Book ban debate plays into deepening divides. Are we either 'fascists' or 'groomers'?

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As an English major, I love books. I always have. And I’m continually adding to my collection, which becomes obvious (and daunting) whenever we have to move.

So when I hear about book bans, I pay attention. Such rhetoric has dominated the headlines lately.

Yet, that is what’s at the heart of many of these heated discussions: rhetoric – not reality.

What books should be on the shelves of school libraries has become the epicenter of the country’s culture wars. With that, rationality has gone out the window.

These books are among those banned in school and public libraries around the country.
These books are among those banned in school and public libraries around the country.

If you oppose graphic sexual content on classroom shelves, you’re not just a concerned parent: You’re a “fascist.” And if you advocate for any book addressing LGBTQ themes? You’re a “groomer.

Surely, there’s more nuance to be had in these debates.

Parents' group Moms for Liberty labeled 'extremists'

Maybe not.

This week, the nonprofit group Moms for Liberty – composed of moms who are concerned about what’s going on in their children’s classrooms – was ridiculously slapped with the “extremist” label by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It’s beyond a stretch to say that these parents are all “haters.”

“I get a little bit irritated with those who are trying to conflate legitimate concerns about age appropriateness with an anti-LGBTQ stance,” Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow in K-12 education at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. “I think it's really important to be kind of clear that those are not the same thing.”

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Moms for Liberty, which gained national prominence during school lockdowns for COVID-19, is an effective advocate at the local level in calling attention to books and curriculum that might not be suitable for children.

What started as a grassroots campaign among parents has caught the attention of leading 2024 Republican presidential contenders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.

DeSantis has risen in prominence in large part because of the stances he has taken against “woke” ideology being taught in schools.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing the Stop WOKE Act in April 2022.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd before publicly signing the Stop WOKE Act in April 2022.

Given the political implications, don’t expect the rhetoric to calm down anytime soon.

“That's really the problem with this discussion is people retreat to their ideological priors and refuse to exercise the kind of common sense and adult discernment that would have just been obvious and unremarkable in any other time,” Pondiscio said.

These aren't 'book bans'

I realize it’s a lot to ask, but it would be nice if accurate language were applied to these “book banning” disputes. Because let’s be clear: What’s happening at school libraries are not book bans. All the books up for debate are all very much available to anyone who wants them. No one is saying stop publishing them altogether.

Editing history: The thought police come for Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. Better buy the books you want now.

Rather, the questions revolve around what’s appropriate for elementary or middle school children and whether a book deserves a place on a classroom or school library shelf.

If the definition of a book ban were that a library didn’t have the book in its catalog, then 99.9% of all books would effectively be banned.

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Libraries and bookstores curate what they want to highlight, so it only makes sense that parents would be involved in making selections that reflect their school communities’ values.

Let's calm down with the hyperbole

Unfortunately, the word “ban” is thrown around to elicit outrage when it’s not justified. That’s what happened recently when a Florida school allegedly “banned” poet Amanda Gorman’s poem "The Hill We Climb," which has been published as a short book.

When the facts came out, however, the story was much less sensational. The book was always still available to middle school students, just with some limits to elementary students. The school has stated that the book remains widely accessible.

In other words, much ado about nothing.

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Similarly, PEN America, which advocates for writers, including poets and novelists, has raised the alarm that “banning” is at an all-time high. A report from last year claims that more than 2,500 books were banned in public schools in the 2021-22 school year.

It sounds alarming, if true.

But it’s not, according to an investigation from The Heritage Foundation, which looked at the online card catalogs of the school districts in question. It found that 74% of the books identified by PEN America are in fact available to students.

The books the Heritage scholars most often couldn’t find include “Gender Queer,” “Flamer,” “Lawn Boy,” “Fun Home” and “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health,” which are among the most frequently challenged because of their sexual and graphic content.

“Determining what books are age-appropriate and educationally valuable enough to be purchased and kept in school libraries is inherently contentious even among well-intentioned people,” Heritage's researchers wrote. “But having a productive process for adjudicating these disputes is rendered impossible by false and hysterical claims from organizations like PEN America that there is ‘widespread censorship in America.’”

USA TODAY columnist Ingrid Jacques
USA TODAY columnist Ingrid Jacques

Therein lies the problem.

This kind of inflated rhetoric ironically does a disservice to the ones this debate is supposed to be about: your kids.

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at ijacques@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Are book bans in schools even real? Rhetoric doesn't match reality