What Is A “Ban”?


The word ban gets bandied about a lot these days, from vegan brides wanting to ban meat-eaters from their weddings to plastic straws getting banned from coffee drinks.

On an individual level, banning things we don’t like or agree with can be an easy way to rid them from our life. But, zoom out to a governmental and societal level, and bans become much more complex.

What is a ban?

To ban something is “to prohibit, forbid, or bar” it. But, in Old English, ban originally meant “to summon” or “proclaim” before evolving to “curse” in the 1200s and “prohibit” by the 1300s. The development is complicated, but etymologists point out that the underlying Germanic root of the word carried the sense of “speaking publicly.” The noun form is found by the 1200s.

In contemporary English, ban is synonymous with boycotting, prohibiting, and censoring. It is a way of keeping something from people (or people from something), usually because it’s viewed as dangerous or harmful to the public. Following the mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, for example, leaders of the country immediately enacted a ban on military-style semiautomatic and assault rifles.

Support for bans, however, is subjective, depending on who is enacting the ban and what is being controlled.

Who bans things?

Anyone can enact a ban. Parents might ban their children, say, from using electronic devices or eating junk food except on the weekends.

Historically, parents, librarians, school officials, and local politicians have banned books to limit children’s exposure to ideas deemed inappropriate or unacceptable. Even as recently as 2009, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird was banned for its use of the n-word. Many other classics, such as Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World over sexual content, have faced many ban attempts.

But, the bans with the greatest impact—and controversy—are typically those enacted by  governments.

How do governments use bans?

Prohibitionwhich banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol, is among the most notorious bans in US history. It lasted from 1920–1933, and was said to have contributed to a sharp uptick in criminal activity at the time due to bootlegging, or “manufacturing and selling alcohol illegally,” and organized crime from the likes of Al Capone.

While some bans are aimed at protecting people, others have more malicious motives. During the Prohibition era, the US enacted one of its most stringent immigration policies in its history. The 1924 Immigration Act, according to Public Radio International, is considered one of the nation’s earliest “travel bans,” and it created a “national origins quota system” that heavily restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe and Asia. The bill was fueled by xenophobic rhetoric that painted these immigrants as “undesirable” and dangerous to the growth and prosperity of the US.

The 1924 Immigration Act and its associated rhetoric call to mind a more recent ban aimed at preventing people from certain countries from coming to the US. In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that placed heavy restrictions on visas from foreign nationals coming to the US from eight countries: Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Somalia, and Yemen. Trump reasoned that his ban was aimed at fighting terrorism, but many critics have pointed out that it disproportionately targets nations with majority Muslim populations. For this reason, this travel ban has become more pointedly known as Trump’s Muslim ban, and its constitutionality is the subject of ongoing court battles.

What are some other notable bans?

President Trump is also associated with another recent ban: what’s popularly referred to as the transgender military ban.

Transgender people were barred from serving in US armed forces until President Obama lifted that ban, effective in 2016. In 2017, Trump signed a memorandum that essentially reinstated the ban, requiring the military to discharge service members who, as BuzzFeed News explains, “appear transgender or act transgender by failing to meet grooming, uniform, and other military standards for their birth sex.” This means transgender people may still serve in the military, but will be forced to serve under the constraints of their biological sex, potentially causing those individuals a significant amount of distress.

Of course, Donald Trump isn’t the only US politician to have his name attached to controversial bans. In 2001, President George W. Bush placed restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research, despite evidence that the research could potentially help cure diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. And, in 2016, President Obama banned offshore oil drilling in areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic Seaboard—a move that thrilled environmentalists but angered critics who saw it as an abuse of his power.

Bans also happen on the local and state levels. In 2014 (and upheld in 2016), the state of California became the first in the US to ban single-use plastic bags at many retail stores in an effort to help the environment. Most US states, meanwhile, ban texting while driving, a major cause of accidents and death.

Motivation is the key to bans

The difficult thing about bans is that they can be used for good but also exploited by those in power. Whether or not a ban is justified largely depends on the reasons for the ban, who is enacting it, what the ban targets, and the larger sociopolitical context surrounding it. It is one thing to ban a type of gun or a plastic bag, but it’s difficult to name a ban against a group of people that wasn’t motivated by racism, xenophobia, transphobia, or other discriminatory beliefs.

Proposed bans enacted by governments or other large institutions should always be looked at with a critical eye and careful consideration of the motivations and power dynamics at play.

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