Forget the nursery rhyme, Sticks and stones. . . Words can cause pain. They can inflict anguish, incite others to cause physical harm, can ruin people’s lives and livelihoods. Words are very powerful.
We don’t often talk about the hurt words can cause. That’s because they are necessary to explain ideas, to expose liars, to create art, and to further Justice and Truth. (Yes, the capitalizations are on purpose. No, they are not ironic.) As I said, words are very powerful.
The authors of the United States’s Constitution understood this power. It was the reason for the First Amendment which says essentially, “Government, lay off speech. It’s not yours to govern.” Good or ill, words belong to the people. A democratic society can only survive if its members have the freedom to use words with all their permutations, in any way they please.
But words can hurt. So we do put some limits on them, even in the United States*, though mostly our government does not intrude—people have a right to speak, even if it’s inconvenient to some or to many. I believe this is a Good Thing.
This is where the second shoe drops.
Two years ago, a horrific multiple murder occurred a few miles from my house. Burglars raped and killed two young girls and their mother and set their house afire. The father, beaten with a bat and left for dead, managed to escape although too late to save his family. Everyone I know in our community either knew the victims or knows someone who knew the victims. The brutality of the deaths has left wounds that are still raw.
Two suspects were apprehended fleeing the property. They are still awaiting trial. The judge issued a gag order preventing all sides from discussing the case until it is over.** But a writer with visions of being the next Truman Capote, I suppose, interviewed one of the prisoners and published a book‡ recounting the crime from his point of view.
Should our town library carry this book? Clearly the author had a right to publish it.‡‡ Does it follow that the library must purchase it?
No. No one has to purchase anything they don’t want.
But wait. Libraries have a special role in our society—and here I mean US society specifically. It relates back to the First Amendment. If we’re going to have this free society where people can speak without government interference, then we need a place to put all this speech, in all its contradictory forms, and make it available to people. The library serves this purpose. It’s a repository of information, all kinds of information, relevant to the community it serves. Its makes sure books, magazines, newspapers, electronic and audio media are available for entertainment, education and research. The librarian spends limited resources to provide the most relevant media to the community.
And so our town’s librarian thought the book very relevant to our community. Unsettling, perhaps, but unquestionably relevant. And some patrons asked for it. So she purchased it. A backlash ensued. Should the book be available? Should it be returned? Why should public funds have been used to buy it? She has been forced to justify her actions and defend the library from people who wish to ban the book from our community.
In principle, I defend our librarian. I will not join the forces asking for the book to be banned. If purchasing the book was a mistake, removing it from our shelves at this point would be a graver one. But if I had the chance, I’d sit down with our librarian over tea and cookies and ask her, was what she did wise?
In a community which is still raw from the damage inflicted by those burglars, the book’s words only hurt more. The book will be available elsewhere for anyone who wants it. Couldn’t she have waited until the trial was over, allowing at least a modicum of justice to prevail before the hurtful words became part of our community?
I don’t really know the answer to that last question. Am I a coward? Am I governed by emotion here? Am I missing a fundamental harm? I mean these questions earnestly. I really don’t know.
But I do recognize hurt, genuine hurt, when I see it. Especially in our community. And even if she was right, even if she was justified, even if she has furthered our democracy in some way, was she wise?
* You can’t willfully lie about someone to cause them harm. You must testify truthfully in court or be subjected to the criminal sanctions of perjury. You will be held accountable if you incite someone to harm people because of their race, creed, ethnicity or gender. The government can limit pornography and protect children from exploitation in art forms. For brief periods, it can shield voters and patients and mourners from harassment. It can keep official secrets to protect the country’s safety.
** Another instance where the government is permitted to curb speech.
‡ No, I will not link to it.
‡‡ Although I wonder whether a crime wasn’t committed in circumventing the gag order — but I’ll leave that to the prosecutor.