A Tennessee school board recently voted to pull the Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Maus and its cat-and-mouse retelling of the Holocaust from the school curriculum. The school board members cited violence, nudity (in humanoid mouse caricatures), and profanity as the reasons. One member, Tony Allman, said: “It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff?”
The controversy this attracted seems symptomatic of a broader moment when certain parents and school boards feel emboldened to remove materials deemed offensive, especially when they concern history and racism. But this is not the first time Maus has been targeted in the classroom, and I wondered how exceptional our period truly is. Emily Knox, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says we truly are seeing a rise in book challenges around the country, and she recognizes it as connected to a larger movement she detailed in her 2015 book, Book Banning in 21st-Century America. But she says challenges like these aren’t only coming from the right—and that in some ways, the fallout this time is missing the point. We spoke about how to understand what’s happening and what to do about it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: As someone who watches events like this closely, how concerned should we be at this moment about books being removed in schools? Is it in fact more widespread than it usually is right now?
Emily Knox: Yes, there are way more cases than usual. The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom say they’ve never had this many people challenging books. This is more than any other time. I feel it’s a symptom of the shock that we’re going through as society. Should we be alarmed by it? Yes, but to a point. It’s not that this is new. It’s that the people who are bringing the challenges are able to speak to each other much more easily. Social media has exacerbated the problem a lot. So Maus was just banned in Tennessee. We might hear it gets banned in Oregon tomorrow, which would not have been true before social media. This is a phenomenon that’s been around forever, but because people are able to communicate much more easily, it’s manifesting differently.
In the Tennessee case, the notes from the board meeting suggest Maus was removed because of nudity (in mouse caricatures) and profanity. Some, like the book’s author, Art Spiegelman, suggest it’s actually an attempt to whitewash Holocaust history. Is it common to cite justifications that hide the real reason for it?
What I say is that this is the discourse of censorship. Since we are a country that is dedicated to freedom, you have to come up with justifications for getting rid of something that’s uncomfortable for you. So it often is hidden. In my book, I talk about all different themes that appear and what people are actually talking about. This is an obvious one, because it’s a bunch of mice, so I don’t know what they mean by “nudity.” It’s a weird position to take. I try and analyze the discourse and see if it reveals more than just what the words are saying.
What do you think is the underlying fear here?
People are trying to get books like Maus banned because they are afraid that if their children read them, they will have different values than the values their parents want them to have. That’s really what this is about. People are looking at books as dangerous knowledge. In the library field, we say we never know how any individual person will react to a book. But people who ban and challenge books collectivize everybody. They say, “Well, I read this book and it disturbs me.” Or “My child will read this book and they will be disturbed. Therefore, everybody will have this feeling about the book.” We could ban books. We could ban something like The Turner Diaries, a white supremacist book from the ’70s. But that’s saying that everybody who reads that will end up agreeing with the author. We actually don’t know. In my work, we are agnostic in terms of reading effects. I link this to the Reformation and the importance of the doctrine of sola scriptura, the idea that reading could actually save your soul. People really believe that reading has metaphysical effects.
How do experts define book “banning”? Is “ban” a fair word for what happened in Tennessee?
There are narrow and broad definitions of banning. So there are people who argue that they’re not banning the book because you can still get it online—it’s not been banned by the government. That is a very narrow definition of banning. And people who might have a broader definition of banning might say, “If you vote to remove it from public circulation in a particular place, then you are banning a book.” I have four R’s for censorship practices: reduction, removal, restriction, and relocation. So this is removal, which means that it’s not available in this particular school district, although it looks like they removed it from the classes and not the library, and those have their own nuances as to whether or not something is included in the curriculum and in the library.
How much power should parents and school boards have over what books students read in class?
Our schools have always been sites of contestation. We’re one of the only wealthy countries where you can just decide to take your children out of school and home-school them. That’s just not possible in, say, France. That just doesn’t happen. Americans are true believers that education should take place in the home, and that handing children over to strangers for education is somewhat problematic. So giving your children over to strangers, and strangers are teaching about a society rife with white supremacy, you think, Well, I’m a white person. What is this teacher saying about me? It suddenly becomes very personalized when people talk like this. They’re not necessarily talking about each individual person, but the structures of the society.
Do banning books attempts backfire, like the Streisand effect?
It depends on what level of analysis you’re doing. In the Tennessee case, probably Maus will move up in sales on Amazon for a while. But that doesn’t mean that the kids in Tennessee can see this incredible book. I already have a copy of Maus. I would probably buy it for myself, as a person who can afford to buy books, and I would make sure that my local library has it. But that doesn’t really help the kid in Tennessee who wants to learn more about the Holocaust. The intended audience is often unable to actually get access to the book because they don’t have the resources and the access that’s necessary.
What do people usually get wrong about restrictions on books in schools? What do you wish more people understood?
The main thing that people get wrong is that they think that it is irrational. They ask, “How can anyone take this book out of school?” But it’s not an irrational act. It’s symbolic. And it’s not a right-left phenomena. There are many ways the left challenges books, but some don’t see challenges the same way. There was a TERF [trans-exclusionary] book that showed up, and I watched people argue that libraries shouldn’t buy it, saying it spread lies. So the way I look at it, all sides see certain knowledge as lies. There’s one side I agree with more than the other, but the idea that people are unaware of what they’re saying, I just don’t find that to be true.
Is this the biggest threat to free expression right now?
What I worry about is that before this new kerfuffle happened, there was a lot of talk in progressive circles about banning hate speech from online platforms. What we see with Maus is why those are such dangerous positions to take. When you say this person shouldn’t be allowed to speak because I find their rhetoric hateful or harmful, there’s no saying that won’t turn back around on you. Of course, you might see your position as rational, but that’s just not where we are in our society. Our society is based on white supremacy—do you really want the current Supreme Court to decide what is hate speech or not? And that’s what could happen. This Maus thing is very bizarre because are we getting into Holocaust denial territory? How do we want stories of the Holocaust to be told? But the stand we should take is, what do we want citizens to know? What does it mean to be knowledgeable, to be educated? These are the questions we need to ask. It’s bigger than freedom of expression.