Censorship dolled up as consumer activism

Is it better that it was ‘people power’ rather than state pressure that forced Amazon to remove a paedo book?

Nancy McDermott

Topics USA

The controversy over The Paedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure shows how empty the concept of ‘freedom of expression’ has become for many American liberals. It is true that Amazon’s decision to remove The Paedophile’s Guide from its site this month, under the pressure of a consumer boycott, was not state censorship. It was, however, the consequence of something equally problematic today: the use of pressure by advocacy groups to squish ideas that they don’t like, while presenting themselves as warriors for consumer choice.

Earlier this month, Gawker broke the news that was carrying the e-book The Paedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure, by Phillip R Greaves. The book is a sort of sex manual for paedophiles with advice on how to avoid getting caught. Not surprisingly, it garnered scores of angry ‘one star’ reviews and criticism from customers, alongside numerous calls to remove the book made by commenters in Amazon’s user forums.

At first, Amazon refused to remove the e-book from its site. ‘Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts; however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.’ It didn’t take long for the story to ‘go viral’ on Facebook and Twitter. Many so-called ‘mommy bloggers’ called for a boycott of Amazon – and within 48 hours, the book finally disappeared from Amazon.

Of course, this is not a book that anyone will particularly miss. Very few people have been openly critical of Amazon’s apparent change of heart. But Paula Bernstein, a parenting blogger on the US website Babble was a notable exception. She wrote: ‘I realise that Amazon is a private company and, as such, can decide what books they want to sell. But I’d rather that they err on the side of freedom of speech. Let the consumers decide for themselves.’

As innocuous as this statement might seem, it drew a swift response from Babble’s American readership of affluent urban liberals, which betrayed just how jaded and illiberal these one-time defenders of free expression have become.

Freedom of speech has become so bound up with the Constitution here in the United States that many of the people commenting on Babble’s articles dismissed concerns about censorship with the phrase ‘there’s no First Amendment issue here’, and then outlined all the reasons why Amazon was right to remove the book.

This comment was typical: ‘Censorship is carried out by governments, not private companies. A bookshop has an obligation to make moral judgments. If I ran a bookshop, I wouldn’t stock Mein Kampf, but I don’t think it should be banned by the government. What Amazon [is] arguing for is a free pass from the responsibilities of adult life. Amazon should make its own judgments about taste and decency and be prepared to defend them.’

In other words, the state cannot be trusted to make moral judgments on behalf of the public… but Amazon and other businesses can! The burning issue, then, was not free expression as much as the question of how consumers should relate to Amazon. Should they boycott Amazon or support its right to sell anything it wishes?

Remarkably, the answer appears to be to do both. Many people said they were not comfortable boycotting Amazon in order to ban the book, but they were perfectly happy to hold a sort of retail grudge and boycott Amazon anyway. As one online commenter said: ‘Yes, Amazon has a right to sell this book and I have a right not to give them my business anymore. They made a choice, a bad one in my opinion, and I have made mine. Yes, they sell other “objectionable” material, but one that serves as a guide for crimes against children. I believe there is a line and it has been crossed.’

So it’s okay to boycott Amazon because they carried the book as long as it’s not Boycotting-Amazon-To-Make-Them-Remove-The-Book. The logic may be twisted, but it makes perfect sense in the context of an American liberalism in which consumerism has become synonymous with political engagement.

Opposition to so-called retail behemoths like Amazon has become one of the dominant themes in liberal politics today. We’re continually reminded to buy local, to eat local, to shun corporations such as Amazon or McDonald’s. The justifications for doing these things can vary. Some are quasi-political, like a principled objection to a certain companies’ employment or advertising practices. Some people want to support local merchants. Sometimes the objections are simply that large retailers are just too big and their goods too cheap. Like the biblical Behemoth, their size simply makes them an uncontrollable force for chaos.

It’s true that large retailers often do engage in terrible employment practices and rely on cheap labour and super exploitation abroad. Yet rather than campaigning for employment rights or against exploitation in the developing world – after all, who has time for that? – the default solution for most concerned liberals is to buy differently. The result is that avoiding big retailers has become a good in itself, a form of political expression and even a source of personal pride: ‘Our family boycotts several companies (Nestle, IHOP, McDonald’s, Target, Hershey) so it’s really not a new thing for us. We’re all about “voting with our dollars”. Amazon made a disgusting choice to sell books encouraging child rape and abuse. We’re making the choice not to shop there’, says one web-user.

The problem with fetishising large retailers in this way is that it obscures what is really going on. Censorship becomes something that only governments do, and the illiberal demands of an angry mob of consumers are magically transformed into ‘democracy’.

This desiccated understanding of censorship is completely at odds with the classical understanding of free speech. John Stuart Mill made the apt point that silencing opinion robs humanity of something important – regardless of whether that silencing is done by the state in the name of the people or by the people themselves. It is the ability to dispute ideas in public – to demonstrate their badness or to be free to reassess them over time – that is the cornerstone of a free and open society.

Amazon may not have caved into government pressure to remove the paedophile book from its inventory, but it did give in to a kind of mob pressure. Today’s impulse to ban anything deemed offensive is a dangerous one – and it is a measure of the confusions and consumerist preoccupations of modern-day liberals that they are leading the charge.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics USA


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