Books are scary. They make you think…

Never mind if small children are bullied mercilessly at school – the only important thing is that certain parents are spared the discomfort of having to answer awkward questions from their children

Funny things, books. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house that was literally bursting at the seams with them, and can confirm that they come in an almost infinite variety. There are Penguin books, Puffin books, Ladybird books, thick books, thin books, hardbacks, paperbacks, reference books, coffee table books, books with appendices, books without appendices, books with pop-up illustrations, books with no illustrations at all… books about this, books about that, books about the other… it just never stops. 

There are now even such things as ‘electronic books’ – you know, just in case the traditional printed variety no longer has the power to ‘shock’. 

But then again, it seems this innovation was hardly needed. Even if antiquated, the bound book very clearly retains that power today. In fact, ever since the first printing presses started churning out publications in previously unimaginable numbers, the resulting books have done nothing but shock, offend and disturb for centuries. 

They are evidently still at it today. We may live in an age of instant communication and inter-connectivity, when mobile phones are small enough to be comfortably inserted into your earhole (while still commanding more intelligence than most people have in their brains)… but if you want to shock, offend or disturb, nothing does the trick quite like a good old-fashioned bunch of papers held together with glue. 

Just consider for a moment how all totalitarian regimes have instinctively distrusted books of all shapes and sizes. Chairman Mao Zedong once famously said that ‘to read too many books is harmful’. (What he meant, of course, was that reading the wrong ones might result in your liquidation as an ‘enemy of the state’). 

Elsewhere, the Nazis were so terrified of the power of the printed word that they burnt great piles of books in public conflagrations. There is a certain irony in there somewhere: for the Nazis did pretty much the same thing to large numbers of people, too… raising the question of which was actually the more dangerous: Nazism, or the printed word.

Meanwhile, the full list of books to have been banned for political and/or moral reasons makes for interesting (and at times surprising) reading. Some titles are obvious – Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 were banned for political reasons in the USSR, as was Huxley’s Brave New World… while Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the UK on moral grounds until the 1950s.

But did you know that Alice in Wonderland was once banned in the Huan province of China, because (according to the censors) “attributing human language to animals was an insult to humans”? Or that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was deemed too obscene to be allowed in bookshops in several US states… specifically because of its repetitive use of the word ‘whore’?

And until fairly recently, certain books deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the Church were placed on ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’: making them theoretically off-limits to practising Catholics the world over. Authors whose entire works were thus anathematised included Thomas Hobbes, Bernard Spizona, Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, Immanuel Kant (because, let’s face it, you ‘Kant’ have too much of a good thing)… and even John Milton, for all his efforts to ‘justify God’s ways to Man’.

So make no mistake. Books are, and have always been, decidedly scary things. Which is why I was not in the least surprised to note that a relatively small number of books caused a veritable panic among parents of kindergarten-aged children in recent weeks: enough for around 6,000 of them to join forces for a Facebook equivalent of a good old-fashioned ‘Book Barbecue’.

You probably already know the details, so I’ll keep this part brief. Some weeks ago, the Malta Gay Rights Movement donated a number of books – numerous copies of 14 titles, for a total of around 100 volumes – to the Education Ministry, which in turn publicly declared that they would be distributed among schoolchildren attending State schools.

This week, however, Education Minister Evarist Bartolo announced a small change of plan. Following complaints that distribution of such material would constitute ‘gender indoctrination’, Bartolo bowed to the demands of those 6,000 parents and announced that the offending books “have not and will not be distributed to their children”.

All of which struck me as slightly odd, for a number of reasons. Let’s start with the logistical aspects of the original plan. Bartolo himself now concedes that a total of 100 books constitutes a ‘drop in the ocean’, compared to the 45,000+ children currently attending State schools. Distributing those books was therefore all along impossible: you’d need a miracle equivalent to that of the loaves and fishes (either that, or each student would have to come away with around 0.0022 of each edition).

So why the hell did the ministry declare that these books would be given out to all schoolchildren in the first place… when it knew perfectly well that this couldn’t actually be done? Are we to understand that a simple mathematical operation (100 divided by 45,000) was beyond the capabilities of the entire Education Ministry at the time? If so, it’s a slightly worrying thought…

Leaving aside the practicalities for a second… there is also the issue of Malta’s current educational policies. In accepting this donation, Minister Bartolo said that his government was in favour of this measure, as it was in line with its “education for all principle”.

“NGOs drive institutions towards the needs of civil society and we hope that this measure will become widespread across all public schools in time,” he said. “Education should be such that it is as inclusive and diversified as possible.”

And yet, the idea to introduce young children to the concept of gender identity did not come from a government that is committed to ‘inclusive and diversified’ education. It came from the gay rights lobby (and, as we all saw this week, didn’t actually get very far).

So where does this actually leave government’s education policy today? Closing an eye at random private initiatives by non-governmental lobby groups such as MGRM… what is currently being done in schools to address these issues? 

Clearly there cannot be very much substance to this ‘inclusive and diversified’ educational policy, if it has to rely on donations from private sources… and even then, if it can so easily be thwarted by public pressure. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if any such policy exists at all. So far we only have the minister’s word that it does. But schoolchildren need more than just ministerial statements. They also need resources available at their school… including text-books, where necessary.

As things stand, however, we now have a ministerial assurance that schoolchildren will NOT be given those resources after all. And what is that, if not an admission that the government’s presumed ‘inclusive and diversified’ education policy exists only on paper... but is nowhere to be seen when it comes to the place that matters the most: i.e., in schools?

And all along, there is mounting evidence that this sort of policy is sorely needed. Abundant research indicates that LGBTIQ persons – and in particular, transgender individuals – are considerably more prone to suicide attempts than other categories… with the risk multiplying exponentially in cases where people are bullied at school or the workplace. 

To quote but one study out of hundreds: “suicide rates of LGBTIQ youth were higher in communities and schools which did not provide them a supportive, inclusive environment and lower in communities and schools that DID provide a supportive environment.” (from ‘The Social Environment and Suicide Attempts in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth’, by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler). 

This brings us to the actual contents of those books that scared so many people in this country… many of whom very evidently didn’t bother actually reading them. 

Far from ‘teaching children how to masturbate’ (as one particularly imaginative comment put it… though I suspect the comment tells us more about the masturbatory habits of the person making it, than about the books themselves) the scope of those publications was actually to raise awareness of LGBTIQ issues for the specific purpose of avoiding or minimising any social stigma. 

Put simply. the idea is to normalise categories of people which are today all too often regarded as ‘abnormal’… to the extent that individuals are often bullied at school, and in some cases driven to suicide by permanent harassment.

Placed in the context of a country which has recently legislated to recognise ‘unorthodox’ family units – including same sex couples, complete with the possibility of adoption – it is actually a case of preparing future generations for social realities that we already legally recognise today. How on earth could that possibly be a bad thing?

Ah, but I almost forgot. We’re talking about books. Big, bad scary books, of the kind that terrified even the most homicidal of psychopathic dictators. And with good reason: because books make you think, and thinking makes you ask questions. And herein lies the real source of the panic that descended among those 6,000 parents.

One of them even took the trouble to spell it out for us. I’ll reproduce the comment here in full (but not the name, which in any case was probably fictitious): “Good sense prevailed – sigh of relief. I was already bracing myself for lot of disturbing questions from my kids…”

Well, that sort of changes perspective on things, doesn’t it? The objection to those books clearly had less to do with the ultimate aim of their distribution… and more to do with the parent’s own instinctive fear of being questioned by their children. 

So never mind if small children are bullied mercilessly at school because they are (or might be) gay… never mind if transgender children find life so unbearable that they would willingly choose death instead. None of that is important: the only important thing is that certain parents are spared the discomfort of having to answer awkward, embarrassing questions from their children.

There is only one thing to say to parents such as those. If you have no intention of living up to the responsibilities of parenthood – which extend to informing your children of things they need to know, regardless how uncomfortable it may be for you – then quite frankly you shouldn’t have brought any children into the world in the first place.

The very least you could do, then, is to allow other parents a stab at the responsibility you yourselves have so clearly abdicated.