Hearing the Unacceptable

The not-quite-well-named Banned Books Week is upon us again, with the annual ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s collection of books most frequently named in community-level challenges to fittedness for someone other than the complainant and their own children to read. This year’s list has the typical earmarks of negativity aimed at books that speak to kids at those scary ages when they are demonstrating a new level of independence from parental control: the newly minted kindergartener, the middle schooler entering adolescence, the not-quite-out-of-the-house teen who can get out and about readily without parental assist. The remainder of the Top 10 Troublemakers speaks to the American shadow disposition of Puritanism: the frank recognition of sexual behaviors, the use of proscribed language, and authorship by someone later charged with crimes.

Calling out issues of intellectual freedom regarding specifically audiobook content has, at the level of national attention, been rooted in content that remains identical between print and spoken formats, with challengers who are cited objecting to the same works in audiobook as in print and for the same reasons. Five years ago, Professor Teri LeSesne predicted the likelihood of growth in the audiobook challenge industry, again noting works in trouble due to what the authors wrote, not to hearing-specific aspect of the written. As more audiobooks are produced and available, and with audiobook publishing for children and youth—the primary targets of books that meet community challenges—reflecting new and critically reviewed authors and print works, it becomes increasingly easy to find audiobook editions of titles on the list of troublemaking titles.

However, there is another avenue into the thicket of objecting pleas and demands for specific title (or author) removal when it comes to audiobooks. Twenty years ago, I walked into my first experience with this when the ever-popular-among-challengers The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which has seen numerous audiobook versions become available performing Mark Twain’s American classic) was returned to my employing library by an irate parent whose high school student had elected to listen to, rather than visually consume, his English assignment. On the face of it, the parental objection was the same for the audiobook as Twain’s novel has received for years, which is to say exposure of the audience to the gross white term accorded Americans of African ancestry. However, this parent (who happened to be white and self-identified as liberal) was clear in explaining that she understood why Tain used the term and that she did not think it should be expunged from print editions of his work. To hear it aloud, however? That was a different matter and a nail in the coffin of this new fangled idea that audiobooks made perfectly suitable “reading” variants.

It turned out that she was simply the first of several such encounters I noted in the immediately following years: parents who didn’t want their kids to hear “bad words,” although reading them (in exactly the same context and to the same textual end) was an understandable, and acceptable, premise of educating their minds. I looked for news reports from other communities to find how this matter might be raising its head elsewhere. The paradigmatic element of this issue seemed so under-reported that I was able to unearth nothing then. Annually, I return to this little project: is anyone objecting to hearing—well, their kids hearing—terminology which the objector manages to let go when the same “victim” only sees it?

One instance I have found of a hearing-specific hesitation has come from a high school English teacher who no longer teaches Huckleberry Finn precisely because he, a middle aged African American man, has noted that his urban students no longer seem to have any response to the very terminology that parent in the past found to be objectionable to being heard. It (the term) has lost its punch with his diverse students—neither reading it nor hearing it in the context of asset classroom text seems to cause them any frisson—while the parents, yes, again the parents, complain about the “disturbances” of powerful language.

Clean Reader, a bowdlerizing app developed to prevent juvenile exposure to swear words in ebooks, limits its mind-numbing ruin of writing to print on the screen. Much more on point, Apple was reported as acquiring a patent, in 2016, which could move forward a practical technical effort to eradicate “bad words” from both recorded music and audiobooks. What those “bad words” might include (usually swearing is cited in such reports) and who, of course, gets to be the arbiter of “bad” at the software writing stage, remain the true challenge to intellectual freedom here. I know a man who finds the sounds of the words “soda” and “Dakota” physically unpleasant; for him these are “bad words” because they have physical ramifications when they reach his ear.

On the other hand, if we want to move forward in a culture that continues, four centuries on, to find both sexuality and ethnic origins problematic, we need to say the words associated with such issues aloud. And hear them. And talk and listen to each other and to those who have crafted and presented ideas about them in manners that, yes, do intrude on our senses of equilibrium. If we fail the challenge of being able to hear and then think, we’re hardly ready for shouting our own versions of “right.”

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