I was listening to a new podcast I found, Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart in which he was discussing the efforts of an Evangelical woman in the south to have certain books at the local school banned for content she deemed objectionable. He mentioned in an offhand way that he had just learned that a high school principal in Scottsdale, AZ was fired over one of his own books. That’s how I found out that my daughter’s high school principal was fired over a book that my daughter had opted to read for her summer reading list for an AP English class her junior year. Since my daughter’s now at college, and this happened after she graduated (and during the pandemic), we were unaware of what had happened, and our first thought was, “Holy crap, did [vocal Mormon family who does stuff like this] just get the principal fired??”[1]

The podcast was the first time I heard about it, but it wasn’t the first time someone told me about it. It’s just the first time I paid attention. The first version I heard of what happened was given from the side of the outraged parents, that the book was completely inappropriate for high school students and contained profanity, bestiality (!), and a Nazi sex party. My daughter told me, “I loved that book! I actually just re-read it last week because I liked it so much. It’s right here by my bed.” She just couldn’t believe that this book was so controversial that her principal got fired over it. I pointed out that not all kids were raised watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit like she was. Clearly this was a book I needed to read for myself, so I downloaded it and read it during my recent trip overseas.

Contrary to the version some parents at my daughter’s alma mater were pedalling, this is not a love story about a woman and a horse, although it does contain a reference to people who claimed to practice bestiality [2] and there was one use of the “c” word (which, trust me, is not uncommon in Britain although Americans really hate that word). The book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is about cancel culture and goes through several case studies of individuals who were cancelled, usually on social media. Those who were cancelled experienced intense suffering that felt like a sort of death. The book also explored how to deal with this happening, and whether the key was to just be OK with what we’ve done, to be radically honest about who we are and what our views are [3]. Rather than a didactic book about the evils of social shaming (or the evils people do that get them cancelled), the book is more like interesting dinner conversation about cases in which people did suffer social shame for statements they made or actions they took. The author fairly successfully avoids condemning people in the process, no mean feat given the subject matter.

Was the book appropriate for high school students? That’s definitely a matter of opinion. It wasn’t written as a high school text or with high schoolers in mind. Some parents might be reasonably upset if it was mandatory reading, but in this case, it was on an optional summer reading list only for AP students. Given that, the real issue was that school policy wasn’t followed. The board normally approves all reading, and if the book is considered controversial, there should be a parental approval form for the student to choose the book. This process was not followed, and my best guess is that the principal told the outraged parents to pound sand, backing the teacher (who wasn’t fired) rather than the policy. The board wasn’t having it, and to reassert their authority, they fired the principal. If so, I suppose that’s in their right.

But is the point to make sure parents are informed and can choose to avoid content, or is it to greatly limit the number of approved choices to only those without controversy? If the former, that’s more or less how the policy worked when I was in school, but more and more it seems the point is to preference the voices of religious activists and fully ban books from the reading list, even books that were not deemed controversial when I was a student and have been staples of the curriculum for decades.

A friend I grew up with recently sent me a link to an article from our own high school in rural Pennsylvania in which a couple of Evangelicals who participated in the January 6th insurrection have gotten elected to the school board and began banning books right and left including all Toni Morrison books which deal with themes of slavery, Shakespeare’s classic Romeo & Juliet, and To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s some crazy pants book banning right there, and I’m not sure just how far off the nut you have to be to find them controversial.

Jon Ronson’s book was certainly more relevant and timely than many of these books, written about a fairly modern phenomenon, albeit with an eye to the historical precedents of cancellation. Did the teacher deliberately avoid going through the process to avoid board scrutiny or parental control? According to my daughter, this teacher said and did things in class that were sometimes problematic on race, such as using the N word to “take the power out of it” which sure doesn’t sound like the right move for a white woman to decide in a predominantly white school. Obviously, she didn’t have infallible judgment, although again, I must reiterate, she’s not the one who got fired. The other book that was an option included date rape which my daughter found depressing, heavy material; none of the parents objected to the book with date rape in it. [4]

When I pointed out to my daughter that I heard plenty of profanity and sexual content just by attending the public school system, which didn’t come with a parental warning, she countered quite rightly that every student is carrying the entire internet on their phones to school every day; they all have access to basically everything, regardless of the approved reading list.

These types of debates also seem to highlight another problem with the banning: that white, conservative, religious parents’ wishes are being privileged over BIPOC and other parents’ wishes. If we care about parents having a say in the books our children read, we have to realize that not all of us are trying to keep our kids in a bubble where exposure to critical thinking and ideas is a threat. A lot of parents feel, as I do, that education is for grappling with difficult concepts, not white-washing and censoring. I have no objection to parents having to sign off on controversial books, but some parents want to police what everyone else reads, not just their own kids.

  • Are these types of reading censorship happening in your area?
  • How would you deal with controversial books in the schools?
  • Are there books you think should be disallowed from school libraries? What are they?


[1] They did not. It was some parent we didn’t know at all. Apparently the Mormons aren’t the only ones who hate free speech!

[2] On household cats no less!

[3] The aforementioned “Nazi sex party” is an example of this, although as the person cancelled hastened to clarify, they were German military uniforms, not Nazi. The person caught up in cancel culture refused to be ashamed of his consensual sexual behavior, and brazened it out.

[4] The Church would have revised that, inaccurately (one truth and a lie style), to “non-consensual immorality.”