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Friday, January 13, 2017

Freedom of Choice or Censorship?

My choices!

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.


Mr G said...

Collective action is foundational to workers right. Unions (Collectives) sometimes withdraw their services.
A top priority for Trumpism will be smash the unions thereby destroying any check at all on Capital..

Deborah said...

What a great blog. Very well stated.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Steve and Deborah, for joining me in conversation. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I had more comments on Facebook and in e-mail than appear here. Since this is my public forum, however, I want to share a couple of those comments.

First, from Phil, who had no argument with anything I wrote:

"You’re absolutely right. This “freedom-of-speech-as-a-cover-for-anything” has had a pernicious effect on our already flabby critical faculties. The GOVERNMENT may not prohibit speech. Individuals MUST exercise judgment and stand up for decency, etc. In any case, nobody’s being forced to do anything. S & S makes their decision; I’ll make mine. Should be a non-issue."

A Facebook friend, however, raised a challenging question. Here's what David asked:

"Hi Pamela, After reading your blog I have to ask, does this mean that you sympathize with other small business owners such as bakers, florists, wedding planners, etc. who use very similar rhetoric to justify their non-participation in cultural events that they consider to be contrary to their values?"

Now there is an important question! I'll give you my response but would be interested to know if you think I have met David's challenge or if he has me over a barrel!

My reply to David: "You've raised a very interesting question that makes me stop and think. For me, the situations are different, but why? I guess because I see a cake as a cake and flowers as flowers, but books present ideas. Also, I am not turning away customers. In fact, I did think earlier about what I would do if someone wanted me to special-order the book in question, and I might do it -- but only if paid in advance! -- though I'd probably suggest they go through another venue. Interesting, though. What if someone insisted I order it, just to rub my nose in it? // But let me push harder on your examples, at least one of them. What if a customer requested flower arrangements of noxious, invasive plants or something to which most people would be allergic? Wouldn't it be perfectly reasonable of the florist to say, "I'm sorry, we don't supply that sort of thing, but we would be happy to provide other arrangements with beautiful flowers we regularly stock"? To my mind, that situation would be more similar to the one I referenced in my blog post. // Also, David, as you know (because we have talked and corresponded on this subject), there are MANY books I choose not to stock in my bookstore! Your books definitely met the high bar I insist on for self-published works, because without standards I would be overwhelmed with crap. What do you say to this? Must I be allowed to let 'em all in? Not possible!"

Peter Wolcott said...

This is an important issue. Freedom of speech, to publish whatever you want, is vital to our society even though some books are personally abhorent to me. The Times says all of the big book publishers have conservative imprints. Do we punish them for this? No, it would be hypocritical. We do not have to read or buy them and Dog Ears has the right to not sell them. Bigger question is whether our library to buy them?

P. J. Grath said...

Peter, how do you answer the question you've posed? said...

False equivalents.

Boycotts are a legal form of protest and an extraordinary way to effect social change (remember grapes?). As a bookshop owner, for instance, you can choose what you keep in inventory. You cannot decide who gets to buy what, at least based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This is clearly outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As for the bakery owners who refused service to a gay couple seeking a cake for their wedding; while undeniably discriminatory (and abhorrent imho), it is not illegal.... in most places.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Drew. If I were to refuse to sell a book to someone in my shop because of that person's race or ethnicity or..., etc., you're saying (I think) that I would be doing something not only illegal but wrong, in the same way as the baker or florist who refuses service for gay weddings. In other words, it isn't a question of what's for sale, but some people not being allowed to buy while others can. David? said...

I also believe as a shop owner, you have the right to decide what political views you are willing to promulgate. While discriminatory in a manner, it in no way impinges on anyone's civil rights.

It is interesting how David phrased his query, which is significantly different than the reality of the story of the homophobic (religiously motivated) bakers: "....who use very similar rhetoric to justify their non-participation in cultural events that they consider to be contrary to their values?"

Rhetoric is covered under freedom of speech, for the most part... Denying service based on race, religion, sex, orientation, etc. etc., is a discriminatory act, not rhetoric. The matter at hand was not 'non-participation in cultural events', the bakers COULD decide, if invited to the wedding, to not attend, that would be non-participation and wholly their right: the outcry was the denial of service based on sexual orientation.

We as a society have decided that civil rights are basic human rights and the cruel lessons of history would have us defend these rights with our collective blood.

We as a society have overwhelmingly condemned discrimination in all its forms. Equality is an ideal that must be vigilantly nurtured and until hatred can be eradicated, must be legislated.

Unknown said...

Well thought out and well stated, Pamela.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for reading, Jeremy. I got another comment from David on Facebook and wish he would post comments here, because he really does disagree with me, and I think this issue is important and that airing and working through disagreements on it -- in a public forum, which a blog is and Facebook is not -- is important, too. Anyway, he sees me as doing basically the same thing as the baker refusing to provide a cake for the gay wedding. I don't see it that way, but Andrew brings up an important point, so let me go with that --

Andrew, in reading your comment again this morning, I notice that you refer to my decisions about "what political views [I] am willing to promulgate" as "discriminatory in a manner," though not impinging on the civil rights of others. I agree completely! It IS discrimination but neither illegal nor immoral, and it's good to point that out.

What is discrimination? Discrimination can be good, as well as bad. We discriminate all the time, whenever we make a decision or a judgment. The reason I used the term 'discretion' rather than 'discrimination' was to avoid negative connotations, but discrimination -- let's make this clear -- does NOT equal bigotry, let alone violation of anyone's rights. When I say I set a high bar for the self-published books I will carry in my shop, I am clearly discriminating on the basis of quality. (I can't recommend anyone buy a badly written book.) Some children's books, from recognized publishing houses, fail to meet my standards because the illustrations are unappealing. Another criterion, more closely tied to market considerations, is whether or not I think a particular book will sell in my area, but in these and many other decisions, I am very carefully discriminating. The objects of my discrimination, however, are not groups of people. I'm not letting some people buy books and turning others away!

Another thing to keep in mind is that my tiny little bookshop has nothing "corporate" about it. It is a reflection of ME. It is my "presentation of self" to the public. And, as is my artist husband, I am staking my livelihood on who I am and have no obligation to wear a costume or mask that hides who I am and would misrepresent me.

¿Claro, todos?

Deborah said...

Quite clear Pamela.