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Time to rethink the book ban

A Cypriot was stopped at Stansted Airport because he was carrying emergency flares with him. The person that will likely carry mini-explosives to the airport is either a potential terrorist or “stupid and naive”, and it makes sense for the authorities to assume that he is the former. As it turned out, the defendant was not a terrorist.

If this was a story about a 22 year-old with a box of distress signal mini-flares in his luggage, then there would be nothing controversial about it, besides perhaps the fact that the police actually returned the flares to him once they charged him. As it turns out, the problem were not the flares, but rather a book he was reading, called the Anarchist Cookbook, which was published in 1971.

Five months before his airport arrest, Andreas Pierides, a Cypriot student at the University of Southampton’s Business School, was photographed by a fellow train passenger reading the Anarchist Cookbook on his kindle. The eager co-passenger reported Pierides to the police and handed them over the pictures of Pierides reading the prohibited book.

The Anarchistic Cookbook, featured here on Vice, was written to express the anger of its author William Powell, who explained in the Guardian that he wrote the book because he was “being actively pursued by the US military, who seemed single-mindedly determined to send me to fight, and possibly die, in Vietnam.” It includes instructions on how to create bombs, LSD and other fun stuff.

It is prime time for an open debate about the practice of banning books. Not only because it violates people’s freedom of choice and expression, but also because it is impractical and costly. This debate needs to take place in light of the expiry of the copyrights of Hitler’s magnum opus Mein Kampfarguably the most controversial book of the previous century. The copyrights are currently held by the Bavarian state government, which prohibits its publication in Germany. In 2015 the copyrights will expire, and the German politicians will be called to decide whether to ban the book or not.

We live in an era were only rudimentary knowledge of computers is needed in order to browse the internet almost completely anonymously. Leaving all moral justifications aside, the sheer costs in money and privacy of banning books are enormous; so much so that it makes it irrational to maintain that banning them is either desirable or even possible.

The enforcement of such laws require the secret service agencies, be them the NSA or the GCHQ, to constantly monitor the activities of their citizens, and to apprehend them not for the crimes they have committed, or for the crimes that they are thinking about committing, but about the potential crimes that reading a book might lead them to commit. Do we really want to live in a twisted geeky version of the Minority Reportwhere citizens are arrested for future crimes they had not even considered committing?

The violation of people’s privacy, albeit the most important consideration, is not the only non-moral cost involved. The motivation that drove the fellow passenger to call the police on Pierides was guided by what I assume were well-meaning concerns about public safety. If fraternisation in a democratic society is curtailed by suspicion, mistrust and security considerations, it will gradually lead to the erosion of that society, because it will undermine the capacities of its citizens for cooperation and — dare I say it — comradership; necessary for the implementation of any redistributive programme by the government.

Banning books is as misguided as it is banal; it misses on how societies and individuals evolved with the popularisation of the internet. The internet created more open societies. It enabled people to transcend their cultural boundaries and to use the tools of other cultures to reform their own. Along with a culture of openness, it created a new kind of citizen, the scavenger citizen. Citizens that have access to enormous amounts of data that they skillfully navigate in order to find what they are looking for. The scavenger citizen is much more critical than the previous, analog citizen, and much more able to examine and reject new pieces of information.

The scavenger citizen deliberates over issues online, transforming the way political debate and deliberation takes place. The fear that books will adversely influence this new type of citizen, shows a complete mistrust towards their abilities and creates a flair of mystery around the subject-matter of the book, making it more attractive to young people who tend to be more susceptible to exoticised topics.

There is a dilemma here that we need to address: we will either live under a constant worry for our well-being in a securitised society that considers the private sphere as the place where potential terrorists are groomed, or we will try to achieve a more equal and inclusive society that trusts those living within its bounds. The more we emphasise security over equality, the more home-grown terrorists we will see. The way to tackle the problem is not by banning books or by monitoring every private moment of free citizens’ lives. The only way to make people less eager and less susceptible to influence of extreme ideologies is by providing them with a structure of equal opportunities, an inclusive society that does not exclude them because of their religion, language or skin-colour.

The issue on whether to ban books or not is not an isolated topic. It is part of a wider discussion on multiculturalism, economic and social inequality, and the freedom of choice and expression of people living in liberal countries. If people feel excluded from the society they live in because of the diminished life-chances that they have, they will be more susceptible to be influenced by extreme ideologies, and more eager to radicalise. The solution is not to proclaim that multiculturalism has failed and embark in a full speed attack on people’s freedoms, but rather to try and think about multiculturalism as linked to economic and social inequality, and to figure out how best ton integrate people from other cultures into your country.

Until the challenges are seen as part of a wider bundle, governments will keep censoring books and violating the privacy of their citizens to defend their “freedom from fear,” as George W. Bush used to say.

Published in the Cyprus-Mail on August 31st, 2014, under the title Time to rethink the book ban

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  1. When studying at UCL, I had spent many hours in the Library reading Mein Kampf. It simply confirmed my extreme dislike of the man and especially his ideas.

    If there is wide circulation of the book, there is a risk that some people will be charmed by it, and adopt Hitler’s ideas. The point though is that we already have people sharing his ideas, which is bad enough, but I doubt that the problem will get any worse if more people have the chance to read it.
    I think that the risk is far less compared to the benefit of living in a society that trusts its people and lets them decide for themselves.

    • I agree with you on that the risk of ppl being influenced by Mein Kampf is significantly less than the benefit of living in a free society, where people can exercise their agency. Most people, I think and hope, will react in the same way as you have done when you read the book. By prohibiting it we run the risk of exoticising it, and people endorsing its ideas without even reading the book.

      This post was eventually published in the Cyprus-Mail, where there is a good discussion in the comments. I ask those in favour of banning such books about the limits of this practice. I am still not persuaded.