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.
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.