Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Not Censorship because I'm Right!

One of the more popular posts on this blog is this one from April of this year, on the topic of spanking in schools.

For some time, this post was featured on the web site of Parents and Teachers against Violence in Education. After asking my permission to reprint the piece, which had been published as an op-ed for The Deming Headlight, the spokesman wanted permission to make changes. My piece advocated a ban on spanking in schools, but he felt I had left the door open for parental spanking -- indeed, I had even disclosed giving Gabriel a swat or two -- and this was a problem for him. I said no to rewriting my piece and he ran it as is, but he argued the point passionately for an hour.

At some point during that hour, having established that he considered spanking to be child abuse that merited government intervention in the home, we talked about privacy and individual discretion. I remarked to him that, to me, he was willing to go pretty far in policing individuals in private, and he didn't bat an eye. He said that while he respects individual liberty, what was also true is "I am right!"

The conviction that "I am right" winks at tyranny, which is how popular revolutions turn into dictatorships and liberals turn into neocons, and how we justify things like censorship and other infringements of liberty. Has not every parent said, at least once, "BECAUSE I SAID SO!!"

It is also how we persuade ourselves that censorship sometimes is not really censorship.

PTVE sent an email alert yesterday about a petition addressed to the CEO of Amazon.com, the dominant internet bookseller. The petition pressures Amazon not to stock three specific titles and similar books, on grounds that the material is "offensive" (and thus a violation of Amazon's guidelines) and, further, because the books advocate methods that might violate legal bans on corporal punishment in some countries.

The creator of this online petition is Milli Hill, a citizen of the UK. In August she wrote about the petition on her personal blog. She has given the subject a great deal of conscientious thought and I find little to argue with in her position about violent parenting. She is justifiably assured of the rightness of her position.

But then, there is this:

Let's be clear, this is not a petition to ban books. It is simply to ask Amazon to cease to stock parenting manuals which advise the physical abuse of children.

Oh boy. It's not censorship when I do it? All right, let's give the writer a chance:

...this is not a petition to ban books. It is simply to ask Amazon to cease to stock parenting manuals which advise the physical abuse of children. What is the difference? Well, to ban a book is a very big move, with implications on freedom of speech which need to be debated at high levels before such a move is made. I'm not saying that this shouldn't happen at some stage, but for now, to call for Amazon to review their policy to sell the books seems a smaller and more manageable step. With a petition with thousands of signatures, Amazon will be forced to take some kind of action, even if it is to simply respond and say that they are going to continue to sell the book. As such a high profile retailer, whatever action they take will be news worthy, and will raise awareness world wide of these books and their content. This will then open up the question of whether such books should be allowed at all to a far wider group than I can reach through this blog.

I don't like censorship, but these books really are bad and need to go away. Because I said so! I am right!

Calling for censorship on moral grounds is still a call for censorship. There are circumstances where censorship may be appropriate. If there is a case to be made, by all means make it. But attempting to argue that this censorship is not really censorship is disingenuous.

Asking a book seller, particularly such a dominant one as Amazon.com, to "cease" stocking certain titles is a request for censorship. And yes, it is "a big move with implications on freedom of speech." When you ask for a book to be taken off the shelves, you are engaging in such a move and need to take responsibility for that.

Later in the paragraph, she seems almost to backpedal by suggesting this is only a call for Amazon to "review their policy to sell the books," but this is clearly with the aim of inhibiting sales and distribution of the book by pressuring Amazon either to comply or to defend its marketing of the books. Even if the censorship does not succeed, it might raise awareness about the issue and the petition's cause. And, chillingly in my view, it might "open up the question of whether such books should be allowed at all to a far wider group than I can reach through this blog." (Emphasis mine.)

This is straightforward, consumer-led censorship. Just because you think it is the right thing to do does not mean that censorship magically becomes something other than censorship.

No one asked me, but instead of censoring books that present opinions on parenting we do not like, there might be more value and impact in writing a book refuting those opinions. There are books about mindful parenting, but not that many books on effective parenting that spares the rod.

We know as parents that sometimes the best way to get baby to drop a dangerous object is to offer her something better to play with. Maybe a compelling and better guide to parenting is a better response.

And Milli, if you are reading this, you might be just the person to write it, judging from your own blog.

[Photo: young Lucca D'Ammassa in the arms of his father]

1 comment:

The Mule said...

Hi Algernon
First of all thank you for reading my blog and taking time to write about it.
I've thought carefully about this post and as a result I have changed the sentence in my post that you describe as 'chilling', (it was pretty chilling for me to read you saying you found my words chilling!) It now reads: "It may well then be that the question of whether the books should be banned becomes part of that debate, but this is not the aim of the petition."
I am not in favour of book banning, and I would stress that the petition is to ask Amazon not to stock titles that advocate the physical abuse of children. If the petition succeeds, and Amazon agree to this, these books will still be published. However they will be less readily available and hopefully this will cause people to question why this is and rethink this parenting approach.
Amazon themselves DO have a content policy, they say they do not stock 'offensive' material, they DO draw lines. I don't think drawing such a line - which you might call censorship - is a negative thing. Regardless of your views on freedom of speech there are some books I assume you would expect them not to stock, for example child pornography, or books that incite racial hatred.
The attitude to children and the treatment recommended in these books is utterly unacceptable and I felt I wanted to find some way to make a stand about this. The petition to Amazon was the best idea I could think of to raise awareness of the books and send a message that this was wrong. I love your idea of writing another book and I would love to do this one day, perhaps when my children are a little older and less time consuming!
Thank you for raising the interesting questions in this post and for making me think. I welcome your further thoughts.