What is the psychology behind the destruction of books?
In my childhood home, books were very nearly sacred objects. Mishandling a book from our home library shelf risked a stern parental reprimand, and works of great literature were spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. The notion that anything could ever justify banning a book—much less burning one—was anathema in my liberal-progressive household of the 1960s.
In marked contrast, human history is replete with instances of book banning and burning.1
To cite but a few examples:
-In 1242, King Louis IX of France (“Saint Louis”) ordered the burning of 24 cartloads of priceless Hebrew manuscripts, including the Talmud, which he regarded as an insult to Christianity.2
-In 1497-1498, the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) instigated the infamous “bonfires of the vanities” which destroyed books and paintings by some of Florence’s greatest artists. Ironically, Savonarola himself, along with all his writings, was burned on the cross in 1498.
-In 1933, a series of massive bonfires in Nazi Germany burned thousands of books written by Jews, communists, and such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Mann.
In our own time—particularly in the past 5 years—there has been a notable spike in book banning in the United States, and at least 1 recent incident of book burning.3
According to a report from PEN America, there were 1586 instances of individual books being banned during the 9-month period from July 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, affecting 1145 book titles. Texas had the most bans (713), followed by Pennsylvania (456), Florida (204), and Oklahoma (43).4
In 2021, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom(OIF) tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services, representing challenges to 1597 individual book titles—the largest number of attempted book bans in public and school libraries since OIF began tracking challenges 20 years ago.5
As noted, there is at least 1 recent report (October 19, 2019) of book burning, in which an Iowa man checked out and then burned 4 LGBTQ-themed books from the Orange City Public Library because he “found messages of the books to be offensive.”3
It appears that the most frequently challenged books tend to have the following themes6:
-LGBTQ topics or characters
-Sex, abortion, teen pregnancy, or puberty
-Race and racism, or protagonists of color
-The history of Black people
Although many bans and challenges originated from parents, law enforcement and state legislators were involved in some cases. (It is important to state that not all “challenges” result in outright bans, and that parents have the legal right to question the suitability of material their children may read in school).
Book challenges and/or bans may be initiated by those associated with both the political “right” and “left.” For example, Rob Standridge, a Republican state senator in Oklahoma, filed a bill to ban books that have to do with issues such as sexual orientation, sexual activity, and gender identity. We can also cite the case of 2 Democratic state legislators from New Jersey who lobbied for schools to stop teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnbecause it contains racist language.6
My intention here is not to settle or adjudicate the thorny political issues involved in such challenges. Rather, I want to explore the psychology of book banning and burning. I believe that understanding the psychological factors that prompt these behaviors falls well within the purview of social psychiatry, and may sometimes have implications for individual psychotherapy. Further, I believe the concept of “moral panic” is very useful in clarifying the phenomena of book banning and burning.7
The Concept of Moral Panic
Kane and Huang have defined “moral panics” as follows8: “Moral panics are a mass social phenomenon in which a perceived social problem is blown out of proportion and transformed in the popular consciousness into an existential threat to the very fabric of society.”
With respect to book banning and burning, moral panic can have serious consequences for our children9:
“The truth is, there is a moral panic on both sides [of the political spectrum] when it comes to books: Books are turning children into witches! Books are turning children into Marxists! Books are turning children into racists! Books are turning children into fatphobes! We must burn the books!”
In their 1994 book, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda identified 5 defining elements of “moral panic”10:
1. A heightened level of concern over the behavior of a so-called “deviant” group and its potential for negative effects on society.
2. An increased level of hostility toward the identified “deviants,” who are then designated “the enemy” of respectable society. This leads to the creation of “folk devils.”
3. There is a substantial consensus among the accusing segments of society that the “folk devils” represent a real and serious threat to society.
4. The perceived harm of the “deviant” group is out of proportion to the objective data, leading to disproportionate reactions by the accusing groups.
5. Moral panics are highly volatile and usually tend to disappear quickly as public interest wanes and the media shift to some other narrative.
In short, as Kane and Huang put it8:
“…moral panic draws up a line between upstanding citizens defending the social order, and the nebulous folk devils who threaten it. The folk devil is exaggerated into an existential threat that, left unchecked, will raze society and completely reshape it in a dystopian mold.”
From Society to the Waiting Room
Although the phenomenon of moral panic is usually discussed at a societal level, psychiatrists may see individual patients who have been influenced by one or another type of “moral panic.” For example, some patients who experience extreme revulsion toward homosexuality and express disdain for gay people—homophobia—seem to fit the paradigm described by Kane and Huang. As psychiatrist Martin Kantor, MD, has observed11:
“In the homophobic view of reality, human beings are stratified in a rigid class system, consisting of Ubermenschen [superior people]and Untermenschen [inferior people], with gays and lesbians intrinsically on a lower position on the scale than the one homophobes themselves occupy.”
This is not to suggest that all people who have moral or religious objections to homosexuality have a mental disorder, or that they favor banning or burning books, as was apparently true in the aforementioned Iowa case. I am simply hypothesizing that “moral panic” on a societal level may share some features with moral panic on an individual level. Ideally, as Kane and Huang suggest8:
“…future research taking a psychological perspective would enable an analytic framework that proceeds from a conceptualization of the moral panic as a sum of individual psychologies, and explain how individual actions create a greater social phenomenon with emergent properties…”
In my view, whether on a societal or individual level, moral panics entail the creation of what I would call “the demonized Other”—the “folk devil” that becomes the target of hatred, suspicion, and stigmatization. It may seem strange, but history clearly shows us that inanimate paper objects can become “folk devils,” based on the ideas or themes they convey. Tragically, as Savonarola found out, the psychological distance between burning books and burning people is sometimes very short.
Dr Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2007-2010). Dr Pies is the author of Psychiatry at the Crossroads and other works that can be found on Amazon.
1. Bannings and burnings in history. Freedom to Read. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.freedomtoread.ca/resources/bannings-and-burnings-in-history/
2. The burning of the Talmud. JewishHistory.org. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-burning-of-the-talmud/
3. Mahoney M. Charge in book burning case not dismissed. nwestiowa.com. Updated August 6, 2019. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.nwestiowa.com/news/charge-in-book-burning-case-not-dismissed/article_c5ecb5a6-a286-11e9-afc0-2fbf43116db0.html
4. PEN America 100. Banned in the USA: Rising school book bans threaten free expression and students’ first amendment rights (April 2022). Accessed June 2, 2023. https://pen.org/banned-in-the-usa/
5. The State of America’s Libraries: Special Report Pandemic Year Two. American Library Association. April 2022. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.ala.org/news/sites/ala.org.news/files/content/state-of-americas-libraries-special-report-pandemic-year-two.pdf
6. Haupt A. The rise in book bans, explained. Washington Post. June 9, 2022. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/06/09/rise-book-bans-explained/
7. Moral panic. Wikipedia. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Moral_panic&oldid=1157464914
8. Kane S, Huang H. The emotional psychology of moral panics: a cognitive neoassociationistic perspective. October 23, 2021. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/x3msv
9. Szetela A. When it comes to banning books, both right and left are guilty. Newsweek. April 7, 2022. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.newsweek.com/when-it-comes-banning-books-both-right-left-are-guilty-opinion-1696045
10. Goode E, Ben-Yehuda N. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Wiley-Blackwell; 1994.
11. Kantor M. Homophobia. The State of Sexual Bigotry Today. Praeger Publishers; 2009.