Monday, April 13, 2009

A Little Primer on the Word "Censorship"

Language is a slippery thing. The meaning of words constantly changes with the culture: words take on new meanings ("weed" apparently refers to something other than unwanted garden growth), acquire pejorative meanings ("colored," as a racial descriptor, is almost entirely neutral (if a tad pale-centric), but has taken on racial overtones that require deleting the word in the context of race), or change completely ("liberal," as a political leaning, now means something nearly orthogonal to its classical meaning). And who can forget the Clintonian classic, "It depends what the meaning of 'is' is"?

Let us take the word "censor." According to Wikipedia, "Censorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful or sensitive, as determined by a censor." The article goes on to give a variety of examples, each of which involves the removal of materials. Those materials are unobtainable to the general public. (Don't like Wikipedia? Me neither, but it's useful. The good folks at Princeton define "to censor" as "[to] forbid the public distribution of (a movie or a newspaper)," which seems pretty close to me.)

Censorship doesn't mean "making materials a little difficult to find," or "rearranging materials on the shelf." Sure, you can redefine the word, debasing its meaning and diminishing the impact of the word - just as when newspapers redefine "sexual assault" as including an unwanted swat on the rear, so that victims of rape, forcible sodomy, and other vicious crimes are lumped in with the victims of adolecent hijinks.

Amazon.com apparently - and I say apparently because I have seen no direct confirmation of it, not because I don't believe it - removed gay and lesbian (and, presumably, any other materials involving non-heterosexual behavior) books from its sales rankings, along with other materials deemed "adult." Amazon - again, apparently - did not do the same with what I'll call smutty books involving heterosexual characters, although books classified as "erotica" suffered the same fate as books involving homosexuality. If this is true, I'd be interested in knowing why Amazon thought that was a good decision, either from a purely business standpoint or from the perspective of being a good corporate citizen (whatever that means). But is it censorship?

Last night's ISC chat certainly seemed to think so. The lynch mob mentality was in full swing, so that disagreeing with that perspective made one - in this case, made me - a hate-mongering neo-Nazi ready to fire the ovens. After a few tries, I quit the discussion, figuring that there is no point in debating a mob as though they're rational people. Perhaps in the cold, clear light of day, at least one person may be willing to listen a little more carefully.

Attempting a scientific approach, I went to Amazon's site and spent a little time seeing what I could find. I could
  • search globally for terms such as "gay"
  • see a listing of gay/lesbian titles by category of book
  • search for specific authors or titles of gay or lesbian literature
  • see the customer reviews and ratings for each book

In fact, I didn't see anything that had changed - with the possible exception of the sales ranking which, frankly, I never pay attention to anyway.

So where's the censorship? Yes, the change is discriminatory, offensive, silly, not in Amazon's corporate interest as far as I can tell...but nothing is being censored. You can buy all the books you could buy before, and you can find them just as easily as before. (As an aside: one person, attempting to be a little more rational than the person who replied without elaboration "Yes it is censorship," as though asserting it a second time would be persuasive, said that she found sales rankings to be useful in assessing whether a book is a worthwhile purchase. I'll confess I don't understand why that should be so, given how inherently unreliable and changable sales rankings are in general, and how small changes in purchases can affect greatly the rank of a slow-selling book, but if it helps her out, that's great, and Amazon's new policy indeed adversely affects her. Still not censorship, but she's made worse off.) (Someone else suggested that publishers find this information useful, e.g., in deciding which authors to keep and which to drop. I have no knowledge of this one way or the other, but I'd suggest that Amazon sales rankings are perhaps a less reliable metric than, say, the number of copies the publisher actually sells.)

Consider the following thought experiment: a bricks-and-mortar bookstore decides to eliminate its gardening books and use that shelf space for selling DVDs. Clearly not censorship, right? It's a business decision to abandon the gardening customers for movie viewers. Feel free to buy your gardening books elsewhere. Then how can Amazon be engaging in censorship when it doesn't limit the availability of books?

To recap: I find Amazon's actions wrong-headed and baffling. If people want to buy elsewhere, that's a fine reaction to a policy with which they disagree. But censorship it's not.

2 comments:

Edward Pearse, Duke of Argylle said...

But Miss Jameson, if it's not censorship then the minority martyrs cannot indulge in persecution conspiracies.

From the very limited amount I saw at the start before I tuned out the complaint was that Amazon had removed the rating, not the listing. As far as I could tell Amazon are still selling the books, they're just removing the ratings on some of the "adult" material. What this is meant to achieve I have no idea. Sadly some people have a persecution complex and see any sort of change as an attack on them personally or their allegiances or cultural alignment.

Storms in teacups is all I can say.

Kathy Jameson said...

*sighs* You're right, of course, m'lord. I should learn to click that little x in the corner of the chat box.

Still, don't let the mob stab you with one of their pitchforks - the points are quite sharp!