Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Suffer the little children

The book has been linked to at least three deaths, and details how to discipline children through such methods as switching babies as young as four months (using ‘a twelve-inch long, one-eighth-inch diameter sprig from a willow tree’), whipping, pulling their hair while breastfeeding, and striking with a rod, which the authors suggest should be fashioned from a quarter-inch plastic plumbing tube. The rod betrays the biblical inspiration of the method, which was devised by evangelical pastor Michael Pearl and his wife Debi. Cited in proceedings against parents guilty of murder and the subject of several petitions – including one directed at Amazon.com – attempting to limit its circulation, the book is currently available for general loan through the Auckland Libraries system.

To Train Up a Child was first published in 1994, but the library stocks the 2011 edition, so the acquisition must be quite recent. Certainly more recent than the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007. The bill – which removed the defence of ‘reasonable force’ for parents charged with assaulting their children – was passed by overwhelming majority, with opposition outside of Parliament coming from extreme conservative and Christian fringes. Nonetheless, the tension surrounding it was significant, as I witnessed in Autumn of that year when walking past protesters marching on Parliament for the right to continue beating their children, many of whom were also in attendance.

In other words, at the time of its acquisition by Auckland Libraries, the book described practices that were already illegal in New Zealand, having been dragged outside of the grey area that existed before the amendment to the Crimes Act (at least net of police discretion). Indeed, many of them would have been illegal before 2007 as well. Yet the book was acquired and, following protest and a petition by Eileen Joy, the library has so far refused to withdraw it.

In a statement, Regional Collections Manager Louise LaHatte acknowledges that ‘book is divisive and people may find its content offensive’, but cites the principle of the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) stating that
libraries, and particularly public libraries, are prime agencies for the dissemination of information. Librarians have a duty to acquire, organise, and provide access to information freely to the communities they serve.
To Train Up a Child – the statement goes on to note – has not been banned by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. The library will abide by its decisions, but not bow to public pressure.

Which is all very well. Even reassuring, to a point, seeing as I would hate for a conservative Christian group to start a petition for the removal from public collections of the works of the the Marquis de Sade (at least one of which is listed in the Auckland Libraries Catalogue as ‘Indecent unless its circulation is restricted to psychologists or psychiatrists or any adult bona fide student of literature or philosophy’, as per its censorship classification).

However, it seems logical to ask: why was the book acquired in the first place? Did a collections librarian order it by mistake, along with other parenting books? It is catalogued under 284.845, which if I know my Dewey is Christian parenting, so they must have had some idea of the genre. Did a patron request it, then, and did the request override concerns that the library might have had due to the principle of facilitating the free access to information?

Even this best-case scenario elicits more questions: what if our hypothetical patron had requested an as-yet-unclassified book advocating for racial segregation or gender-based discrimination? And yes, I know, most library systems in New Zealand stock Mein Kampf, but we are not talking about a work of historical interest. To Train Up a Child is a guide to child abuse. It has generated some controversy, but it has very limited value as an object of sociological or historical study. Besides, it is catalogued as a parenting aid, albeit of a religious nature. The book is simply meant to do what it says on the cover, and on the label beside its shelf.

Image from the Family First website
Forget about censorship and whether or not the book should be withdrawn from the Auckland Libraries network. Think instead about the shocking levels of child abuse and domestic violence in New Zealand, and consider the images it conjures up: the stereotypes about violence within Māori homes or poor families, versus the right to strike your child ‘as part of good parental correction’. The march I saw in Wellington was white, affluent, Christian. It was the respectable face of a social scourge. So too is the image of a smiling blond boy on the cover of To Train Up a Child soft and reassuring. This, I suspect, is the reason why the Auckland City Library found itself in possession of a book that promotes switching a four month old baby with the sprig of a willow tree. It forgot that it was violence, because we have not yet learned to accept that violence comes with that face.