From time to time I see news items about attempts to remove a book from a school libraries and classrooms. The reasons are even appealing at times. One text is bigoted against African-Americans. Another against Asians. But more often the reasons are less appealing (at least to me): Harry Potter is attacked for teaching about witchcraft, The Golden Compass for being anti-religion, many books are attacked for profanity (including, ironically, Fahrenheit 451).
Yesterday, to my dismay, I learned of an attempt by a Mormon parent to get a book removed from a middle school class reading list because of its attitude towards Mormons. The book? A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle.
That the first Sherlock Holmes mystery is quite bigoted against Mormons and very misinformed about Mormon beliefs and practices is nothing new. Most laughably, the book is the source of the story that “kidnapped” girls taken to Utah by nefarious Mormon Elders escaped the Salt Lake Temple by jumping from its walls into the Great Salt Lake–a story that I’ve encountered, unattributed and reported today as fact, in Brazilian publications!
What is new (at least as far as I know) is the attempt to get the book removed from a reading list. My first reaction is one of embarrassment–that a Mormon thinks this is a good idea. [I should note that this might not be considered censorship–students can still get the book from the school and local libraries–its just not on the list of works recommended for the school year. However, the ALA’s definition of “banned books” includes “an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others,” which clearly applies in this case. The definition allows parents to restrict their own children’s access, but not the access of others.]
Setting aside the implications that might be made from this proposal (that middle school children should not face the bigotry in well-known literary works, or that the best way to confront bigotry is to pretend it isn’t there) and the fact that several other works on the school’s list that could also be challenged for various reasons, I still find two significant problems in attempting to remove A Study in Scarlet from a reading list. First, try as I might, I can’t see how this move could possibly improve the understanding of children, Mormon or not, about Mormonism. And second, I suspect that the move will only come across as unnecessarily defensive or sensitive.
The only thing that removing a book from a reading list can possibly accomplish is to maintain ignorance. If you don’t read a book, you don’t know what it says (at least not without someone telling you). And if you don’t know what a book says, you can’t judge whether or not what it says is accurate or of value. Moreover, not reading A Study in Scarlet doesn’t remove its bias or the bias found in and transmitted by many other works (Zane Grey, anyone?). If the book is banned, no education happens, and we, Mormons aren’t any better off.
Then, when the news gets out that Mormons initiated banning the book, how will we appear? Its not like A Study in Scarlet is a new and controversial book. Likely tens of thousands read it each year, regardless of what this school system does. Isn’t the most likely reaction to Mormons banning the book one of incredulity? Its like banning Harry Potter because it talks of witchcraft–its had to see that any rational and intelligent person would take it as fact. Won’t banning this book make Mormons look reactionary? Like we can’t fight-off or explain inaccurate attacks from a nearly 125 year old book?
I do understand the desire to defend our religion and correct the misunderstandings (and outright falsehoods) in books, music, film, journalism, and even in blog posts. I also indulge in trying to explain the Mormon point of view and correct error. But I also recognize that if those errors were kept in the author’s brain and never written, neither the author nor his audience would have the corrections and viewpoints expressed to them. Their bigotry would never be confronted.
What is, I think, most productive to discuss in all this is what reactions should be made, and how should they be made. A Study in Scarlet has been in print since 1887. It remains popular, and I think it is unlikely that it will ever disappear. And there are, of course, other famous works that perpetuate misunderstandings of Mormonism. Jules Verne, Zane Grey and others have all included Mormonism in their works.
In other cases of bigotry, texts and other works that exploited the bigotry have largely fallen out of favor. Works like Little Black Sambo, Amos and Andy, Song of the South and others are read much less frequently than they once were. Is this what we should aim for? Of course the analogy with portrayals of those of African heritage doesn’t fit exactly, so perhaps not.
Instead should we aim for explaining the errors? Should we be working hard to help the broader culture come to the understanding that this is bigotry? Or should we take the kind of hands-off approach seen in the reaction to the recent Broadway musical The Book of Mormon? Should we let others discover the bigotry (as one non-Mormon did, comparing The Book of Mormon to Amos and Andy)?
I’m not sure what the approach should be. I look forward to your comments. But, I am certain that the best path doesn’t lie in limiting access to works because of their portrayal of Mormonism.