Bookstores in the Crosshairs

Kenny Brechner - May 31, 2022

Some things involving words—intellectual thrillers and philosophical discussions, for example—benefit from complexity and moral engagement. Others—such as instruction manuals and free speech—are best kept simple. Let us consider a case in point involving bookselling and free speech: the current attempt by two Virginia legislators to have a pair of popular and highly regarded published works banned from sale at bookstores in their state.

First of all, we should bear in mind that the employment of an obscenity standard to censor published works inherently involves the application of subjective moral standards in a universal manner, a form of tyranny from which free speech is intended to protect us. The underlying principle of free speech is equity. It recognizes that the harm ensuing from speech is best remedied by more speech because the suppression of books on moral grounds is the greater harm. In protecting access to all books it simultaneously preserves the ability for critical speech regarding those books to occur.

It is that simple. Suppression of books on moral grounds is always tyranny.  We should not be splitting hairs here.  Demonizing one moral ground and not another as the basis for censorship opens the door to censorship by any group with the power to impose their morality on others.

The place for morality in books lies in the speech about them: critical speech, personal speech, political speech, all imbued by moral experience.

It is a grave mistake to fall here into the famous precept detailed in Orwell’s Animal Farm, that “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” Yet that  is just the dangerous proposition that the American Booksellers Association embraced in its objection to the Virginia obscenity suit. It puts forward not that the suppression of books on moral grounds is wrong, but rather that the moral basis of the lawsuit is wrong: “Freedom of Speech and Free Expression are the pillars of our society. When a select group of people try to silence voices, particularly historically marginalized voices, all of society suffers.” This sentence could have avoided its unfortunate Orwellian irony if it had been kept simple as follows: When a select group of people try to silence voices all of society suffers.

In its following extended argument, ABA further undercuts its earlier stated support for free speech. “The American Booksellers Association believes in protecting the rights of readers and the importance of representation in books. We condemn the current wave of book banning in schools and libraries occurring across the country that threatens both the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Stories that reflect love in its many forms and support diverse lifestyles are of the utmost importance right now. Silencing those voices just creates marginalization and discrimination.  It’s critical that young people of all experiences and identities see themselves reflected in books. It’s equally important that young people also see experiences and identities different from their own. Diversity in books promotes empathy, understanding, confidence, and growth. And isn’t that what we all, regardless of politics, want for our young people?”

This is entirely a moral argument and intrinsically supports the basis of the censorship it is objecting  to by engaging with it, attacking the validity of the particular morals of the Virginia censors rather than simply rejecting morality as a basis of censorship. Free speech holds that all books are created equal.  Their differing statures and characters develop over time from the result of free speech, access, and critical response to them. Success or failure is in the eye of the beholder. All books have the right to be beheld, advocated for, or disparaged.

The response of booksellers to the resurgent threat of being direct targets of obscenity laws and censorship should be to support free speech in all its simplicity, regardless of the book targeted or the cost of defending the right to provide access to them as a matter of personal choice.

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