Ordinarily, free speech is an issue that's fairly cut and dry and easy to talk about. Censorship = bad. Freedom of expression = good. Moving along to the next matter of interest stat.
But when we're talking about a topic that's revolting, despicable, and morally intolerable -- say, oh, I don't know, pedophilia, for example -- then all our lines of defense fly out the window. We certainly learned that lesson the hard way this week, didn't we?
The entire situation was a nightmare for free speech proponents -- and basically I'd like to think that's almost all of us.
A very ill and disturbed man, Philip R. Greaves II, wrote a book promoting the illegal activity of pedophilia and sold it on Amazon. The subject matter was so loathsome and stomach-churning that outraged Internet users felt they have no choice but to call for Amazon to remove the material -- even though this meant that, in effect, they were calling for censorship.
When Amazon at first refused to bow to the pressure and censor the material, it only made the situation that much worse. Here was the original statement:
Amazon.com believes it is censorship not to sell certain titles because we believe their message is objectionable. Therefore, we'll continue to make controversial works available in the United States and everywhere else, except where they're prohibited by law.
The company's commitment to free speech only incited calls for an Amazon boycott; meanwhile the ghastly book moved from being the 158,221st best-selling Kindle e-books to the 146th simply because of all the attention it was getting. Math geeks, are you keeping track? Because that's a 101,000 percent sales boost, people.
Amazon has since taken the book down. But it's hard to declare a clear winner here: The material is out there, parents are worried about their children, and people who are trying to defend free speech are being accused of siding with pedophiles. I'd like to point the finger at Mr. Greaves for this giant mess; but I think the frantic way we reacted to his "work" only accelerated and exacerbated the situation.
Here's the fact that we're all going to have to come to terms with: We're going to see this happen again. And not just about pedophilia.
The law allows people to write material about whatever abhorrent topics they want to. Moreover, the whole point of the new e-book platform is that people can self-publish (mostly) whatever they wish. So, you know there's going to be even more disturbed people taking advantage of what is available to them.
I don't think censorship is the answer as a way to contain the crazies. I think what's more important here is how we react to disturbed people putting disturbed ideas out there. Is it possible to do it in a way that isn't so chaotic and angry so as not to bring publicity to people that in no way deserve it?
Image via Amazon