Free expression, not oppression

Freedom of the press is one of the seven wonders of America*.  As far as my understanding goes, our national belief in freedom of speech and of the press is one of the few beliefs that still unites our imagined national community, one of the few things that Americans of all political persuasions hold sacred.

Now, often we go to the marginal cases to consider how far this freedom goes, and Amazon’s virtual publishing site has prompted many discussions of censorship and taboo literature since any idiot can now publish a book.  For a while, the website declined to list titles associated with gay and lesbian themes in its best-seller lists.  This seems obviously silly–if books are best-sellers, why would you want to hide them?–as well as censorious and wrong.  But the website then de-listed or hid a book discussing how-tos of pedophilia, and that is a little more difficult to condemn.

Still, here’s the thing–we have a constitutional right to freedom from government interference in speech and the press, not the right to force another company to publish whatever we want.  So Amazon be damned.  As long as Uncle Sam isn’t interfering, we’re free, right?  Blah.

I’m not going to go into a long rant about the many, many ways in which the State colludes with corporations to censor citizen voices–that is a topic for a library unto itself.  But we do need to consider the difference between government or public sphere censorship–an authority above stating that an idea must not be expressed, and that anything or one who does so will be punished–and community based taboos.  There isn’t a place for government censorship, period.  Heck, Amazon runs such a large part of the press now that I’m not sure that there is any room for them to limit what they publish without just being discriminatory, either.

But then I think about the teacher who published a novel based on his exploitative affair with a student (an actual, recent incident–Google it).  No, it’s not appropriate for some hierarchical ruler to come around, scoop up all these books, and burn them publicly. However, what that teacher did was reprehensible, and it is reprehensible that he should profit from exploiting another human being.  Decent people should scorn his book; he should not be able to convince someone else to publish it; he should not get royalties from it; and heck, if I happen across a copy of it I just might use it for kindling to express my disdain for his actions.  If there are any taboos, profiting off the pain you caused others should be high on that list.

And then there’s the recent incident where the Kansas speaker of the house forwarded a prayer to some political allies that implied Obama should be assassinated.  Should he not be allowed to express himself this way?  Well, there shouldn’t be a law, but he should be shunned by decent people.**  To say that all speech acts are acceptable would imply that this is because they don’t do anything, that they don’t have moral consequences.

Literature must be free to represent the totality of human experience, and explore possibilities of future human experience. Indeed, any restraints from above will limit availability of ideas and inevitably repress freedom instead of vice, vision instead of voyeurism.  But readers and publishers don’t have to accept crap, and those who use writing to exert harm on others must not use the fear of censorship to clear themselves of their anti-social behavior.

*The other six are free public water fountains, free public restrooms, the Colbert Report, generally excellent public libraries, the Rocky Mountains, and small Midwestern college towns.

**Also, I think that wishing the president dead is generally not as well tolerated if the person wishing it is, say, Muslim, or poor, or not a prominent politician already.

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