Suppose an author walks into my bookstore and asks that I carry his book on instructions for do-it-yourself weapons of mass destruction or her diatribe against an ethnic group not her own. Suppose I decline. Am I practicing censorship?
Let’s consider some different examples. Suppose another author drops by with her novel and I judge the writing as substandard. Or a writer brings me a self-published book with poorly reproduced illustrations and an absurdly high retail price. Or maybe the book someone hopes I will carry as inventory in my bookshop is something I judge to be without a market in my area. Suppose I decline to stock any of these books. Am I practicing censorship?
If you answered yes to the first question and no to the second, what difference do you see? Why would you allow me the use of my judgment in the second case and not the first? Why do you believe my powers of discrimination illegitimate if brought to bear for reasons of principle rather than reasons of profit?
I would argue that the charge of censorship is inappropriate in all of these cases. More dangerously, calling these bookseller decisions censorship clouds moral waters and silences legal, legitimate and principled expressions of freedom.
Try it from another direction. Give a definition of freedom of expression for writers and buyers in any marketplace. Now examine your definition in light of this question: Do sellers also have freedom? If not, your definition is hollow.
The issue of “censorship” comes up often with regard to the selling of books. Unfortunately, most discussions of the subject lack any initial definition. Either/or logic is called into play from the start, with those who quake at the slightest whiff of suppression of opinion or expression lining up against those with (usually religious) principles that would allow for broad and possibly legal restrictions on the same. So it wasn’t surprising to me that the usual uproar ensued the other day when the world’s largest online bookselling behemoth offered an e-reader version of a self-published book on a subject usually (I’m guessing here) sold under the counter in a brown wrapper. The seller’s spokesperson responded to the furor by saying that the seller “believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable.” Well, is it? I contend that it is not, and when the story appeared in the “Shelf Awareness” newsletter on Thursday, this is the letter I sent in response:
On the Subject of Censorship
If a governmental authority tells me I can't sell something, threatening me with punishment under the law if I go against the authority, that is censorship. If I as a bookseller choose not to sell something, I am exercising my own judgment and freedom of speech and expressing my own values. It doesn't matter how large the business it is: it always retains the right to say no, even when it is not forbidden to say yes. This is not censorship. It is fundamental to freedom.
Refusal to discriminate is another way to exercise freedom and a way to announce to the world that your company has no values beyond the marketplace. There will always be people who will admire that and see it as the ultimate expression of freedom, but the freedom of those of us who discriminate on the basis of value, choosing not to sell books with content we find reprehensible, deserves at least as much recognition under freedom's flag.
Discrimination. The word has taken on negative connotations in our country’s history, and yes, some kinds of discrimination are and should be illegal. Others are stupid and irrational. But discrimination in general falls under the heading of judgment, so it follows that there are kinds of discrimination that are absolutely integral to living any kind of life with value. If we as writers, readers, booksellers or buyers, ordinary American citizens from whatever walk of life give up the right to judge for ourselves that certain actions are reprehensible, we are asking to have our hands tied behind our backs. There is no freedom of expression without freedom to judge and choose.
Bottom line: Free to sell or not. It isn’t freedom without the second half of the disjunct.