I won’t hide my main point until the end today. Here it is: Your freedom of choice does not cancel out mine, and my discretionary decisions are not censorship.
This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed the question of censorship, but it keeps coming up, the latest brouhaha in the publishing industry a $.25 million advance to a young memoirist, Milo Yiannopolis, an editor at Breitbart News. The author describes himself as a “free speech fundamentalist,” but many writers, editors, and publishers are shocked that Simon & Schuster would choose to promote what they regard as “hate speech” and are calling for a boycott. No, say defenders of Yiannopolis and Simon & Schuster, the publisher is simply standing up for freedom of expression and should not be criticized, let alone boycotted.
Here is the anti-boycott position: The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC, not to be confused with the Northport Community Arts Center!) worries that calls for a boycott of Simon & Schuster will lead to censorship. NCAC’s executive director says,
We know of instances in which books that contain certain kinds of content have been shelved, deferred, redacted, edited deeply to remove content that people might object to.
Another point of the view is represented by the head of a small independent publisher, Melville House. In Dennis Johnson’s words,
No one is saying [to the author] ‘you have no right to be published.’ ... What they’re saying is, ‘we’re shocked and outraged that you [the publisher] would stoop so low....
For more on the story, see full article here.
At the heart of the disagreement are these questions: Does a boycott constitute censorship? Or does it somehow lead – maybe -- to censorship, and if so is a boycott an infringement of an author’s and/or publisher’s freedom of speech?
Here’s how I see it:
1) Freedom to express my views, whether in speech or in writing, does not obligate anyone else to publish them. I am free to publish at my own expense and to distribute as best I can, or I can try to persuade a publisher to take on the job.
2) A publishing house is free to select among submitted manuscripts those it chooses to publish. (The majority of submissions will be rejected. Everybody wants to be “an author,” or so it sometimes seems, but the world just doesn’t need that many “books.”) Publishers’ decision does not obligate bookstore owners or the general public to buy any particular book.
The two preceding paragraphs should make clear a symmetry of freedom, in that a writer’s freedom does not cancel out the freedom of a publisher, nor does a publisher’s freedom cancel out that of wholesale or retail customers.
Turn now to the question of a boycott.
(3) As I see it, in choosing to join a boycott I exercise together my freedoms of speech and of association. A boycott puts the power of numbers and money on both sides of the table, rather than leaving all the weight only on one side.
I could, of course, choose simply to refrain from purchasing a particular product, be it a book or anything else, and say nothing to anyone about my decision or the reasons behind it, but my quiet, individual, sure-to-be-overlooked non-purchase will never bring about change in corporate behavior. When individuals take a stand together, likelihood increases that their voices will be heard. A study (cited in recent New Yorker column by James Suroweicki) that came out of the Kellogg School of Management showed that boycotts affected corporate stock prices for every day they were in effect and that over a third of boycotted companies changed their behavior as a result.
According to Wikipedia, Simon & Schuster publishes 2,000 titles a year under its various imprints. The publishing house was acquired by Gulf & Western in 1976 and since then has bought up many other publishing companies, with complicated connections to and holdings in television (they are now part of CBS) and educational products. Threshold Editions, their “conservative” imprint was launched in 2006. (Please note that “conservative” no longer means what it used to mean.) It is under this imprint that the Yiannopolos book will appear.
Big publishing is big business. Make no mistake. Simon & Schuster has approximately 1300 employees worldwide and makes millions annual in profits. CEO Carolyn Reidy cites, among factors for the company’s rising profits in 2015, that books for which high advances were paid “performed well.” No publisher hands over a quarter-million-advance without expectations of huge profit.
Small, independent publishers and bookstores operate within very different parameters. Staying in business, which means staying in the black, is always a focus, but we are not beholden to shareholders. (Get serious! If maximizing profits were our sole concern, none of us would be in this business at all!) But that’s not to say our choices are easily made. Most writers and booksellers already live on a precarious financial edge. We don’t have to make shareholders happy, but we do need to buy groceries, heat our homes, and occasionally see a doctor. And somehow we do it without gargantuan salaries, pensions, or "safety nets," many of us without even a guaranteed minimum wage.
As a reader, a bookseller, and a bookstore owner, I am proud to be one of a like-minded legion, each of us carrying a torch for cultural values that go beyond the almighty dollar.
Look at it this way: If there’s nothing wrong with the wealthy joining together in publicly traded corporations to increase their wealth, to buy influence, and to shape the country's future to their wishes, how could it be wrong for those of us in the trenches to join together to exert whatever influence we can to shape the world we want to see for our children and grandchildren?
If the government forbids publication or sales or a book, that is censorship.
If a publisher decides not to publish, that is discretion. It is an exercise of freedom.
By the same token, a boycott is the exercise of freedom by a different segment of society. Deny the right to boycott, and you deny freedom itself. I don't think Martin Luther King, Jr., would have any trouble understanding collective action.