Stop Confusing Boycotts with Censorship

(I couldn’t find a credit for this photo, but I’m happy to update this caption later…)

Shortly after we all heard about Milo Yiannopoulos getting a book deal with Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions, I talked about the possibility of a boycott. A lot of people are against boycotting S&S over this one book deal, particularly because there are hundreds of other authors published by other S&S imprints who would be adversely affected if people flat out refused to buy their books simply because of who published them.

That’s a reasonably compelling reason to refrain from striking out against S&S for extending the platform of one of the most odious voices in contemporary politics. Unfortunately, some anti-censorship advocates who should know better are using it as a plank in a specious attempt to claim that boycotting S&S, or even raising the possibility of a boycott, is itself an act of censorship. As the National Coalition Against Censorship puts it, “this kind of response will have a chilling effect on authors and publishers… Publishers and writers need the freedom to express and disseminate ideas, even if they are controversial and offensive to some. We need not endorse the ideas contained in a book to endorse the right to express them.”

Well, of course a boycott would have a “chilling affect” on authors and publishers. That’s why you do it. The whole point of a boycott is to show its target there are real-world consequences to engaging in socially unacceptable behavior. It’s a reflection of consumers’ recognition that the products they buy aren’t just magically created objects, but that they’re produced in a world where ethical and moral concerns carry relevance. If a company subjects its employees to legally acceptable but ethically inhumane working conditions, we boycott the company to force it to change its business practices. If a company puts out an ethically dubious product, we boycott the company to compel it to stop making and distributing that product. If you find out a company conducts business with other, ethically dubious companies, or donates some of its profits to organizations that do ethically dubious things, you boycott the company to keep your money out of it. This is all pretty straightforward.

So for consumers in a free market capitalist society to decide they won’t support Simon & Schuster because they see it as a purveyor of hatred for publishing Milo Yiannopoulos is not censorship. It’s discernment. You might disagree with the logic; you might say that it’s overly judgmental. But you can’t call it censorship. Nobody questions the right of S&S to publish Milo’s book; some people simply question whether it’s the right thing to do, and whether they want to support a company that thinks it is.

To recap: If a governmental authority were to tell Simon & Schuster, “Hey, you can’t publish Milo’s book,” that would be censorship, a clear violation of S&S’s First Amendment rights. Ordinary Americans telling S&S “Hey, you shouldn’t publish Milo’s book, and it makes me rethink buying your books at all”? Not censorship.

Ultimately, I think, there should be economic consequences to helping awful people spread awful ideologies, even if you publish very nice books, too. Which is why I like the way San Francisco-based Booksmith is handling the situation: They won’t carry Milo’s book, or any books from Threshold, and they won’t order those books for their customers, either. In addition, they’re cutting their orders on all Simon & Schuster books in half: “While we respect Simon’s decision to publish any book, we reserve the right to allocate our discretionary inventory dollars with publishers who act with ethical & moral standards consistent with our own.” And for any S&S books they do sell, they’ll donate all their profits on those sales to the ACLU.

That, it seems to me, strikes a fair balance between striking an economic blow against S&S for normalizing fascism and making sure that other authors aren’t overwhelmed in the collateral damage. As Dennis Johnson, the publisher of Melville House Books, writes, “A boycott is the only way to make a statement to entities to which only money has meaning.” And, as I outlined last week, the reason S&S is publishing Milo is that somebody there is confident there’s money to be made. It’s up to the American public to convince S&S otherwise—not that the money isn’t there, because it clearly is, but that what it will cost S&S to get that money, in goodwill and other lost sales, isn’t worth the effort. If that goal is at all achievable, actions like Booksmith’s are a great first step—and if it isn’t, Booksmith has still made a valuable principled stand.

One more time, because apparently there’s still some confusion: Creating a situation where S&S chooses not to publish a book it has every right to publish under the U.S. Constitution purely because doing so would be against its economic self-interest is not censorship. It’s free market capitalism. And for anyone whose professed avocation is fighting actual censorship to suggest otherwise is just sad.