a movie might be rated "PG: low-level coarse language", or "M: adult themes" (where "adult themes" are such things as mental illness, suicidal thoughts, relationship breakup etc; anything that requires a moderate amount of maturity to comprehend), or "M: drug use".

  10. writerdd, I agree that people shouldn't be sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to new ideas. I'm just of the opinion that it's perfectly within someone's rights to want to be informed of content that they wouldn't want to encounter.

  11. Well,

    All books that include language should be banded.

    This will protect us from that aweful thinking that can happen if we allow that sort of thing.

    Really.

    Why do you people persist in all this "thinking", it only leads to trouble.

    Just join with me, and G.W. Bush, in NOTthinking.

    It's just so much lless stressfull.

    I AM the NRA…

    The earth iis only six thousand years old…

    Where's my gun…..

    I need to hold it…

    Just kidding,

    rod

  12. Swami said:

    I’m just of the opinion that it’s perfectly within someone’s rights to want to be informed of content that they wouldn’t want to encounter.

    To an extent this is reasonable, but where do you draw the line? My sister is an EXTREMELY sensitive animal lover, for instance. She cannot watch a movie or read a book where a dog or horse or something dies. This is content she would not want to encounter. Does that mean every book should wear a label saying "Not Safe for Animal Lovers" ? And if not, then why is that any different than any other personal issue that someone might not like?

    It's more or less impossible to screen out all 'offensive' or unpleasant ideas. Neither superior consumer information nor a stringent ratings system can accomplish this. I personally am more of the opinion that one should have to learn to DEAL with the potentially unpleasant things in the world. That way, should your ratings or consumer warnings break down and something undesirable STILL enter your brain, you're prepared for it.

    With the increasing prevalence of the internet, it's possible for parents CONCERNED enough about their kids' reading habits to look up a book online, in Wiki, on a Christian forum, or wherever may float their boat…and then act accordingly. Obviously, this doesn't help much at the time of purchase/borrowing the way that a rating/consumer warning would. But I don't yet see that it is the publisher's business to warn us about all of the content we may find offensive. And I certainly don't think anybody else is fit to decide what's suitable or unsuitable for me, or people of my age group, or whatever.

    In the end, books are just IDEAS, really, and if a child has been parented well, then I don't think we should be so fearful about exposing them to different ideas, particularly by the time they are in High School.

  13. The ratings are stupid, certainly.

    But another scary issue is that of the litigious culture that exists where people with very little knowledge or expertise (or even intelligence) can mount a legal challenge against this kind of thing and get taken seriously.

    These minority shit-stirring 'do-gooders' are the bane of everyone's lives. They occupy resources and get mileage in newspapers all to little real effect. What should really happen when some kid tries to 'sue his school' for something that makes him uncomfortable is that he should get smacked upside the head and told to do his homework.

    Like you say – bad things happen whatever you do. This kid is going to get an awful shock one day when he graduates and finds out that the world's libraries are FULL of stuff that offends him.

  14. To me, applying content warning labels to things is just a cowardly form of censorship, because you're actually *deferring* censorship. You get to pretend you're not really censoring anything, because you won't be the one burning the books or refusing to sell someone a CD.

    This reminds me of something I read recently: Testimony from 1997 by the American Academy of Pediatrics to a Senate subcommittee, titled "The Social Impact of Music Violence". At one point, the speaker said, "The Academy strongly opposes censorship." Then a paragraph later, in a list of recommendations, came this: "Music video producers should be encouraged to exercise sensitivity and self-restraint in what they depict, as should networks in what they choose to air."

    (Full text here: http://www.aap.org/advocacy/washing/t1106.htm. In the spirit of irony, consider yourself warned if you're offended by explicit lyrics. Or by people taking explicit lyrics out of context and using them to support an argument.)

    I bring it up because censorship isn't just blurring nudity or bleeping profanity, and sometimes people seem not to understand that. And because I think the whole testimony is a good example of how people continue to demonize explicit content, even when they acknowledge there's no real evidence that it adversely affects behavior.

    I do think they truly believe they're doing the right thing. But I found their logic questionable, and I don't think advocating censorship in ANY form is ever acceptable.

  15. I think anaglyph needs to reread the blog entry carefully.

    The HS student who's suing the school library is NOT doing so because he's offended by the content of the book, rather, he's suing them because they've taken the book he wants to read out because someone else must have complained about its content.

    That said, he has a point about below average IQ people initiating frivolous lawsuits and getting taken seriously.

    As far as content ratings go, I don't mind. I kind of like to know whether the movie I'm going to see is an action-packed adventure, a romantic period drama/tragedy or a slapstick comedy. Likewise, I can see how parents with young kids would not want to accidentally sit in on the first 10 minutes of "Saving private ryan", when guts and body-parts are flying all over the screen. Then again, "war movie" sort of implies violence and guns.

    I know a girl with a serious case of arachnaphobia, and she had a friend watch the third Lord of the Rings movie first so she knew how far into the movie she had to close her eyes in order not to have a panic attack when the spider shows up.

    Just like the "may contain nuts" warning on food items, certain things could be labelled for books and movies. Although not for reasons of sencorship, because that's not what they're for. As the name implies: content warning should be just that.

  16. exarch,

    Eating nuts can actually kill you if you have an allergy. There's nothing in a movie or book that can kill you.

    That said, reading ultimately led to my loss of faith. So there is a "real danger" for Christians. I put that in quotes, because it's not really a real danger. But it seems so to them because they truly believe that they (or their children) will burn in hell if they don't continue in the faith.

  17. The main problem with content warnings is that it encourages self-censorship among authors. Writers often choose to avoid realistic scenarios and language because it could hurt their chances of being published. Instituting a rating system would only further repress creativity in the arts, even if it is under the guise of consumer rights.

  18. Just to be contrary, I'm going to come out in favor of censorship. "120 Days of Sodom" by the Marquis de Sade describes innocent children who are kidnapped, sexually tortured, and killed. Should it be in a school library? No? Then you believe in censorship too. If it turned up in your kid's library, perhaps you'd be the one advocating its removal. (And if you say you wouldn't, my guess is that you don't have kids yet.)

    If there are some books that almost everyone can agree should not be in a school library, then that implies that there is a continuum of books from the appropriate to the inappropriate, and furthermore that different people will draw the line at different places.

    My point is that many people seem to frame the debate as being between those in favor of censorship and those against it. IMO this is idiotic. Almost everyone believes in censorship in some form (at least when it comes to school libraries). The real topic up for debate is who gets to decide what to censor: librarians, teachers, school boards, parents, the government, or what. That debate, it seems to me, is both more honest and more interesting than the standard "Let's all talk about how bad censorship is" discussions that boards like this seem to generate.

  19. @BruceGee: Though I'm answering your questions, the ranting that follows is not aimed at you, just so you know. This topic just brings out the ranting in me. I think you make good points, even though we don't agree. For example, re: "people will draw the line at different places," that's true; but my opinion is that those people should decide, for themselves only, what content to consume, and not apply their placement of the line to everyone else.

    I don't have kids. But I'd hope that if I did, we'd have a good enough relationship that we could talk about the books they wanted to read. I'd prefer that to depending on the school to stamp books "good" or "bad", or snatching a book out of my kid's hands and telling them that my word is law as long as they live in my house. Because if they're determined to read a book, they're going to get it anyway.

    I get that that's the ideal situation and isn't always the case, but I don't see how it's acceptable for any parent to advocate censorship for everyone just because they can't count on their kid caring what they think about his reading habits.

    So as for who gets to censor, I'm going to say no one. Because in my opinion, censorship is an avoidance of personal responsibility. "My daughter won't talk to me about this book she's reading, so I'll just let the school pre-screen her reading material for me." "I could talk to my son about the issues brought up by that song he likes, and what his opinions are, but it's easier to just throw out anything with a Parental Advisory sticker on it." "I don't like to see sex and violence on TV, so I'll let the FCC decide what's inappropriate rather than changing the channel." I know those sound like extreme examples, but my point is, every form of censorship I can think of could be replaced with personal responsibility in some form: talking to your kids, researching the movie before you go see it, changing the channel, etc.

    And speaking of getting to the real issues: Let's talk about exactly what damage we think "objectionable content" can do. Pick any random banned book or song or whatever. What do we think is really going to happen if someone's exposed to that? As the link I posted above admits, there's no real evidence (that I'm aware of) that shows a definite causal link between explicit lyrics/ music videos and any negative changes in behavior. I don't think there ever will be such evidence, especially since people are influenced by a million other things besides what they hear on the radio. Plus that whole "free will" thing, and personal moral/ethical beliefs, etc.

    Do we really think that books, movies, music, video games, whatever, are dangerous? Can we prove that? Because if we're lobbying to ban something, or allowing it to be censored, we should have to give a really good reason. And if the bannable something isn't definitively, inherently, demonstrably dangerous, I can't imagine what reason would justify censorship that applies to everyone—as opposed to the person who's offended by the thing simply avoiding it himself.

  20. @BruceGee & Door :

    I agree 100% with Door, knowledge is key, if a book describe acts that you don't agree, and if you passed your views for your kids, they will probably don't like or agree with the book also. This is true for atheists, religious, conservatives and liberals.

    I remember reading about a fundamentalist catholic family that were suing the school because the teacher has given the "Fahrenheit 451" book to the class to read. The book contains sex and violence, and talks about censorship. The parents came to know about this because the kid were enraged because of what she read.

    Now this kid was already indoctrinated, her mind will not be changed after that reading, in fact I don't think she even read to the end. In fact, I believe that this reading, and the "discussion" with the parents afterwards have indeed make her assumptions even more rooted in her brain. So in the end, in the parents point of view it was a positive experience, even if they don't agree.

    So in the end, talk to your kid, they will listen to you. The parents are the role models in the end, the school may add some values, friends also, but in the end the parents are the role models, for good or bad (it is no use to tell them to don't do X when you your self keep doing the same).

  21. Nope. Kids can and will walk away from indoctrination if they are given the chance. Maybe not right away… it took me until my late 20s… but if they're never exposed to anything outside their comfort zone, what chance do they have?

    I really don't believe in censorship at all. I read Playboys I found in the basement when I was 8 or 9. Didn't die. Didn't become a hooker. I read Flowers for Algernon in the sixth grade and Jaws in junior high. I had access to the "adult secion" (which meant for grownups, not porno) in the public library from the time I was 9 or 10 years old and my mother never, ever censored what I read. I read what interested me, which for the most part wouldn't have been needed to be censored by normal parents, but my mother was a fundamentalist Chrisitian. Fortunately she somehow retained some amount of sense and logic. Well, it's too long to write here. But basically, my reading was not censored and I turned into an upstanding citizen. Go figure.

  22. Come on, do you folks really think that there is NO book that wouldn't comfortably belong in a high school, middle school, or elementary school library? What about Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-Semitic forgery that was one of the justifications for the Holocaust? Would it bother you if there was a large Holocaust denial section at your school? Even if your kids weren't affected by it, would you want their friends to be reading them? What if you were Jewish? What if your kids' librarian bought every book on astrology, UFOs, out-of-body, and general woo she could get her hands on? Or the complete Scientology library?

    Something to consider: unless you can manage to send your kids to school at the Library of Congress, SOMEONE is censoring what is in their library already. Think about it. Librarians cannot buy every book in every catalog they are sent; they must pick and choose. At least part of that decision will probably be based on what that librarian will feel is "appropriate" for local kids. No one bats an eyelash when librarians do it every day — do we really think librarians are infallible and never make mistakes? If not, why such a huge fuss when parents or school boards get involved?

    The main thing I'm concerned about is that everyone actually read whatever dang thing someone wants to have removed.

  23. Like sturmunddrang said, the Bible's got to be among the first books to get an R or NC17 sticker, for:

    Fratricide

    Slavery (okay, this was accepted in the context of the times, but still…)

    Genocide (the extermination by God of all but Noah's family, and by the Israelites of the Canaanites, Moloch worshippers etc.)

    Deliberate, systematic child murder (the killing of the Egyptian firstborn).

    Torture (the plagues visited upon the Egyptians).

    Father-daughter incest (at least two occasions I can think of, and what's more they're non-consensual because one of the parties is drunk almost to insensibility).

    Gang-rape to the point where it becomes sex murder (literally being raped to death).

    Adultery.

    (Mention of) child sacrifice.

    Suicide (Judas at the very least).

    A very large amount of battlefield bloodshed.

    I've left out racism and sexism, though both are there, because they're so intrinsic to the mindset of many of the looney people who clothe their bigotry in their religious faith, and therefore not liable to raise objections from those people. But to any so-called Christians contemplating banning a book on the basis of content taken out of context, that's a pretty good list to start.

    If I were to put the Protocols into a high school library, it would be an edition whose dust jacket, introduction and postscript made it unmistakeably clear that the whole content was a lie, and should be read only to understand some of the underlying "justifications" of the anti Semites.

  24. @BruceGee, my answer is the same on every example you gave. I don't think it's going to warp my kid's mind to read something I don't agree with. Why shouldn't there be examples of anti-Semitic literature available? Do you think if a kid (yours or any other) reads it, s/he is going to automatically adopt those philosophies?

    And it definitely has value as a tangible example of something that, otherwise, is just an abstract issue to them. It's like banning novels that use the N-word in depictions of racism. Between a textbook that skirts around the issue with vague language (i.e. "Some people use offensive words in reference to black people"), and a novel that depicts black characters encountering hate speech, I'd say that the latter is going to have more of an impact on the students. It's going to be more real to them. We can't think seriously about important issues if we keep them at arm's length and talk about them in vague, politically correct terms, as I'm sure someone once said more quotably.

    And I wouldn't be afraid of my kid encountering Scientology or paranormal books, either. I made up my own mind about those issues, and so can they. It would be hypocritical, as a skeptic, for me to try to shield my child from all opposing views, when that's one of the things we often call other groups on.

    "Even if your kids weren’t affected by it, would you want their friends to be reading them?": Again, who am I to appoint myself arbiter of what someone else's kid reads?

    And I did think about the fact that libraries have to choose what to stock and what not to, but I didn't bring it up because I don't know enough about what informs their decisions or who they have to answer to. But yes, I'm sure that someone, somewhere along the line is making judgment calls based on their own opinions or some guidelines somewhere. It's unavoidable, as you say, because libraries have limited capacities and they can't stock everything.

    I admit I probably don't have a satisfactory answer, beyond that we have to pick our battles. There's no way that I can think of to make sure personal beliefs don't figure in the initial decision to put a book on the shelf or not, and in that case, we're talking about potentially thousands of books anyway. But when one book on the shelf is singled out as "bad", we can do something about that. It's not so much that it's "worse" censorship, but that it's more accessible to address.

  25. I think libraries not stocking certain books is not really censorship. At least not in the same way as physically removing the books from the shelves is (or worse, burning them).

    In this case it's merely about providing a varied supply of reading material with a limited budget. If needed, an unavailable book can probably be ordered by the librarian.

    And of course, nothing is more ironic (and better at driving home the point), than having someone feel that "Fahrenheit 451" should be removed from the library shelves.

  26. Oops. That'll teach me to scan. Bad habit. Casualty of trying to cram in too much too quickly.

    I stand by what I say about the litigious mindset though, for whatever reasons you instigate the action. There are consequences to living, some that you might not agree with. Gee, I don't agree with half the things my local council does, but I don't go around suing them.

    Next we'll be assembling Product Disclaimers for people having kids – Warning: This Future Life Is Likely to Contain the Following – Disease; Disappointment; Tragedy; Sadness; Broken Hearts; Embarrassment; Loss; Grief; Pain; Anger; Sex & Hangovers.

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