The Hermeneutic of Subtraction

Meredith enjoyed the expression “Hermeneutic of Subtraction.” I don’t know if it’s original with me, but I do observe it quite a bit. To be fair, it’s not just a characteristic of conservatives, but of many aspects of our society. Whether they’re in power or not, the Right, God bless them, seem to get stuck with it a lot.

Rod Dreher, for example, refers to the “hysteria” of Banned Books Week. Banning books is a prime example of the Hermeneutic of Subtraction. I see the movement to ban books as an expression of the impotence of some parents, worried they cannot control adolescent rebellion, who decide to subcontract the rearing of their children to librarians and schools, and insist others do the job they feel they cannot do for themselves.

As a parent of a teen, I realize that if my daughter wanted to, she could borrow any library books she wanted. She might well know my wife or I would disapprove. She is smart enough to hide these books from us, read them at her leisure, return them and we would never be the wiser. I may have a thick wool hat pulled over my head, but I think I have a great relationship with my daughter. I don’t think I’ve given her any motivation to sneak around behind my back.

She did pick up one of the Pullman books a few months ago. My wife gave me an eyebrow, and the young miss (not seeing the subvocal exchange) returned it to the shelf, rejected.

If my daughter wanted to read something I thought inappropriate, I would make my case in a positive way, and suggest an alternative. If she insisted, I would hear her out. (She often rolls her eyes, by the way, when I ask her to make a case for what she wants. But she’s getting pretty good at it.) If she convinced me, we would talk about the content. I feel confident in the upbringing my wife and I have provided. If a teacher were to suggest something of questionable content, I think we would have a good family discussion about it. I certainly don’t need censors to help me raise my child. I’m not afraid of a silly book or two.

Is that to say that some things mustn’t ever be banned? No. Not at all. But observe carefully if the campaigners offer alternatives. A thoughtful person will always have something great to add to the shelf. I know my daughter’s reading likes and dislikes. I try to have suggestions I know she will enjoy. It’s always harder to build up than to tear down, but that’s the whole point of human civilization, isn’t it? If you want historical evidence for the Hermeneutic of Subtraction, just consider the Romans salting down Carthage or Alaric’s 410 sack of Rome or the Fourth Crusade.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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