In 1949 George Orwell published his novel with an unusual title 1984. The book centers around the consequences of totalitarianism, mass surveillance, and the repressive regimentation of societies. While the novel points, in an allegorical way, to Stalin’s Russia, it also examines the role of truth or lack thereof in a society.
The Ministry of Truth makes sure the past is manipulated to agree with the present. Basic elements of thought control, as in the book, have been constant throughout history. They may vary in tactics, but intolerance of spoken or printed words remains constant. The common denominator is that some people just don’t tolerate what other people have to say – and vice versa. To some it may come as a surprise that many of the classics of English literature were at one time banished from the public arena. These include:
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm
JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies
Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
and many others.
The banning of written word, of course, is not limited only to English language. In Urdu, we have had our share of banned books. Here Saadat Hasan Manto leads the pack. He has the distinction of having six of his books banned and being hauled into the court of law for each of those books. The banned books include Kaali Shalwaar, Boo, Dhuwaan, Khol do, Thanda gosht and Ooper, Neeche and Darmian. Half of his banned books were before the birth of Pakistan. In Pakistan he was hauled three times in a court of law. In one of the trials, he had famously said to the judge,” A writer picks up his pen when his sensibility is hurt.” In another case the magistrate, a fan of Manto’s writings, dismissed the case.
Former US president Donald Trump was notorious in presenting falsehood as truth. So much so that even his recorded words were discredited by none other than the man himself. Bob Woodward, the veteran Washington Post reporter, had twenty conversations with the former president and those conversations were recorded with Trump’s consent. Woodward’s book, Rage, should induce rage in those who believe in the sanctity of words and truth. In a macabre twist we had re-lived Orwell’s 1984 during Trump’s presidency.
Mark Twain had famously said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it.”
If we apply that reasoning, then we would be applying a cookie-cutter approach to human behavior and in the process forgetting that standards and mores change with time.
Here Saadat Hasan Manto leads the pack. He has the distinction of having six of his books banned and being hauled into the court of law for each of those books
In 1933, in a bizarre legal case- The United States vs One Book Called Ulysses- the US Supreme Court found that the book was “Utterly without redeeming social importance”. This was because the book dealt with nudity. Looking from the present vantage point it is a sad reminder how men of high intellect can err so easily.
We must also consider the changing attitudes with the passage of time. The gradual process of change makes palatable what once was considered unpalatable. In 1928, DH Lawrence published his seminal and incendiary novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, not in his native England, but first in Italy and then in France. The book was promptly banned when published in England in 1960. The ban was removed many years later.
The novel describes in graphic detail the romance between an English woman of high status and the gamekeeper on her husband’s estate. Her husband, a wealthy landowner, paralyzed from the waist down, is self-absorbed in his books and his estate.
Explicit sex scenes aside, the novel underlines a young woman’s unfulfilled desires and frustrations. The book brought forth the hitherto taboo subject of female sexuality.
On a visit to Afghanistan in 2000 during the Taliban rule, I saw a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on a sidewalk stall in Kabul where they sell old books and other second-hand household items. The shop keeper did not have any idea of the nature of the book. Had the Taliban been a literate group, they would have thrown the poor book seller into some dungeon. Or worse.
The Taliban practiced censorship where only the leaders and the clergy determined what was good for their people. Every human activity was viewed through the narrow prism of religion and tribalism. In Afghanistan, under the Taliban rule, the Orwellian Ministry of Truth was called the Ministry of Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil – a reference to a verse from the Quran.
The trouble was: the Taliban, a marginally educated bunch, had a limited worldview and they interpreted the Scripture in such a way that reinforced their own prejudices. Thus, they became the final arbitrators of good and evil in Afghanistan during their rule.
In 1258, the Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, attacked Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid dynasty. History has not forgiven Hulagu: perhaps less so because he put to sword the Caliph Mustaasim and 90,000 residents of the city, but more because he destroyed the magnificent library of Baghdad called the House of Wisdom and dumped it into the River Tigris. According to contemporary accounts, the waters of the River Tigris ran black from the dissolving ink.
The struggle between what people should read or not read started in the Western world with the banning of Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan. It was a 3-volume critique of the Puritans in New England, their atrocities against Native Americans and their eagerness to grab their land and resources. Morton refers to New England as the land of Canaan, the promised land of the Bible. The book was promptly banned by the Puritans in 1637 and the author banished to a deserted island. Morton’s memorable quote about the banning of his book was that the Puritans “make great show of religion but no humanity.”
As mentioned above, the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not, keep changing. What was once incendiary or indecent may not be so now. This leads us to the logical conclusion that we are marching towards a goal of tolerance for the spoken and written word. The reasoning goes that as the man has become more enlightened, the darkness has been slowly dissipating.
On a visit to Afghanistan in 2000 during the Taliban rule, I saw a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on a sidewalk stall in Kabul where they sell old books and other second-hand household items. The shop keeper did not have any idea of the nature of the book. Had the Taliban been a literate group, they would have thrown the poor book seller into some dungeon. Or worse
However, the ground realities contradict that sweeping conclusion.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has been constantly attacked by the fundamentalist Christians. Their worldview is at variance with the scientific evidence. They believe the Bible to be the true and literal word of God and anything that does not agree with it has to be rejected as false.
One would think that after the 1925 Scopes Trial, popularly known as the Monkey Trial, the matter was settled once for all. But it was not. Poor Darwin is still being challenged by the self-righteous crowd 171- years after the publication in 1859 of his seminal work Origin of Species.
Here is a question that begs for an answer: Do people who support banning of books have any credibility?
The answer is a short but emphatic yes.
We are all driven by certain beliefs, convictions and philosophies that directly contradict what others believe. And we are oblivious to our own prejudices.
In 1988, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. There were violent demonstrations against the author and his book across the Muslim world. Iran issued a fatwa condemning the author to death.
I read the book and while I was impressed by Rushdie’s writing, I was deeply offended by his clumsy attempt to malign such a sacred personality. But still, I would not stand for banning the book.
In the public arena everyone has the right and a duty to pick up his or her bull horn and say whatever they want to say. At times there is no clear-cut demarcation to separate facts from fiction, truth from falsehood or logic from illogic. Let me quote Arthur Cannon Doyle to make this point. In The Empty House, Sherlock Holmes says to Watson:
Ah! My dear Watson. There we come into those realms of conjecture, where the most logical mind may be at fault. Each may form his own hypothesis upon the present evidence and yours is likely to be correct as mine.
In a civil and civilized society, we are not expected to use violence to force our opinions on others. We try to persuade and if that does not work, we pick up the proverbial bull horn and protest. In a marketplace of ideas everyone has the right to participate and disagree.
We will never reach the utopian state where everyone agrees with each other. My wish is that we never do. That would be a dystopian society as depicted in Orwell’s 1984. It happened in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries. It happened in Taliban-run Afghanistan. It is true of China today and most of the Arab monarchies.
In a democratic society, differences of opinions are healthy and should be encouraged. So, in a way I am pleased that there are people who want to force their views on others. And then there are people who resist that with all their intellectual might.
Such was the case when Saadat Hasan Manto was hauled into the court of law on the charge of writing obscenity. In Khol Do he wrote about the trauma of the Partition where a young Muslim girl gets separated from her father while coming to Pakistan. She is repeatedly raped by few Muslim volunteers. All Manto did was to show us a mirror. If we found the image appalling, it was not Manto’s fault.
A noisy and boisterous public square is much better and healthy than a quiet, placid, and mostly deserted public square. Just look at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Note: Adopted from a Keynote address delivered to the plenary session of Banned Books Week, University of Toledo October 1, 2020
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org