“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” — Thomas Jefferson
Author’s Note: This article is the second article in a series. In order to gain a full understanding of the issues at hand, I would kindly ask you to read the previous article.
In the previous article, I asked three questions and we are moving onto the second question. The second question is what should be done with the books in question now that the murders have taken place? Amazon has partially answered that question for us because they have removed the books from their catalog.
Two things bother me and I should get those out of the way immediately. First, what Amazon did is not censorship. The first amendment clearly begins with the statement that Congress shall make no law. The author in question is certainly in jail, but that has little to nothing to do with his books or ideas. He is jail for murder.
I hate it when people conflate a negative reaction in the marketplace of ideas with censorship. You and I are not protected from negative reactions. We cannot be thrown in jail for our ideas. At least we can’t in almost any circumstance. Obviously, there is a line where speech can lead to violence, but that is not the subject of the day. I can get yelled at. I can lose my job. My reputation can become tarnished. These are all possible consequences of my speech and I accept the responsibility of that when I choose to speak.
The second thing that bothers me is when people misunderstand the difference between can and should. This one goes way back to college when some classmates argued that we should do something because we could legally do it. Legal justifications are never completely satisfying. Yes, we CAN apply pressure on Amazon. That’s not the question. The question is whether we SHOULD apply pressure on Amazon.
This moves us into more murky territory. For one, we need to understand the nature of Amazon and where it fits in the marketplace of ideas. It has a unique place and it is one we will explore in more detail next time. Suffice it to say, there are all kinds of subtle arguments we can jump into at this point.
We immediately jump into a third thing I hate and that is the moniker that is “cancel culture.” Conservatives are lazy thinkers. I know that by itself is a lazy generalization and thus adds a layer of irony to the proceedings, but many of them are. Removing this book will obviously be seen as an example of cancel culture. I suppose it could be if one accepts the general premise that there is such a thing.
However, let’s consider the basic facts. Thousands of people (I would assume also millions once more people become aware of the story) were offended by the subject matter of the books in question and also offended that the individual that wrote the books could potentially profit from it. When you put it like that, you could insert any number of artistic works (be it paintings, sculptures, books, tv shows, movies, music, ect.) in that kind of statement. People have before and they will certainly do it again.
That kind of exchange has been going on for centuries. Somehow, no one called it cancel culture until now. The only difference in each case are the people levying the criticism. In this case, it is people that have labeled as “woke”, “progressive”, or “liberal.” Sometimes they are called “communists” or “socialists.” All of these charges are meant to demean or insult. However, no one has been able to explain how these actions differ from when religious conservatives have protested and removed any number of “objectionable” works from public libraries or school libraries. Is that not also cancel culture then?
So, again the question is whether we should apply pressure on Amazon to remove the books from their catalog. It’s not as easy as it sounds. On the one hand, books that are thinly veiled “how to” manuals could certainly qualify as more dangerous and repugnant than any artistic value they may have. On the other hand, who gets to make this call? Usually that would be Amazon, but as I said, Amazon is a unique animal. If it is the majority then suddenly freedom of expression has added a layer of oversight that applies to taste that wasn’t there before. Are we comfortable with that? As always I welcome any and all thoughts on the issue.