Lost in the COVID-19 news cycle, Amazon recently hopped aboard the censorship bandwagon. And we are all worse off for it.
As if “cancel culture” needed another participant, the world’s largest e-commerce platform—owned by the wealthiest man in the world— decided to censor When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, Ryan Anderson’s 2018 book on gender identity and other issues. Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, was blunt in his explanation: “We have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.”
Whether or not Anderson frames transgenderism as a mental illness is up for debate. According to the author, he makes no such claim. After the Jeff Bezos-backed Washington Post suggested “Ryan Anderson’s book calling transgender people mentally ill is creating an uproar” in 2018, the author contacted the news outlet seeking a correction. Within one day, the story was re-framed and the headline was changed. The current headline makes no mention of mental illness, although the URL is unchanged.
Now, to be clear: I am no expert on gender identity or transgenderism, although I do sympathize with those who suffer from gender dysphoria. Those issues are just not at the forefront of the mind in my day-to-day life.
Nor am I in the business of criticizing Amazon for no reason. As a paying Amazon Prime customer, frequent Whole Foods shopper, and avid Washington Post reader, I respect and admire the contributions that Bezos has made to the U.S. economy and the global economy. Trust me: I am never one to complain about Bezos’ $200 billion net worth.
It is what it is. Life goes on. Amazon adds a lot of value for a whole lot of people, myself included.
But wherever you stand on the transgender movement, it should be inarguable that Anderson deserves a platform. Most Americans, in good faith, should be alarmed by recent events. Agree or disagree with him, Amazon should not be in the business of censoring an entire worldview for a blatantly ideological reason. Of course, in-store censorship is Amazon’s prerogative as a private company, but the sheer legal justification of it does not make censorship right. By canceling Anderson’s book, Amazon is indirectly undermining the First Amendment right to free speech.
This is wrong on multiple levels. First, Amazon is a book-selling behemoth, wielding inordinate influence over the entire market. Amazon removing a book from their website and a local bookstore taking it off the shelves are not one and the same. Bezos’ company accounts for 53 percent of all books sold in the United States, 72 percent of new adult book sales, and 80 percent of all eBook transactions. The consequences of Amazon’s censorship reach far and wide.
Second, Amazon is establishing a ludicrous double-standard. Amazon shoppers may not be able to access When Harry Became Sally, but they can still buy Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in which the future Nazi leader discusses such topics as the “Jewish menace.” In Hitler’s words: “The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.”
Yet Amazon continues to sell Mein Kampf, just as they continue to shop Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book or Benito Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism. And they should sell them—all of the above. Only by gaining insight into evil minds can we truly hope to understand them and steer clear of the temptations that bring to light their worst excesses. Only by learning from the mistakes of the past can we truly hope to steer clear of them in the future, using the past as a prescription for a better way forward. To quote the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Are the words of Ryan Anderson—a traditional conservative unknown to most Americans—really more “dangerous” than those of the world’s deadliest dictators? Of course not.
By Amazon’s new standard, however, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of books could be construed as “dangerous” to the most sensitive or vulnerable minds in our midst. That list would be limitless. When feeling supplants fact as the most important factor in a decision to censor or not, where does the censorship end?
Amazon’s decision to censor Anderson sets a dangerous precedent that threatens to target any and all Americans who believe in free speech and exercise it. While the company’s actions theoretically could be well-intentioned, they send us sliding down the most slippery slope. We need to draw a line in the sand and say “no” to undue free-speech restrictions—whether carried out by government or a private entity. This is wrong.
Here is a standard for Amazon: Stick to your original one. Protect and preserve free speech for all. Have faith in individual consumers to read books and interpret them on their own. Whether those consumers love a book or hate it, Amazon can and should defend every consumer’s right to read it.
The standard of free-speech absolutism may not be perfect, but there is no better standard for America in the age of “cancel culture.”