Censorship, free speech, and the (non)selling of symbols
Amazon, along with several other retailers, is reportedly no longer going to carry items with the “Confederate flag” on them.
This is one of many articles on it:
CNN article by MJ Lee
This is a more complex issue than it might appear at first, and lands squarely in the middle of a topic we’ve discussed before.
Let’s talk about this in more general terms, rather than in the specific of this issue. That’s an important thing to do, especially for something involving a public entity. What may seem obvious to some people in one case then becomes a precedent for other cases where it may appear to be less clear cut.
First, First Amendment free speech of the publisher/product manufacturer is not involved. The First Amendment to the US Constitution has to do with what the government can do. It doesn’t have to do with what your friends, family…or employer can do.
An employer has the right to tell you that you can’t talk about politics with the customers. The government can’t tell you that you can’t talk politics with your social circle, but that’s entirely different.
Similarly, the government telling you that you couldn’t display a symbol or publish a book on a topic would be an infringement of the First Amendment…a bookstore refusing to carry books that promoted murder )or supported civil rights) can do that.
So, Amazon has the right to not carry books on pretty much any basis.
As a customer, you also have the right not to shop at a store that carries certain items…or refuses to carry them.
Amazon has other items it chooses not to carry…while carrying other controversial ones.
Snopes, which is a wonderful resource for checking out urban legends has even addressed a story that Amazon pulled Confederate flags, but not ISIS flags:
Snopes article by Kim LaCapria
As readers, it’s important to note that books are usually treated quite differently than visual depictions. Pornography prosecutions are going to go after videos or magazines with pictures far more often than text erotica.
I just did a quick search for
Confederate flag in the USA Kindle store (at AmazonSmile*)
Right off the bat, there are visual depictions of the symbol on book cover images…even though Amazon has supposedly removed sales of items with such displays.
Books are, as I would have expected, apparently being treated as a different class.
Even if you wish you would never see that particular flag again, you have to think about how you would like to achieve that goal. Do you want the government to ban it? Do you want stores to choose not to carry it? Do you want people to elect, on an individual basis, not to show it publicly? Privately?
Extend this to other symbols…the swastika might be a choice of some, perhaps necessitating cover changes to books like
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (at AmazonSmile*)
For some of you, that may seem like a slippery slope argument…and I’ll keep sliding for a moment. 😉 If banning the symbol makes sense, does banning writing about the symbol make sense? Should you ban pro-Confederate non-fiction? What about fiction? Are books required to condemn the Confederacy if they are going to write about the “War Between the States”, “American Civil War”, or “War of Yankee Aggression”? You’ll see all three terms used in the USA, by the way, in part depending on where you are.
That’s not going to happen…not by the government.
However, industry groups have had “moral codes”.
The Comics Code Authority, for example had some very specific rules:
“3. Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”
“5. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.
6. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.”
Imagine if those rules applied to modern television…
Remember that the Comics Code applied to publishing…and while some of it has to do with what is drawn, the above examples and many others have to do with the narrative.
My personal philosophy on this?
Let me give you an analogy.
I would prefer that people never started smoking cigarettes…that the product never existed.
I have a very bad reaction to cigarette smoke, and someone I know with asthma has had to go to the Emergency Department from unexpected exposure.
Would I pass a law banning cigarette smoking?
What I would want is that everyone simply stops smoking or selling cigarettes. I know that won’t happen, at least not for a very long time.
Now, smoking in public is an issue for me, because there are clear public health impacts. I understand laws about that. I’d equate it to you not being able to drive your car on the sidewalk…but its fine with me if you want to drive your own car into the side of your own unoccupied house
Some people are going to equate displaying what they see as a symbol of hate with smoking in public. They think the exposure to the idea is psychologically/morally harmful in the same way that second hand smoke is physically harmful.
To that, I would say, “Show me the science”.
If it can be reasonably shown that exposure to an idea (visually or textually represented) in public is a threat to public safety (the classic example of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre), then it makes sense to me for the government to regulate it. Not destroy it entirely, but removing the public safety threat.
If an error is going to be made due to fuzzy results, I’m going to tend to lean in favor of intellectual freedom.
Could someone argue that reading Gone with the Wind or Tarzan makes someone racist? I suppose, but in order for action to be taken, I’d want there to be very solid evidence of that public impact, and then only take actions against what I would assume to be a narrow set of circumstances. I’ve read Tarzan, and certainly recognize the racial depiction of Jane’s maid…but I don’t think that made me any less tolerant. I would guess that recognizing it actually may have contributed to me being more tolerant. There are studies that suggest that reading makes you more tolerant, not less.
I realize that this a controversial topic, and debated even writing this piece…but I’m very interested in what you think. Should Amazon be compelled not to carry certain works? Should the e-tailer make that choice, or should they leave it up to market forces? Why are books treated differently from visual depictions? Does consuming media change people’s morals and behavior…and if so, for both good and bad? I do think I have benefited from modeling my behavior to some extent on fiction (I think I’m a much better person for wanting to follow certain ideas of Doc Savage…although I do think those books have been reasonably challenged for ethnic/racial depictions). Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help!
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.