The business of censorship

The business of censorship

There are plenty of people out there who know how you should live your life.

Some of these people take the direct approach. If you do something they don’t like, they will confront you directly, sometimes with rhetoric, sometimes with violence. Sometimes, they will convince others in the community to shun you. Shunning has been popular for a long time, likely because it is easier than direct confrontation by either words or fists, and so appeals to the passive.

The direct approach, though, is limited in its effectiveness, so those who know how you should live your life will often next move up the ladder and attempt to use legislation to tell you what to do. That’s what we have governments for, after all, to be the enforcement arm of society. All you have to do to get the government to do what you want it to do is to get enough of that society to back you up.

The problem with the legislative approach, though, is that, sometimes — admittedly, very rarely — there are enough people who also know how you should live your life but who disagree with the other people who also know how you should live your life, so there is disagreement on the details about how you should live your life. So, occasionally, the legislative approach fails.

When the legislative approach fails, then some of those people who know how you should live your life take another tack. In order to do whatever it is that you do that the people who know how you should live your life don’t like, you sometimes need the assistance of businesses. For example, if you want to buy a work of erotic fiction by an independent author who has published an e-book on Smashwords, you need Smashwords to make that e-book available. In order to do that, Smashwords needs a mechanism to accept money from you, and for that they have been using PayPal.

Recently, you may have heard that PayPal informed Smashwords that its services could no longer be used to allow customers to purchase certain varieties of erotica — rape, incest, underage and so on. The way PayPal did that was tell Smashwords that it couldn’t use PayPal for anything if it continued to sell those sorts of items. So, because using PayPal is pretty integral to the way Smashwords does business, it capitulated.

Now, in its defense, PayPal said that this was a decision forced on it by the credit card companies with which it works. I haven’t heard, but I’m sure that these credit card companies likely have some group or another, maybe in government, maybe not, pressuring them to make this decision. After all, as we’ve established, there are plenty of people out there who know how you should live your life.

Earlier on Twitter, I noticed a tweet by an author I follow, Daniel O’Shea:

Censorship = government saying you can’t sell it. Deciding not to sell it is just business. There, I addressed the whole PayPal thing. Next?


Felling the need to respond, I wrote:

The idea that only governments can commit censorship is not just specious, but dangerous.


To which Dan replied:

The idea that someone other than its owners can decide what a business has to sell is despotism.

I won’t address Dan’s reply here — that’s a complex and difficult issue that’s beyond the scope of this post. What I want to address right now is my reply to his initial tweet.

Here in the United States, we have the Constitution and its amendments. The purpose of a constitution is to outline how a government works, what it can and can’t do. As it happens, our country was one of the first to deliberately articulate certain things that the government — which is, remember, the enforcement arm of society — may not do to limit the actions of its citizens. These constitutional articulations are referred to as “rights,” and have been described as being “inalienable,” being endowed upon the citizens by “their creator,” whom- or whatever that may be.

That sounds all very nice, but it’s all just rubbish, of course. The “rights” outlined in the Constitution are nothing more than privileges that society as a whole allows its citizens to enjoy — as long as it’s convenient. As a matter of history, there isn’t a “right” that was “guaranteed” by the Constitution that hasn’t been systematically violated by our governments — federal, state and local — every single day since the Constitution was ratified.

It’s also not the point. Legally speaking, the Constitution only applies to the various governments within our society. A private entity can, more or less, do whatever it wants to do in regard to supporting or suppressing your ability to express yourself.

Take, for example, Rush Limbaugh. Recently, Limbaugh said some things on his radio program to which some people took offense. You may have heard about it. Now, generally speaking, it isn’t just a tendency of Limbaugh to say things to which some people take offense — it’s his entire business plan. Limbaugh doesn’t particularly care one way or another about any of the issues on which he comments. All he cares about is getting people to listen to him say what he says so that he can sell advertising to businesses willing to buy time on his show. If you don’t like what he says, you don’t have to listen to him, and you don’t have to patronize the businesses that advertise with him.

After the latest kerfuffle, though, a number of businesses decided to withdraw their support. These businesses didn’t want to be associated with Limbaugh after his latest assault on decency and common sense. It is, of course, the right of these businesses to do so. They don’t have to advertise with any program that they don’t believe will benefit them.

Here’s the thing, though. Some of these businesses have withdrawn their advertising because, at least in part, various groups and people have encouraged them to do so, and no doubt there has been talk of the “b” word — boycott.

Basically, these groups and individuals and businesses are working to punish Limbaugh for what he said.

Now, I don’t like Rush Limbaugh. I think he’s a sleazebag. If he said water was wet, I would doubt him until I confirmed it for myself. He is a small-minded, bigoted idiot who has become rich and famous catering to other small-minded, bigoted idiots. He’s despicable, and his latest line of bullshit is particularly despicable.

All that being said, he shouldn’t be punished for saying it.

It’s a very simple thing. Punishing someone, whether economically or in any other way, simply because he said something with which you disagree, is nothing but censorship. Nothing.

It isn’t censorship coming from the government — in this country, that’s illegal (except when it isn’t). It’s censorship coming from society as a whole. If society as a whole allows itself to commit censorship — that’s what one does, commit censorship, just like one commits a crime — then what are the limitations of that ability?

Now, we’ve seen what the credit card companies have done to Smashwords and presumably others. I don’t expect there to be a lot of outcry about it because, after all, it’s some pretty niche forms of erotica we’re talking about, and there are plenty of people out there who know how you should live your life who will tell you that you shouldn’t be reading that stuff in the first place.

What if, though, someday, a publication — let’s say the New York Times (it’s still in business, right?) — investigates some sort of shenanigans in the credit card companies — just as an example; it could be any industry. Then, let’s say the credit card companies say to the New York Times, “New York Times, we don’t like this article we know you’re going to print about us. If you don’t agree to drop it, we’re going to withdraw your ability to use our credit card services to charge your customers.”

Now, would that be censorship? If so, what recourse would the New York Times have? What if it wasn’t a company as visible and (more or less) wealthy like the Times. What if was, say, the Columbia Daily Tribune? What if was the Dixon Pilot?

Now, tell me this — who out there thinks for a minute that that hasn’t already happened? That it likely doesn’t happen every single day?

It’s just business, though. It’s just business.


It looks like PayPal has backed off its demands, and Smashwords has reverted to its old terms of service. Read more about it here.

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