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It’s the 21st century, and Estonia is banning books

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Controversial Estonian writer Kaur Kender has been under fire the last few weeks after publishing a short story considered by many as child pornography. The story provoked a possible criminal investigation, and a state-mandated ban. This is not acceptable, finds Sebastian Suarez.

There is no reason, nor should there ever be, to ban a book. We have come a long way on the road of human evolution, and we like to think that banning books (or burning them, which is the same thing essentially) is a reviled practice from the past.
Generally, freedom of expression is not a problem in Europe, or in Estonia. But I would remind readers that well into the 21st century, books such as Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” are still banned in Europe. In fact, the whole of Nazi symbolism is mostly prohibited, except for specifically scientific use. Holocaust denial is mostly criminalized.

One could understand that this is done to prevent something. But what, and why? Those are the questions that should be posed to those who argue in favor of banning books, symbols and ideas. We should embrace the past, and learn from it, both from the beautiful and the bad. You can’t hide an inconvenient truth by prohibiting it.

Kender wrote and published his short story, called “Untitled 12”. It describes sex crimes committed against minors. This is what prompted a criminal investigation, and opposition to its publication.

This reaction seems a little far-fetched. There are at least a dozen ways that could be used to protect readers and the general public. The general consensus of banning the story, as a first hammer-like response to something that we don’t like or that makes us uncomfortable, is dangerous.

It can’t matter that the book is considered pornographic. Anyone is entitled to write pornography. Otherwise, publications like Playboy, Maxim, or Fifty Shades of Grey, next to countless movies, books, TV shows and so on should be banned too.
Pornography by itself is not a crime. If Kender's short story is considered pornography, so be it. Set up a system that protects minors through disclaimers or age screening, as frequently used for pornographic websites. Or sell the books shrink-wrapped and only to those over 18 years of age. This has been done before, and is done in many countries. This is done with games and movies, for example, which normally have labels indicating the appropriate age.

Banning a writer’s work only based on sensibilities, while the concept of sensibility is as subjective as could possibly get, does not feel like an act of a free, democratic society to me. It feels forced. It feels like an attack against freedom of expression. It feels wrong.

Why would anyone write something like this? And who would want to read it? Those are questions we shouldn’t care to ask, nor try to answer, in a free society. The author shouldn’t have his work banned just because someone thinks that he has poor taste.

Discussing the issue, I’ve come across two arguments. First, the short story should be banned because it describes the sexual abuse of children, among other things, and the sexual abuse of children is a crime. Second, the short story should be banned because it might lead readers towards committing a crime of the same nature. Both arguments have their merits.
Regarding the first statement, it should be said that there are literally thousands of works of art and media that depict one crime or another. In most cases, we do not even give it a second thought. TV shows like The Tudors and Game of Thrones depict gruesome murders, rape, child abuse, and more. Award winning films like Zero Dark Thirty and Syriana, have intense torture scenes, and the 2009 Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes showcased a violent rape, followed by a murder.

Crimes of all sorts and nature have been the object of TV and radio shows, books, and films for as long as we can remember. Should they receive the same treatment? Because in essence, there is no difference between fictionalized child abuse and the fictionalized abuse of an adult beyond individual moral considerations. The same applies to fictionalized child abuse and the fictionalized abuse of a woman.

The second statement is easier to account for. The idea that a short story in particular or the media in general could lead to violent behavior has long been contested. In essence, there is no conclusive evidence that would allow us to hold this position based on facts. There has been no outbreak of violence associated with any of the shows I’ve mentioned here. Furthermore, humanity didn’t need mainstream access to violent media content to slaughter its way through history for thousands of years.

There is a possible third explanation why Kender’s story was banned, which says that the story needed to be banned because it is too graphic in its description of a very specific crime. But then what? We ban it, here and now, because we don’t like it, and because it makes us feel bad. But apparently, we’re quite comfortable with gruesome murders, as they can be had in crime and gore novels in any bookshop. What if that suddenly became an issue? Should we start banning books that describe gruesome murders? Who decides what to ban, when, and why? Who watches the watchmen? Who monitors the birds? Once we open this particular can of worms, should we prevent offensive speech altogether? Wouldn’t we be on the way to creating a spineless generation?

Sebastian Suarez is an Argentinian law professional, who is currently pursuing a Master Degree in Law with a specialization in International and Comparative Law at Tallinn University of Technology's Law School in Estonia.


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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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