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Friday, November 12, 2010

When Do You Call It Censorship?


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.

13 comments:

Barbara said...

Well said, Pamela. You make a good case.

P. J. Grath said...

Here's one friend wrote in an e-mail:

"Pamela, I believe the bookstore is your own. Part of managing it is to choose books that your patrons will purchase and enjoy. To me, that's not censorship. I tried to post this on the blog, but didn't have success. If you can and want to, feel free. If you don't, I will not consider it censorship :)"

Thanks, Trudy!

To another e-mailer, I replied in part:

"As far as I know, no one is suggesting that booksellers be told what to sell, so that really isn't an issue. Unfortunately, however--and I know this from my spells in the classroom at NMC, teaching Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas--there is a lot of foggy thinking around the general notion of censorship, such that many people are afraid to stand up for their principles at all. Anything that helps to dissipate fog, even in a small corner, I see as a gain."

torchlakeviews said...

It's certainly not censorship when a purveyor of books or art or anything else chooses what to sell. It certainly is censorship when government tells the seller what may and may not be sold. It occurs to me that we would need a whole new word for the prospect that government might tell a seller what must be sold. Gack.

There are subtler pressures. What would it be if the folks at the Northport coffee klatch told you they didn't think you should carry a particular book because they found it offensive? What would it be if just one of those people talked to you about it but said that several others "felt the same way"? What would it be if a clergyperson spoke against the book from the pulpit?

What is it if I say to Amazon that I will never buy another book through the site if they continue to carry that particular piece of trash? (OK, "futile" comes to mind, particularly as I have never bought a book there anyway. How about if a regular customer says that?)

What is it if a hacker manages to obtain the identities and addresses of the buyers of the trash and publishes the list all over the internet?

We do live in a complicated world.

P. J. Grath said...

Now this e-mail from Mary Mansour:

“This is exactly how I feel about selling books vs government censorship. ONLY the government can censor, by definition, and so many people miss that point! If I choose not to carry this type of book, it is a declaration of MY position, not censorship.

“What a wonderful gift you have for writing; I also read your article about your beautiful dog, and it moved me to tears. Next time I get to Northport, I will definitely look up your store. I own a new/used bookstore in Novi, Michigan (Read It Again Books), and it seems there's so little time to travel! :)

“I just went to the blog, and can't get by the google or open ID thing, so please do quote my note to you, with my blessing!”

That's Mary from Novi, Michigan. Her shop is Read It Again Books. Thanks, Mary!

I’d like to know what is going on with this blogging platform, server, browser or whatever that is keeping people from leaving comments. Very, very frustrating!

P. J. Grath said...

Reply to Gerry:

First, Gerry, see my earlier comment about the issue not being booksellers forced to sell certain books.

Subtle pressures? I should be so lucky as to have coffee drinkers in Northport keeping track of what I sell. No, that wouldn't matter to me, either. The choice is still mine, either way: to sell (more precisely, offer for sale!) or not to sell (or carry). There are many books I have in the store that deserve an audience. Often I have a hard time finding that audience for them, but if I think they deserve it, I work to get it for them.

Threat to take business elsewhere? What's the problem with that? People do it all the time, for minor, grumpy reasons as well as ethical principles. Calling a boycott--nothing wrong with that, either. It's another expression of freedom. An attempt to exert pressure is not censorship but freedom of speech and choice! Why is there so much confusion about this?

Worried about hackers? That's a risk of doing business online, nothing to do with censorship.

Yes, we do live in a complicated world, but this issue is not as complicated as many people would make it. I am not arguing for anyone to sell or be barred from selling any specific subject. I am arguing that a provider has as much claim to freedom as a consumer.

Dawn said...

The same issue comes up and is discussed in libraries and library schools across the country. What to buy, what to weed, how to meet the needs of your community (ie market) regardless of your personal value system. How to make sure what you offer your patrons is as wide and as representative of what is available as possible...that's always a question, and a fine line to walk for librarians.

P. J. Grath said...

And here's the voice of another librarian who had trouble posting her comment and sent it to me by e-mail:

"Governments do censorship; individuals or librarians or shopkeepers have to use judgment, if for no other reason than no shop or library or home could possibly handle all books ever published. You have freedom of speech; I have freedom not to listen (or read or sell) what you have to say.

"Years ago, when I was a librarian at U of M, I was for a time the collection manager for the Undergrad Library. That's library-ese for the fact that I was in charge of acquiring new books and weeding out other ones. Every library---even the largest ones, and U of M is one of the largest---has policies for what it acquires and keeps for its collections, and one reason for that is that nowhere is there enough space for everything that gets published. One policy we had was that if a book was offered to us as a gift for the collection, we would accept it with the understanding that if we did not find that it was appropriate for our collection, we were free to do with it as we chose. (I once was presented with a book for the Undergrad Library that the presenter had, apparently, co-authored with God. And 'Jahweh Elohim' had not even gotten top billing!!)

"So every individual who owns books, every library, and, yes, every bookstore owner has to make choices as to what he/she will find room for, and those choices are in one way or another judgments on the suitability of the book for the purposes which the collection serves."

That's from Sarah. The problem of space these two librarians cite also applies to bricks-&-mortar (as they're called) bookstores, but it wouldn't apply, perhaps, to digital libraries or on-demand booksellers or distributors, would it? The question of whether a book is "appropriate for the collection," however, would still be up to librarians' and booksellers' discretion.

dmarks said...

It is you expressing your freedom of expression. No different from the New York Times op-ed page deciding which letters to print, and which not to.

P. J. Grath said...

Precisely, dmarks. Again, what goaded me into writing this post was the big online giant saying they could NOT not sell something. Any seller who claims that he or she or they CANNOT make decisions but must offer for sale to the public ANYTHING that anyone wants to sell through their platform because to do otherwise would constitute censorship is copping out. They are making a choice and should have the guts to proclaim it; the helplessness is either ignorance or pretense. In the recent case, it cannot be ignorance, so I suppose the reply by the giant would be, “Our lawyers told us to say that.” Lawyers may have given that advice, but they certainly know better.

Mr G said...

Success! I'm not sure what happened but I had to leave the computer for a while and when I came back the word verification grafic was onscreen. Maybe it just requires patience or maybe it was censoring my remarks which it certainly has a right to do. I agree with your position. You certainly have the right. You can't every book in the universe.

P. J. Grath said...

Hey, Steve! Glad my fix on the comments setting allowed you to leave one, and I thank you for it!

The uproar continues, with PC Magazine (I’d put a link here if I could get the website to load—maybe later) claiming “There’s no free speech in business,” a conclusion they apparently reach because the giant online seller backed down and removed the offensive title from its offerings. No free speech? Total B.S.! Seller had freedom to offer and freedom to refrain from offering and exercised that freedom both times. So they bowed to public opinion—so what? Whoever said free speech should be free from criticism? Freedom is a two-way street, or it’s an illusion. And I’m right about this, or I’m a monkey’s uncle. (Logic students, take note.)

dmarks said...

Yes, this is an old post!

" Again, what goaded me into writing this post was the big online giant saying they could NOT not sell something."
I've seen Walmart accused of censorship for refusing to carry anti-Walmart movies in its DVD section."

I think it goes both ways here: Walmart is also expressing its freedom by not selling certain things.

As it turned out, when I saw this claim made about Walmart censoring, I checked their catalog, and they had about 10 or 20 anti-Walmart books and movies.... even if they did not have the particular one mentioned by the person who accused them of censorship.

P. J. Grath said...

I completely agree, dmarks. One might ask why Dog Ears Books carries so many books by Michigan authors and on Michigan subjects and does not grant other states the same amount of space. These are market decisions.