Outraged at Amazon?

Oh the irony! One minute, I was singing the praises of Amazon after receiving notice that my copies of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Absence of Mind were shipping several days earlier than expected, and the next, I was wondering if I would ever be able to purchase from the online retailer again without somehow endangering my immortal soul.

The cause of my sudden moral crisis? Shortly after the shipping confirmation arrived in my inbox, I came across several articles revealing that Amazon was, at the time, selling a self-published e-book titled The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct. According to the author, Phillip R. Greaves II, the book’s intent was to address “unfair portrayals of pedophiles in the media” and “make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certain rules for these adults to follow.”

Suffice to say, the book stirred up controversy and outrage: the book’s Amazon page was deluged with comments criticizing Amazon for selling such a book and folks took to Facebook and Twitter calling for a boycott. Amazon initially defended their decision to sell the book on the grounds of defending free speech, but eventually the mounting pressure and criticism became too great for the online retailer: within a couple of days, Amazon had pulled the title. The criticisms and threats of boycott had worked, and presumably, we could now return to spending our hard-earned dollars on Amazon with a clean conscience.

Whenever a situation like this occurs involving a book (or movie, CD, etc.) of, shall we say, unpopular content, the same old questions of free speech and censorship are often trotted out. And as someone who is a firm proponent of free speech and a firm opponent of censorship, situations like this — though not a free speech/censorship issue per se — certainly cause me to take another look at my philosophical stances, and I doubt I’m alone in that. However, what I kept returning to in this particular situation were two different questions, questions that are more fundamental to the situation and perhaps even more difficult to answer.

When I hear folks crying out for a boycott of an unpopular, offensive, and/or obscene work, the first question that runs through my mind is “Why?” Now, on the surface, the answer seems rather obvious, especially in this case. Pedophilia is abhorrent and wicked, and ought to be denounced at all times. I’m glad the book is no longer for sale — no amount of support, tacit or otherwise, can be mustered for a “how to” guide for pedophiles.

But here’s the rub: Amazon offers, either directly (through their own store) or indirectly (through the Amazon Marketplace), a multitude of items that many of the folks protesting Greaves’ book might find objectionable as well. You can purchase denials of the Holocaust, drug-making guides, and even graphic pornography/erotica on Amazon. And while Amazon might have removed this particular pro-pedophilia book, others are still available, as are titles that, according to MSNBC, could be considered child pornography.

So why this book in particular? Why did this book launch a thousand negative comments, Facebook posts, tweets, and calls for boycott? In this information-saturated age of ours, where social networking tools make it easier than ever to alert thousands of individuals, why are some titles brought to light and others ignored?

Is this a case of people willfully ignoring offensive and problematic material in order to take advantage of good shopping deals? Does speaking out against one title assuage some sort of guilt and make it easier to ignore the others? How do people make the decision as to when to boycott, and when to swallow their outrage so they can get their shopping done? What is the process involved in such a decision?

Which brings me to my second question: “What now?” Amazon has removed this title, but there are still all of those other titles mentioned earlier. And what’s more, if we expand our view a bit, we run into some troubling related issues that Caryn Rivadeneira touches on (emphasis mine):

This issue isn’t about censorship (as my friend and Amazon initially claimed) — Greaves can blog and speak about this all he wants. The issue is about a consumer community telling a company that we will not stand by while they profit off child abuse. This is about consumers using their own free speech and the free market to demand more, higher standards from the stores at which they shop.

Amazingly, within a day, because of pressure from Twitter and the Facebook groups that sprung up, calling for boycotts, Amazon took down the book. Let’s hope it stays this way.

Of course, my hypocrisy in all this is that I do business at plenty of companies that profit off child abuse. I’m likely wearing something right now that was made by a child no older than my oldest (age 8). This Christmas, my kids will probably open at least one gift made in part by someone else’s child slave.

That’s a problem. Suddenly that “good verse for life” [Prov. 31:8] I underlined so long ago gets complicated.

In our increasingly global and interconnected society, it’s becoming more difficult to claim ignorance. Constant information streams such as Twitter and Facebook and powerful information searching and gathering tools like Google mean it’s easier than ever to confront others with, and find yourself confronted by, information about situations that are distressing and disturbing, and that call for some action to be taken.

But it can also be increasingly difficult to know which action to take. A boycott or protest may be called for, but why, when, and to what extent? How do we decide which ones to participate in? And if we don’t participate in one — i.e, if we continue shopping at Amazon knowing full well about all of the other stuff there — are we merely turning a blind eye? Are we hypocrites?

I don’t want to promote a sense of hopelessness and futility, as if we should never say or do anything about the things we see, as if any action we take is ultimately pointless. Consumers, and especially Christian consumers, who ought to be following the Biblical commands of promoting justice and mercy, need to make informed decisions about where they spend their money. Doing so can have a positive effect on our society (and, in this global society of ours, a positive effect beyond our borders). And boycotts can be powerful tools to bring about good change, especially when focused and targeted. But the issues and situations that lead to such action, which may often seem so black and white in the moment, can often reveal themselves to be far more complicated, and give rise to far more questions than initially thought.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • http://www.pofgblog.com Joseph

    Does speaking out against one title assuage some sort of guilt and make it easier to ignore the others?

    I think that’s precisely what happened with this book. We live in an age, like you said, of unimaginable information saturation. Add to that the fact that we live in an age where people take less and less responsibility for their own thoughts, words, and actions. Add to that the fact that we live in an age where less and less is required of us in terms of intellectual rigor. What results is a situation where one person’s original outrage at something like this e-book catches fire on the internet. Why? Because it’s easier to jump on the bandwagon and pass on someone else’s comment than it is to form our own.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    “Oh, the irony.” “Endangering my immortal soul” “of, shall we say, unpopular content,”

    I doubt this was the main intention of the post, but phrases like this and several others give it a definite “sniff down your nose” attitude towards people who disliked Amazon’s selling of the book. This is not carefully written.

    That said, while some people who object to a how-to guide for pedophiles might also object to a work of Holocaust denial, to me it seems obvious that they are not the same thing, nor should Amazon use the same criteria in deciding whether or not to sell them. The latter promotes wrong-headed ideas whose spread may be hurtful to people directly or indirectly affected by the Holocaust. It may be countered and its harm reduced by other publications that correct its misinformation. The former purports to offer a guide to how to engage a child in a sexual relationship. The harm it may lead to cannot be dealt with by simply offering corrective information. As for the other works, like those mentioned in the MSNBC story, it would seem to make sense that work which was the result of crimes against children should not be sold. Determining which items fit that definition might require Amazon to operate on a case-by-case basis, but that’s why they get paid the big money.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    @Brett: My intention was not to “sniff down” my nose at anyone who disliked Amazon’s selling of the book. Elsewhere in the article, I wrote “no amount of support, tacit or otherwise, can be mustered for a ‘how to’ guide for pedophiles.” I thought that made it clear that I sympathized with the protesters and their cause.

  • owen Moorhead

    hi, did anybody actually read this book? or did you just turn off your higher cerebral function when you saw the word ‘pedophile’ and engage your “moral outrage reptilian brain”?

    hopefully this doesn’t sound too flippant, but as far as i’m concerned a code of conduct for pedophiles can only make things better. amirite?

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Owen, why don’t you read it for us and let us know. I for one believe the best code of conduct for Pedophiles is to keep them away from children–certainly we ought to think about how to help them reform. I am not in favor of “safer” pedophilia.

    Did you actually read this article of the articles linked here? This guy was trying to help pedophiles avoid getting caught by following some guidelines–that is wicked, creepy, and morally reprehensible in every way. I am pretty sure I managed to write that with full cerebral function.


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