Carrie Jenkins is the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia and author of What Love Is and What It Could Be.
The American Library Association recently published a list of America's top 10 "most challenged" books of 2016. A challenge is "an attempt to remove or restrict" a book, for example by removing it from a library or taking it off a school curriculum. Sometimes this works: the ALA reports that five of the top 10 books were successfully removed from the places where they were challenged.
To a philosopher, this list is fascinating: it points us straight to the ideas that are considered the most dangerous. So, what are they?
The answer is loud and clear: threats to conservative conceptions of sex, love, and gender. Eight of the top 10 books were challenged for including material relating to sex or sexuality. Perhaps some of this is simple prudishness, but that's not the whole story. Five of the 10 were challenged for including LGBT characters or themes. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan was challenged "because its cover has an image of two boys kissing." I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, and Shelagh McNicholas was challenged "because it portrays a transgender child." The emergent pattern is as much about policing love and gender roles as pearl-clutching sex negativity.
In my research on the social construction of romantic love, I address the vital importance of representation. The kinds of love we see on our screens and read about in our books are no mere reflections of reality. Representation is the means by which we collectively construct a "script" that romantic love is supposed to follow. Deviations from this script are policed and punished, but if they continue long enough, the script will organically shift, and eventually be rewritten.
Obviously these shifts are unsettling to those most privileged by the status quo. But they are also unsettling in a metaphysical sense: this is literally how we change the world. It can be tempting to think of social constructs such as romantic scripts as made up and hence not real.
But this is a mistake. Social reality is our reality: the reality in which we must live. Rewriting our socially constructed scripts, through more accurate and diverse representation, is the only way we can improve the social constructs that shape our lives. Just as scientific advances improve our lives through better technology, advances in what we might call social technology – more and better stories, concepts, words, ideas – improve our chances of flourishing as social beings.
The ALA data reveals an America busily engaged in stifling progress on new social technologies in the areas of sex, love and gender. One reason for this is simple: these things are incredibly important. We don't bother to police the trivial, or to silence the ineffectual. What we rush to shut down are credible threats: deep challenges that really might change the world. Intriguingly, the most so-called dangerous book on the list is This One Summer, an award-winning graphic novel by Canadians Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. In some ways, Canada has outpaced America in challenging established scripts: same-sex marriage was legal throughout Canada in 2005, 10 years before the equivalent U.S. ruling.
It is also unsurprising to see the social policing of sex, love and gender proceeding hand-in-hand: these scripts are tightly interwoven. For example, the hyper-sexualization of queer relationships generates a gendered double standard (two boys kissing is deemed explicit, but a boy kissing a girl is deemed romantic), and writes queer love out of the script by painting all queer relationships as purely sexual. In several cases, a single book on the list was challenged both for including LGBT themes and for being sexually explicit or inappropriate, which makes sense when queerness itself is assumed to be all about sex.
This all might sound like bad news for progressives about sex, love and gender and, in a sense, it is. But at a deeper level, it is good news, too. These are the stories Americans are so afraid of that they're reduced to trying to shut them down. These are our new and world-changing social technologies: ideas that can no longer be adequately refuted, but only silenced.