If I choose the light, am I censoring the dark?
Censorship. It’s an emotive word. And always wrong, right? Wrong.
You see, people confuse censorship with choice. And when it’s really a question of choice, it cannot be wrong. Consider the recent ‘censorship’ of hard core self-published books by organizations like WH Smith and Amazon. Amos Kepler wrote (14 October 2013):
My books have been banned by WHSmith… If anything, the books being controversial is one more important reason to sell them and feature them. Censorship and oppression of free expression are never okay!
My books have been banned by WHSmith
SM Johnson wrote (13 October 3013):
Well. It seems one of my books has been censored by Amazon… This is one of those “big bads” that NEEDS to be publicized. If we ever needed a shit-storm about anything, it’s THIS.
Erotica Authors – Amazon Censorship Alert
But this isn’t censorship, this is choice. It is the choice of the publisher (in this instance WH Smith and Amazon) to sell or provide what they choose (or in this case, not sell what they don’t choose). We would not describe Harrods’ disinclination to sell Happy Shopper beans as censorship of baked beans requiring a shit-storm of protest — so why should we do so about WH Smith and Amazon? After all, you can still get Happy Shopper beans from Happy Shopper — and you can still get hard core from hard core shops.
Censorship is different. It is the removal of choice. It does not say, you cannot have this from us; it says no-one can have this from anyone, at all, period — and with censorship, WH Smith and Amazon would have no choice over what they wish to sell or not sell. There’s a big difference.
WH Smith and Amazon are not censoring these books; they do not have the ability to do so (the books will be available elsewhere, even if only from the authors’ own websites). WH Smith and Amazon are choosing not to make them available from their sites. And it is their right to make that choice.
Censorship is when an organization prevents all access to information or ideas or art that would otherwise be available. Governments can do it. ISPs can do it. Bookshops cannot.
So if we go back to our first paragraph, censorship is always wrong, right? Right! But choice is not; and we should not confuse the two. Claiming that a bookseller’s decision not to sell a particular book is censorship weakens the argument against genuine, serious censorship. Genuine censorship is not merely wrong, it is dangerous. Bookshops deciding not to sell hard core is not censorship.