Who wasn’t outraged at the recent news that the required reading for Duke University’s incoming students this August was Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, and that some students had opted out? The students had taken offense on religious grounds at what they called graphic depictions of same-sex liaisons and promotion of a lesbian lifestyle. Those outraged that students were forced to read such material were soon outnumbered by those outraged that students were allowed to decide which assignments they needed to complete. For almost everyone, it was one more sign civilization is collapsing.
The obvious winner here was Alison Bechdel, who immediately gained an enormous new audience (including myself) looking to see what the fuss was all about. While her book is raw at many points, I found it hard to see how anyone could argue it is pornographic or obscene. While obscenity can be a difficult thing to pin down (Remember Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s litmus test: “I know it when I see it”), surely those college students have seen 10 million images more obscene on the side of a bus than the few raw or suggestive drawings in the book.
The students who opted out are an easy foil, of course, because one can and should argue that the whole point of college is to be exposed to unsettling things. But one of academia’s dirty little secrets isn’t being mentioned by either side: In reality, the threat of literary censorship in academia these days (Catholic and otherwise) does not usually come from religious or cultural traditionalists but from those who fancy themselves the most progressive.
The fight against obscenity can seem a relic of another age, the quaint time of the Legion of Decency, so when it comes to sexy books these days, we sometimes loudly assure each other we are not prudes. Raise your hand if you’ve endured a priest tendentiously explaining just how wonderfully naughty the Song of Songs is meant to be. But this doesn’t mean we’ve surrendered our notions of outrage. On the contrary; it might be our signature emotion. We have just found new and different offenses to be outraged by, and most of them can be found in the books we teach.
But literature, like life, is a messy thing. Your favorite author might also be a terrible sexist or racist or homophobe, or an enthusiast for some other loathsome hobby. His or her characters might be even worse. It can make for hard reading and often requires a stout heart. Remember when you first realized what was going on in Nabokov’s Lolita? That novel abounds in graphic and repulsive scenes, and not in some jejune comic-book fashion either. But did reading Lolita land you in the hospital?
An unfortunate commonplace in our educational institutions these days is the notion that students must be protected from certain literature because it could damage them or trigger hidden traumas. Nabokov wouldn’t stand a chance against the blizzard of trigger warnings and complaints about microaggressions that would accompany his novel today. It has become not a question of whether most can handle Lolita, but whether there might be some student who can’t. This is the new morality, and with it the new pornography.
But what can escape the outrage censors when everything is an outrage? Old episodes of “Family Feud”? (Not the ones with that oleaginous Richard Dawson, that’s for sure). Want to read your children The Chronicles of Narnia? C. S. Lewis employed vicious caricatures of Arabs to depict the desert-dwelling Calormenes, complete with scimitars, hooked noses and turbans—all worshiping a god clearly identifiable as Satan. How about John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, something of a hipster bible? A cruel and clichéd mockery of homosexuals is central to the plot. Huckleberry Finn? So, so racist. The same criteria will soon sink Flannery O’Connor, Richard Ford, Joseph Heller and William Faulkner as well—not in the name of decency, but in the name of safety.
Our irony, in the world of Catholic literature and academia, is that no group should fear the good intentions of the censors more than Catholic intellectuals themselves. It wasn’t long ago that Rome was actually blacklisting Graham Greene and other novelists in the Index of Forbidden Books, to say nothing of the academic theologians silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Why? Because good Catholics needed to be protected from harmful literature.
Laughable, isn’t it? That we once thought so little of people that we assumed they’d be permanently damaged if they read the wrong thing.