News cycles are increasingly compressed, aren't they? The now-infamous story of the Phillip Greaves book "The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover's Code of Conduct" turned from obscure issue to raging storm to apparent resolution within 24 hours.
I have some thoughts about it.
First, the reaction to the story demonstrates that the internet is clogged with people who either (1) have an extremely poor grasp on fundamental First Amendment principles and/or (2) enjoy pretending not to understand First Amendment principles in order to troll. Some of the points they have missed, out of ignorance or by design:
Amazon is a private company. It would not violate anyone's First Amendment rights if it decided not to offer a book. Amazon can withdraw all books by pedophiles, all books by Christians, all books by New Yorkers, all books by left-handed dentists, or all books by anyone it wants. Amazon can, in the fine modern tradition of Harvard Square booksellers, offer only those books that adhere to a narrow range of what it believes is correct thought. None of that would violate the First Amendment. In fact, Amazon has a First Amendment right to offer the books it wants to offer and not offer the books it doesn't want to offer.
The fact that a book advocates criminal behavior — however vile — does not mean it falls outside the First Amendment. Consider, for instance, Brandenburg v. Ohio, standing for the general proposition that "the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."
However, the First Amendment status of a book that explains how to get away with criminal behavior is more complex. A full discussion of that is beyond the scope of this post. Eugene Volokh's exceptional article Crime-Facilitating Speech discusses it at length. It appears from some reports that the book includes at least some advice about getting away with pedophile conduct; I haven't bought the book and am not going to, though.
Finally, there's the issue of obscenity. I can make a colorable argument that, because the book has only words and not pictures, it ought not be viewed as legally obscene. But it's clear that the argument would not necessarily prevail in court, where stories have been treated as meeting the definition of obscenity.
Second, the case illustrates the limited actual utility of outrage-of-the-day thinking, and the unintended (sort of) consequences it sometimes produces. Now, let me preface this by saying that I am a frequent gleeful participant in outrage-of-the-day bandwagon-jumping. It's fun. It's viscerally satisfying. Bouncing the bad guy's rubble makes you feel good.
But frequently I think it's not actually about FOR GREAT JUSTICE. Frequently I think it's about having fun, building our public image, and polishing our self-image.
Consider this book. It's revolting. But the author was a clearly mentally ill guy who used to be obscure and had sold one copy. Then the OUTRAGE-of-the-day crew gave the guy a hashtag. Within 24 hours, the book was on the Amazon top 100 bestseller list. There are now hundreds, or thousands, of copies out there. Idiots are saying that they will hurt the author by making a torrent of the book and widely distributing it so that he can't sell it any more.
In other words, assuming for the moment that the book actually contains non-obvious suggestions on how to get away with molesting children, the OUTRAGE mob has just lifted the author from complete obscurity, given him a chunk of money, and ensured that his previously obscure child molestation suggestions are now known, widespread, and widely available.
Oh, well done.
I don't actually think that the OUTRAGE crew wanted to buy Phillip Greaves a plasma TV and make his advice widely and freely available to pedophiles — notwithstanding the principle that people may be presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of their actions.
Nor am I suggesting that people ought not contact a business like Amazon and try to influence it. What I'm saying is that if people want to fight evil, as opposed to indulge in venting, they ought to think through the probable impact of the OUTRAGE-OF-THE-DAY they are participating in. (Yep, that was the sound of me throwing the first stone at my own glass house.)
Third, this is a good example of how, in this OMG-INTERNET-OUTRAGE driven era, companies need to have a plan for responding to quickly developing stories. Companies frequently make matters much worse by issuing quick statements without careful reflecting and participation by calm grown-ups. Here Amazon apparently first issued a brief and somewhat oddly worded statement:
An Amazon representative, however, defended the sale of the book. "Thank you for your inquiry," the representative said. "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."
Within 24 hours, with its stock price taking a beating from the OUTRAGE, Amazon apparently reversed itself and pulled the book.
The initial statement had no utility whatsoever other than to fan flames and make Amazon look like a flip-flopper. If Amazon was going to stick with its guns and keep the book up, it could have waited 24 or 48 or 72 hours for grown-ups to meet and think and talk and issue a more complete and coherent statement. If not, it could have said nothing and pulled the book. This chain of events merely makes Amazon look indecisive, easy to bully, or stupid. Bad job, Amazon.
Parenthetically, I am not a fan of Amazon's use of "censorship" in its statement. Technically, I suppose, a private entity deciding not to sell a book can be described as "censorship," in a very narrow sense of that word. But it's more misleading than accurate, I think. Amazon has a right to sell what it wants. The author can sell elsewhere or self-publish on the internet. Amazon's size and market share aside, its decision not to sell a book is "censorship" only in the sense that it is "censorship" for me not to publish somebody's pro-pedophilia guest post here on Popehat. The term promotes the sort of First Amendment confusion discussed in my first post. A more coherent statement might have gone like this:
Amazon's policy is that it will offer books without regard to their content. Amazon offers books that its employees love and books that its employees abhor. The availability of books online, and the ability of individuals to self-publish through venues like Amazon's digital service, represents a watershed opportunity for communication on the order of the printing press. Amazon has made the decision that it will not pick and choose which works to offer based on its view of their morality or suitability for society. No reasonable person can conclude that Amazon endorses any idea just because that idea appears in a work that it offers. Amazon believes that the best way for its customers to address the availability of works that offend them is to engage in contrary speech — including their own self-publishing.
Or, alternatively, if Amazon simply can't stand not saying something while grown-ups decide what to do,
Amazon is aware of the issue. Appropriate authorities within the company are investigating the matter and will respond soon.
Fourth, Boycotting Amazon because it allowed a crazy man to self-publish a pedophilia manual through its digital delivery service, and did not instantaneously remove the book when asked to, is not "censorship" in any meaningful sense of that word either. It's response speech by participants in the marketplace of ideas.
However, it does raise questions. I'd like to hear answers from the pro-boycott forces:
1. Do you believe that Amazon should review each self-published digital book for content before allowing it to "go live"? If so, do you have a principled, articulable basis to distinguish books acceptable to you from books not acceptable to you?
2. If you are relying on "I know it when I see it," do you think Amazon should have the exact same "I know it when I see it" detector you do?
3. Should Amazon also review "normal" books — ones that you might find in a bookstore — for content? Again, what standard should they use?
4. Or are you merely saying that Amazon should remove a book upon a demand by a sufficient number of people? Is it the number of people, or the forcefulness of their rhetoric, or the rightness of their cause that should move Amazon?
5. When Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity or Michael Moore or someone calls for a boycott of Amazon because it carries a book with political or social ideas they find repugnant, and cite your boycott as inspiration, what will you say about it?
I'm not saying boycotts are bad; they are a key form of participation in the marketplace of ideas. I'm saying that we should reflect on that participation and its impact.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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