Friday, November 13, 2009

Late Registration

"I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life."

Rapper Kanye West recently fired this shot over the bow, doubtless to warn the massed fleet of librarians pursuing him over the high seas of popular culture that they'd better back off or he'll, like, live at them. For REALZ.

Obviously, Kanye's pronouncement makes me cranky. But I think it's worth drilling down through the dudgeon to conduct some...enhanced interrogations of the statement. (Or, since those techniques have been outlawed, maybe just some questions.) Is Kanye's view legitmate? Is Kanye entitled to hold this view? Is he entitled to express it, and if so, is he entitled to do so on the public stage? And finally, does Kanye dissing reading constitute a public health issue?

Let's take it step by step:

1) Is Kanye's view legitimate?
The whole post-modern thing has made it difficult to comment on the prince vs. bastard status of subjective likes and dislikes, so I have to give Kanye this one. He doesn't like books. OK. He doesn't have to like books.

But it's worth noting that Kanye's statement goes further: He likes to get information from "doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life" It's that pesky word "real" with its implication of objectivity that gets him into trouble. Kanye is pretty clearly implying that "real life" is exclusively an oral medium, a point which seems debatable. Shame on Kanye for asking us to respect his subjective viewpoint while sneaking objectivity on the side.

2)Is Kanye entitled to hold this view?
Yes. I personally think this POV stinks worse than thirteen partially potty-trained preschoolers after a long day in the sun, but there's nothing I can do about it seeing as no one outside of 1984 has launched a successful campaign to legislate our thoughts.

3)Is Kanye entitled to express this view?
Again, yes. That whole America-land-of-the-free business. As far as I know, books are not a minority group protected by laws designed to curb hate speech. Even though there are probably fewer books than people.

4)Is Kanye entitled to express this view on a public stage?
This is a bit trickier. Kanye enjoys the same constitutional freedoms we all enjoy, and can probably declare, in public, that he is a technicolor zebra if he so desires. On the other hand, one could argue that Kanye, as a celebrity, is morally obligated by his status to moderate his speech. This is the Rousseau-Spider Man argument: "With great power comes great responsibility." Kanye may be entitled to express his loathing for all things book, but that doesn't mean he should.

A related line of argument is that because of Kanye's celebrity status and the empirically documented power of celebrities to shape behavior in the rest of us, Kanye's injunction against reading crosses the boundary from speech into act, much like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, and is thus subject to legislation. But that argument entangles us in big ol' boring debate on free will, among other things, and free will makes me sleepy.

I'll give this question a tentative yes. I wish I could say no, but censoring public speech is a slippery slope.

5) Does Kanye dissing reading constitute a public health issue?
This is the stickiest question of all. In the name of public health, Americans regularly accept limitations on their personal freedoms. Think seat belts. Think anti-smoking regulations. Think limited tobacco advertising, FDA regulation of warning labels and advertising, quarantines. We also, in the name of public health, facilitate the manipulation of national norms, as when the government sponsors campaigns to make drugs, sex, and alcohol use by teens seem abnormal and uncool. Social referencing is a powerful force, and studies have shown that people are much more likely to engage in a behavior when it is perceived as "normal."

Is lack of reading a public health risk? Would it have detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of the American public? This is the important question. If the answer is yes, then we ought either to silence Kanye or, more appropriately, to challenge him: we must paint his views as undesirable or outside the norm, so they don't spread.

This is an old tactic. Conservatives have thusly tried to marginalize divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Liberals have tried to marginalize conservatism, pollution, and political incorrectness. Nobody has been completely successful, in part because of the increasing fragmentation of the American public, the ways in which we assort ourselves into ever-more like-minded, close-minded pods. Because we're reading less.

Kanye is a symptom, not a cause. Reading, at its core, is communication unmoored from proximity. It helps us empathize with those outside of our immediate physical and virtual peer groups and, unlike television, isn't mediated by advertising.

Go reading, go! Kanye, I've got a few books for you. They want to autograph your rear.

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