Conservative parents demanding the banning of books and the censorship of schools have a worldview as fragile as glass. They can't even tolerate the idea of children hearing that they might not be who or what society tells them they are.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[Previous: Don’t be yourself]

Which comes first: the facts or the interpretation?

To those of us raised with a rational, scientific way of viewing the world, this is obvious. You should gather as much evidence as you can, determine what conclusion it best supports, and believe that. That way, you’re most likely to hold a worldview that accurately reflects reality.

However, religious conservatives have the opposite strategy.

They say that what you should do is first, decide what you want to believe; then make the facts conform to that, either by putting a particular spin on events, or simply omitting the ones that inconveniently contradict your preferred conclusion.

This shouldn’t be a controversial or insulting statement. This is something that religious conservatives are very open about. For example, the creationist organization Answers in Genesis says so themselves.

They argue, in postmodern, post-truth fashion, that evidence never proves one worldview over another and it’s all about what assumptions you start with, so you might as well pick the one that makes you feel the best. In their eyes, a universe where God exists and promises to reward the faithful is more comforting than a godless universe where humanity is on our own, so we should believe the former rather than the latter.

The “liberty” to read what I want you to read

This is a consistent theme in the behavior of right-wing groups like the Orwellian “Moms for Liberty,” which in reality is anti-liberty and anti-free-speech. They exist for the purpose of imposing their personal political beliefs on everyone. They want to control what should be taught in classrooms and what books should be available in libraries, and they want a heckler’s veto over any course material that makes any conservative upset.

In every school district where they pop up, they want to throw out books about racism and civil rights—whether it’s biographies of civil-rights icons like Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks, or books about racism like The 1619 Project—because it might make white students feel guilty or ashamed to learn real history.

They only want kids to hear a sanitized, whitewashed version of the past where racism was the crime of a few misguided individuals, never a reflection of society as a whole, and everything was fixed and everyone was forgiven in the end. Even if that’s not what actually happened.

For example, in York, Pennsylvania:

“I am Rosa Parks” and “I am Martin Luther King, Jr.” … were two of more than 200 anti-racism books and resources suggested by the Central York School District’s diversity education committee last year. The Central York school board vetoed the entire list. In a clip from a meeting aired by CNN, which reported on student protests of the ban, members referred to the list of reading and educational material as “divisive” and “bad ideas.”

Banned are children’s picture books, K-5 books, middle and high school books, videos, webinars, and web links, including a memoir by Pakistani writer and activist Malala Yousafzai; a book by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; an adaptation of “Hidden Figures,” about Black female mathematicians at NASA; “Sulwe” by actress Lupita Nyong’o, about a little girl who fears her skin is too dark, and CNN’s “Sesame Street Town Hall” about racism.

His books on Rosa Parks and MLK were banned. Here’s what this South Florida author did.” Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald, 30 September 2021.

Or in Williamson County, Tennessee, which has become a hotbed of book censorship:

Community members and local advocacy organizations have come forward in disapproval of books like “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” “Separate is Never Equal,” and “George vs. George,” their argument being that teaching about the darker aspects of racism in United States history isn’t appropriate in elementary grades.

…Steenman said that the mention of a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school” too harshly delineated between Black and white people, and that the book didn’t offer “redemption” at its end.

Here’s what to know about the debate over ‘Wit & Wisdom’ curriculum in Williamson schools.” Anika Exum, The Tennesseean, 8 July 2021.

In that same district, conservatives objected to teaching kids the story of Galileo, because it makes the Catholic church look like the bad guy (!).

At one juncture, the group implores the school district to include more charitable descriptions of the Catholic Church when teaching a book about astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was persecuted by said church for suggesting that Earth revolves around the sun.

“Where is the HERO of the church?” the group’s spreadsheet asks, “to contrast with their mistakes?”

Far-Right Group Wants to Ban Kids From Reading Books on Male Seahorses, Galileo, and MLK.” Kelly Weill, The Daily Beast, 24 September 2021.

And, yes, they want to ban a kids’ book about seahorses, because it mentions that it’s the male seahorse that gets pregnant and gives birth:

Complainants stated during the hearing that there is “social conditioning” in the book, that there are concerns about the book and video “attempting to normalize that males can get pregnant” and the “suggestion that gender is fluid is too early” to be taught in first grade. It was stated that the book paired with the video is “indicative of an agenda”.

Please note: it’s not the book they object to, but the biological facts that the book describes. I can’t help but picture angry, censorious church ladies shielding their sons’ and daughters’ eyes from the seahorse exhibit at the aquarium. If they think seahorses are part of the LGBTQ agenda, isn’t their real complaint with God, who they believe created seahorses in this way?

This is a telling complaint, because it’s an explicit demand to censor reality so as not to conflict with ideology. If kids learn too much about the exuberant diversity of nature, it might give them the idea that our gender roles are cultural constructs and not universally applicable laws. And we can’t have that!

A crayon’s story

But I’ve saved the most absurd for last. According to this story on Daily Kos, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina has banned a book called Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall, in response to parent complaints.

That title caught my eye because I know this book very well. I own a copy of it. I’ve read it to my son many times.

It’s a story about an anthropomorphic blue crayon who gets a red wrapper by mistake. His family, friends and teachers (who are also crayons) can’t look beneath the surface. They believe he must be red, because that’s what his label says.

When he tries to draw red things like strawberries or traffic lights, and, of course, fails… the other crayons double down. They insist that he can draw red things, if he just tries harder. They start gossiping that he must be lazy or slow or have something else wrong with him.

Eventually, he meets a friendly crayon who asks him to draw a blue picture. Having absorbed the messages society has placed upon him, he says he can’t. But the other crayon persuades him to try, and he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. At last, he finds his true color. He’s so good at drawing blue things, the beauty of his art wins all the other crayons over and makes them realize they were wrong about him.

Yes, this is the book right-wingers are up in arms about.

Now you could, if you wanted to, read this as an allegory for gay or transgender people coming out of the closet… but come on. It’s a kids’ book about talking crayons. Its moral is about being true to yourself, but that’s all. It doesn’t demand any specific interpretation. If you persist in seeing it as a story about sexuality, it’s because that’s what you bring to it. (According to the author, it’s a metaphor for his diagnosis of dyslexia.)

Imagine what this says about the mindset of the book censors. They find it deeply threatening and subversive simply to say that you might not be who or what society tells you you are. Even in a story that says nothing about sexuality or gender, they can’t tolerate that. They want to keep any hint of that idea far away from the minds of children.

If these wannabe book-burners weren’t such a threat, they would be ludicrous. It’s a sign of how porcelain-fragile their worldview is that they can’t stand to have kids even consider making up their own minds about their identity. Their only hope, as shown by their own actions, is to raise children who never ask questions and never doubt anything they’re told.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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