Talking About Censorship and Publishing

From Publishers Weekly:

Can we talk?

In last week’s Publishers Weekly, I summarized the principles of “The Freedom to Read,” a statement essential to the ethical foundation of the library and publishing community since 1953. The statement did more than expound principles: It committed the signatories to fight for them.

Today this commitment is being questioned by people within the library and publishing communities. Many do not believe that publishers should release books that express dangerous ideas or books that are written by bad people. They reject the idea that the best answer to a bad book is a good one.

How are we to resolve these differences? So far, there have been Twitter debates. Petitions have been circulated. There has been a lot of talk about harmful books, but much less about how demands for suppression conflict with the commitment to publish a broad range of ideas. There has been little dialogue and almost no give-and-take. Yet there is strong evidence that conversation works, if not to fully resolve differences at least to build greater interpersonal understanding and lower the temperature of conflict, opening the way to further communication.

The National Coalition Against Censorship has some experience in this area. In 2017, building on groundwork by the American Booksellers Association, we launched a pilot program, the Open Discussion Project, that sought to bring liberals and conservatives together in independent bookstores to discuss the issues that divide them. This seems even more foolhardy today than it was four years ago, but we did our homework. We learned that political polarization was not new. Researchers had identified the problem in the 1970s, and nonprofits have been trying to find a solution ever since.

There were some encouraging results from experiments with groups that were small enough to let the members get to know one another. They developed empathy, making it possible for them to discuss their differences.

. . . .

(T)wo of the stores continue to hold meetings and others are considering restarting their groups. The Bipartisan Book Club, which began at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., includes liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. Now operated by its members, the club meets every six weeks to discuss books that present different perspectives. The topics include policing, gender identity, social cohesion, capitalism, antifa, and diversity.

More evidence of success is the response to Nadine Strossen’s book Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. As the president of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008 and a prominent defender of civil liberties, Strossen has always had a busy speaking schedule. But between the publication of her book in May 2018 and the beginning of the pandemic, she made more than 300 appearances, mostly to talk about hate speech.

Though Strossen often speaks to junior high and high school students, many of her events were on college campuses where activists were organizing against racism. Instead of fearing the wrath of students, she urged those who had invited her to actively reach out to students who disagree with her. Many did attend speeches and rejected her argument that restrictions on hate speech are ineffective, but other students were convinced by her argument that the best way to fight hate is to continue to organize and protest against it.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG agrees that social media certainly has its benefits and many people enjoy using it, he will observe that Twitter debates are but one evidence that this form of communication has its limits.

Human nature plays a role as well. One can demonize an effectively anonymous opponent online with much less concern about the consequences of a backlash than if one seriously antagonizes a next-door neighbor with verbal abuse. Drive-by verbal violence works much better online than in meatspace.

6 thoughts on “Talking About Censorship and Publishing”

  1. Discovering the existence of political polarization is akin to discovering that fire is hot.

    Now, just about every child does have to discover the latter, but they realize as they get older that it has always been so.

    Researchers discovering the former, though, seem to think that it is a new (and terrible) thing.

    (Personal opinion, formed from a study of history and the evolution of governmental systems – political polarization is a good thing, unless and until it reaches the inflection point where violence must be employed to settle the matter.)

    • I seem to remember a little to-do Involving Aaron Burr and tbe darling of Broadway.
      And the Grover Cleveland campaign was pretty bad.
      And then there was the time a newspaper drummed up a war.

        • True.
          For various values of “mostly peaceful”.

          A very useful phrase for waving off concerns over the parts that left a mark.
          Like tbe parts of DC impacted by the “mostly peaceful” actions of ’68 which still lingered a generation later.

          Orwell would just shrug; no surprise for him.

  2. It occurs to me that the normal process for getting rid of bad books – the marketplace: if people don’t buy, the writer makes no money – doesn’t apply when the big publishers are giving millions of dollars in advances to the writers of bad books. That’s where the problem is.

    If one of the former guy’s spawn write a book that will have many of its copies remaindered and pulped, the ‘author’ already took off with the cash, because it is well known that most books never earn out their advances.

    So writing a bad book gets rewarded anyway. It offends the nose.

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