Words: Technologies of Power

February 21, 2022

When my book came out, someone sent me a photo from a Hong Kong library, where they had found a copy. I used to live in Hong Kong, a dazzling metropolis on the South China Sea, where I worked on human rights issues, including crimes against humanity. Seeing that image, my breath hitched. Hong Kong was in the throes of a massive democratic protest movement, with brave activists crowding the streets to rally against Beijing’s encroachment on human rights, including the National Security Law that passed in 2020. My heart was breaking for my friends and colleagues there. As I saw the photograph of my book in that library, I was honored; I also remember thinking to myself: perhaps the government censors hadn’t yet seen what I wrote about the Chinese surveillance state.

The Chinese Communist Party has asserted near total control over the internet and other media in the country. They have also been systematically moving to gatekeep which printed books can be read. In the years since the 1997 hand-over from the UK, there has been a steady, concerted effort to shadow ban books available in Hong Kong and on the mainland that don’t align with the CCP’s ideologies. Writing and publishing anywhere in China has become a dangerous game. Pro-democracy books have been pulled from shelves; publishers have formed an underground market for illicit books; and booksellers have limited what they show at book fairs. All this as Hong Kong citizens have been jailed and exiled in droves for attempting to preserve the memories of their homeland’s eroding democratic freedoms, of past political activism and atrocities like Tiananmen, and of hope for the future.

Attempts to restrict what one can read or write, or what can be taught in school, are not confined to China. They are ramping up in the United States again too. A Tennessee school board banned the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic about the horrors of the Holocaust, Maus, for its language and nudity. In Oklahoma, a state senate bill seeks to prohibit library books that speak to racial, gender, and sexual identity. Unfortunately, we have been here before. Iterations of this page from the authoritarian playbook have gone on since time immemorial, from Russia to Hungary to Turkey to Brazil. Writers all over the world are at risk. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam is known to have said, “If they’re killing people for poetry, that means they honor and esteem it, they fear it, that means poetry is power.” Mandelstam died in a Soviet gulag in 1938.

Words are technologies of power. They are life rafts in the seas of a terrifying, miraculous, complex world. They can be earth-shattering, hilarious, and uncomfortable. Books are the conduit to what Atticus Finch tells us in To Kill A Mockingbird (a frequently banned book) about people: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

As a human rights lawyer, I study genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. I write about what it means to be human. And what I know is this: all the worst things we do to each other begin with some form of dehumanization. Plant a seed of othering and it can grow into a tree of atrocity. It doesn’t happen all at once — the process of dehumanization is incremental. When you ban a book from a library, you seek to erase an author’s ideas and start down a precarious path of censorship and vanishing diversity of thought. In attempting to silence these voices, you begin the erosion of their humanity, and your own. This is where hate begins.

Dehumanization has to do with a lack of imagination — a banal unwillingness to see others and their experiences as fully human. For compassion and communion to bloom, we need to “climb into their skin and walk around in it” — to begin to identify with others’ vulnerabilities and fears, their majesty and brilliance. This is what books, and other forms of art, can help us do. To speak about prohibiting a book in a children’s library because it causes “discomfort” is to display a lack of imagination of the highest order — an attempt to wall children off from their own and other minds, and from the imperfect, prismatic world we must all reside in. Nobel-Laureate Toni Morrison, whose breathtaking and fearless novels have been banned more than most, knew this all too well. Not only are kids so much more capable than we give them credit for — but to walk around in someone else’s skin is necessarily uncomfortable by design. These are the courageous conversations that can lead us to an understanding of our shared humanness.

What I suspect terrifies an intolerant school board about a book is that when a child reads one, a new door opens, and that young person becomes capable of building a structure of values that are all their own, of finding an ethical compass that isn’t shaped primarily by their parents, or by those seeking to control their access to information. In the United States in particular, the idea that a child isn’t wholly beholden to the teachings of the parent is anathema. It’s no coincidence that many of the most banned books in this country have to do with racism, sexism, discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, and the like. When someone in their formative years is allowed to see things outside their own experience they are no longer as isolated and afraid of the Other, whatever or whoever that may be for them.

While book banning may be nothing new, the proliferation of online information sharing technologies is. Social media fans the flames of hatred and spreads dis- and misinformation like wildfire today; whereas nuanced understanding requires far greater attention (and isn’t as amplified by the algorithms trained to magnify sensationalist clickbait). The speed and scale of communication and politicization are extreme online. Today, a group looking to ban a book has new tactics to push these restrictions into political campaigns and legislative action. All while wannabe autocrats are leveraging social platforms’ reach to propagate lies and ignorance, for political advantage, at a pace never before seen in human history.

We are living in a time where our physical books take on new meaning. Research shows that reading a printed book has a different chemical reaction in the brain than a digital version. When we read in print, we garner better narrative understanding and demonstrate higher levels of empathy than we do on screens. Studies show that fiction in particular can expand our compassionate horizons. We gain something profound when we grapple with a character’s arc over many pages, mulled over within the intimacy of our imaginations, in conversation with the authors, living and dead, who wrote those words.

In our brave new world of online surveillance and 280 character missives, of endless scrolling and shortening attention spans, a printed book can’t be traced like your virtual activity can — protecting our cognitive liberty and making it more valuable than ever. Books still are, as Stephen King (another proud writer of many a banned book) called them, “our most uniquely portable magic.” They are dangerous tools of destruction indeed — because the best ones break down the barriers that separate you and me. In other words, they humanize us. As essential as what’s inside a book is the art and practice of reading them — lots of them. In this way, we learn to wrestle with, to question, to marinate in ideas, to take in a story and swirl it around in our imagination; and to also know that there are many more yet to explore.

As I was finishing writing this essay, one of my best friends, who I met in Hong Kong, sent me a text. It was a photo of her one-year-old son. He had his books scattered all over the floor, including many that I have given him (I always have at least one book for him when I go to their house). Then another text came in — he was now going through his book pile, beaming, and hugging each one.

¤

Flynn Coleman is a writer, an international human rights lawyer, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government & The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She is also a Visiting Fellow at Yale University, with an appointment at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. She is the author of A Human Algorithm.