Thursday, December 08, 2011

On Censorship: Mama Mule Responds

On November 29, this blog addressed an online petition asking the dominant online bookseller Amazon to quit selling certain books about parenting that advocate spanking. The author of the petition is Milli Hill, who blogs from the UK as "Mama Mule." In the post, we expressed concerns about censorship, and Mama Mule took a moment to respond as follows:

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.

Thank you and welcome! My further thoughts follow:

Marketplace censorship

It is quite true, let us acknowledge, that your petition is not an attempt to stop the publication of these books. It targets the distribution of these books after publication through the dominant seller of books on the internet. And granted, Amazon opens the door to this because it does, in fact, have a policy about "offensive material."

Though you pursue the distribution rather than the publication of the books you do not like, the end is similar: the books will be "less readily available," as you say. It is an attempt at censorship via the marketplace.

In fairness, you state very clearly that your intention is to raise awareness of an issue, and not to eradicate these books. (And I assume you are prepared for the possibility that publicity would increase the sales of these very books.) Let us suppose the petition is successful and Amazon refuses to list these books. Would you feel inspired to make a similar case, based on Amazon's capitulation, to Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Alibris, Abebooks, and so on and so on? Have you thought about where you would stop?

I don't want to be too hard on you: Amazon does have a policy about offensive content, you do find these particular books offensive, and so the rest follows honestly. You are playing by Amazon's rules and they are a private company. My objection arises to the suggestion that this is not censorship. Sure it is.

In theory, if you succeed it will be more difficult for a person to read the offending books and consider what those authors are presenting in comparison to your own case. Although you and I are agreed about the subject matter, I am not comfortable silencing those who are not yet convinced, or inhibiting them from communicating their view.

Which is what led to my suggestion that you use this time and energy to write a book instead, or edit one comprising material from parents, educators, and psychologists.

On Offensive Material

"Regardless of your views on freedom of speech there are some books I assume you would expect [Amazon] not to stock, for example child pornography, or books that incite racial hatred."

In general, my impulse is not to stop people reading things I find offensive or disturbing. There is nothing in my country's constitution, nor in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, suggesting I have a right not to be offended.

I'm open to the possibility that there may be information that should be suppressed. I prefer judicious redaction to outright suppression. For instance, I was fully supportive of WikiLeaks publishing leaked diplomatic memos that exposed various activities of my government, but I was equally concerned that certain individuals named in the documents be redacted for their personal safety. And I can imagine a book or magazine depicting murder, rape, mutilation of animals, things like that, being out of bounds.

But we must be careful and rigorous, because the definition of what is "out of bounds" tends to broaden.

Despite my country's greatly vaunted "first amendment" right to freedom of speech, we have a long history of curtailing that right with sedition and obscenity laws. There are persistent conflicts to this day about the difference between "pornography" and art, the difference between journalism and espionage (as with WikiLeaks, The Guardian, and the New York Times), and balancing freedom of information with national security.

Child pornography seems like an obvious "no!" and yet in my lifetime the definition of child pornography has broadened under U.S. law. I recall a beautiful book that once was stocked by the Providence Public Library, reproducing photographs taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). There was a fashion in Victorian-era photography of using children as models, sometimes partly-naked. Dodgson frequently used such models in his photographs: clothed, partly clothed, or nude. The photographs did not depict sexual conduct, nor were they alluring in any prurient way to my eye, but the children were indeed nude and depicted as objects of beauty and innocence. If a photographer did such a series today, Anderson Cooper would be hounding them on television and they could be prosecuted for taking the pictures, mailing them anywhere, posting them on the internet, or publishing them. And a publisher would at least think twice about publishing that old book today; and a book collector would think twice about owning it.

This is my problem with the idea of censoring "offensive content." A book advocating spanking a child with a switch or a belt would likely offend me and I'd be moved to refute the book's claims, but the idea of stopping someone from selling or reading that book also offends me.


The Mule said...

Hi Algernon
I finally got around to writing something about the issue of censorship, which you and others have raised since the petition began. Here it is:
Do have a read and let me know your thoughts.
In the meantime, I have to say that you picked a bad example for me with Charles Dodgson! I actually played one of his child models in a production about him when I was at drama school in London some years ago. (Yes, I am an actor too, or was once!)
Dodgson is thought by many including several of his biographers to have had pedophile tendencies, although how far he took this is of course unknown. Having taken on the role of one of his child subjects I can tell you that I felt very exposed, and that I certainly would not want my own little girls to pose for him, no matter how pure his intentions may have been. And, having gone on to work as a therapist with both abused and abusers, I have to say - and this is backed up by a great deal of research - that it is HIGHLY unlikely that his intentions were pure, or that the photos were as far as it went.
It is too late to protect his child subjects from exposure, shame or any of the other difficult feelings or experiences that may have resulted from Dodgson's behaviour now.
But we can focus on the children of today - and my point that I have made in my blog post and I will make again here, is that if we have to choose between protecting a child from abuse and protecting an adult's freedom, we simply HAVE to choose the former, every time.
Best wishes for now and thank you again for your thoughts.

Emily S said...

Every one of your examples about the definition of "out of bounds" broadening, is in regards to the *government* censoring things. I agree with you that the government has NO place saying what we can and cannot say or write about.

This petition, however, is to a *private* business from their customers. It is no different from walking into your local bookstore and asking the owner to stop selling something that you find dangerous and reprehensible.

This is beyond "I don't agree" or "my that was a bit offensive." The material in this book was the catalyst for the deaths of several children. It promotes abuse at a level that is illegal in most places.

Despite that, the petition is not going to law makers. It is only to a private business so they can be informed of their customer's demands.

Algernon said...

Thank you for leaving a comment, Emily.

You are resorting to the fallacy that only government can practice censorship. This simply isn't true. The marketplace is frequently used to exercise censorship via boycotts, petitions, and public shaming.

I agree with you when you say that what you are asking Amazon to do "is no different from walking into your local bookstore and asking the owner to stop selling something that you find dangerous and reprehensible." It is even possible that I would agree and join in such an action. But it is censorship. You don't get to redefine the word just because you don't want to being applied to you.

No matter how offensive you find this book, I think you are stretching your case a bit in claiming that one particular book is directly culpable in the deaths of several children. Was this book lying open on the coffee table at the crime scene?

Look, I get it: you think the information in the book is harmful to children, you don't want it being sold, and you're going after a major bookseller in order to inhibit its distribution. This is consumer censorship, and your cause is a good one. Go for it, and please be honest about what you are doing.