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.”
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.
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.
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.