Unpopular Questions

This entry was published at least two years ago (originally posted on November 11, 2010). Since that time the information may have become outdated or my beliefs may have changed (in general, assume a more open and liberal current viewpoint). A fuller disclaimer is available.

Okay, folks. Some of you aren’t going to like this at all. However, I think these are questions worth asking.

Every year, I see a strong majority of my friends and acquaintances promoting Banned Book Week, “an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment…[that] highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship [and founded on] the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular.”

Last April, the internet and many people I know were thrown into a tizzy because of apparent censorship of LGBT-themed books, prompting the creation of the #amazonfail hashtag.

So, now we have the latest uproar over a book with unpopular ideas that is under attack — only this time, the popular call is for boycotting Amazon until the book is removed. And, apparently all the uproar was successful, because it seems the book is no longer available.

So, folks, which is it? Do we decry the censorship of ideas that are unpopular, or do we celebrate the censorship of ideas that are unpopular?

Yes, the content of the book in question is disturbing and advocates unethical, immoral, and illegal behavior. Depending on who you talk to and what area of the country or world you live in, most if not all of the LGBT section of any modern bookstore, including Amazon, can be described in exactly the same way.

Either censorship is horrible and should be battled in whatever form it appears, or it is acceptable and necessary and you just better not be writing anything that people in power disapprove of. But it doesn’t work both ways. At least, not justifiably.

From » Banned? Wait, what?! Stop Motion Verbosity:

Good thing Nabokov wasn’t “investigated” because of Lolita. Of course, Lolita was also banned for a while. But hey! Who cares, right? Wait, maybe it isn’t books that are clearly fiction, it’s manuals and guidebooks.

Good thing the Anarchist Cookbook is banned. Oh, wait, hold on. Right! It isn’t. Because free speech isn’t just protected when you agree with it. Because the alternative is madness.


You don’t get to call for a boycott to delist a book when you feel like it, without being willing to sit while someone boycotts for a book you like, the next day.

This is why we don’t ban books, remember? Because it’s dangerous and fucked up and wrong. Even when the book is horrible and morally objectionable. Even then.

That’s the price we pay for free speech. And if you aren’t willing to pay it, then you better duck, because that has consequences you may not enjoy for very long at all. About the time someone disagrees with you and you can’t do anything about it, I’d think.

(Via MissAmberClark)

And this next bit is from a 2008 post in Neil Gaiman’s Journal, which addresses a different specific controversy, but the same questions: Why defend freedom of icky speech?:

Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you’re going to have to stand up for stuff you don’t believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don’t, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person’s obscenity is another person’s art.

Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.

[T]hat’s what makes the kind of work you don’t like, or don’t read, or work that you do not feel has artistic worth or redeeming features worth defending. It’s because the same laws cover the stuff you like and the stuff you find icky, wherever your icky line happens to be: the law is a big blunt instrument that makes no fine distinctions, and because you only realise how wonderful absolute freedom of speech is the day you lose it.

(Via bicyclefish)

5 thoughts on “Unpopular Questions”

  1. Wait, you’re trying to tell the American people they can’t have their cake and eat it too?!?!? What are you, a commie pinko socialist Nazi sympathizer? You better watch yourself, boy, we don’t take kindly to your type ’round these here parts. ;-)

  2. Amazon chose to take it down, because this is what “free market economy” looks like – they’re allowed to sell (or not sell) what they choose. The book itself doesn’t appear to be banned, they just don’t have Amazon as a selling platform anymore, in response to the huge outcry/calls for boycott.
    I still defend the first amendment, which means that I can be mad as hell (and vocal about it) that there is someone out there selling a non-fiction “guidebook” about how to exploit and have sex with children – and I refuse to support its distribution on Amazon. The more that adults want to and think they can get away with that sort of thing, the more they are going to try to get away with it.

  3. A tangential point, but somewhat related to your conclusion above. I am not a Muslim, but the primary reason that I support the mosque in the World Trade Center area is one of supreme self-interest. I figure that if someone can ban a mosque today, they can just as easily ban my Christian church tomorrow.

    This also explains why some conservatives were outraged over MSNBC’s suspension of Keith Olbermann.

  4. I had the same feeling once I saw the outrage. And while Amazon customers certainly have the right to voice their displeasure and threaten with boycotts, the results now support Amazon removing other books in the future.

  5. I agree with Thom. How long, now, before a “family first” organization organizes a boycott of Amazon based on their selling of, for example, GBLT lifestyle books? To those types of organizations, the GBLT lifestyle is exactly as offensive as pedophilia.

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