Defending free-speech - and our right to call it out

Free Speech says everyone has the right to say what they want, even if it is discriminatory or hateful. But that doesn't mean businesses have to sell it, or that we can't call out those who do.

Defending free-speech - and our right to call it out

Milo Yiannopoulos has made waves in the publishing industry this year, resulting in the growing debate on issues of no-platforming and censorship, which seem to be more relevant now than ever.

In case you missed it, the publishing giant Simon & Schuster caused controversy in the industry by awarding Yiannopoulos a lucrative book deal for his new book, Dangerous. Yiannopoulos is well known for using hate-speech, and has even been banned from Twitter for abuse online. While Simon & Schuster insisted that there would be no hate speech within the book, prominent figures took a stand, including Roxane Gay who subsequently dropped her book from the publisher. Not long after, Yiannopoulos hit the headlines again, this time with comments advocating sexual relationships between men and boys, which has been seen as defending paedophilia, causing many of his previous supporters to turn on him, and his book to be dropped.

The whole episode raised serious questions about no-platforming, censorship and free-speech in the publishing industry, with some defending Simon & Schuster for publishing a range of opinions. As Gay pointed out 'Milo has every right to say what he wants to say, however distasteful I and many others find it to be.' However, in the same breath she reserved her right not to support a company who were happy to make a profit from Yiannopoulos' views, suggesting that he doesn't have the right to such a high-profile platform.

Soon after, Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, argued that it was wrong for booksellers to promote certain books and not stock others as political acts. Her comments were targeted at an independent bookshop, Book Hive, which was handing out free copies of 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale, books that have recently shot to the top of the best seller lists again in the wake of Trump's inauguration. The same bookshop didn't stock any of Trump's books, prompting Hill to cancel her appearance there. She argued that, unless bookshops market themselves as being specialist, ie a Christian, Communist or Feminist bookshop, then they must stock a wide range of books. She took issue with the bookshop openly advertising its political position as being anti-Trump, claiming 'This is a form of censorship and, of all places, a bookshop (like a library) should never ever indulge in that.'

To some extent, I can understand Hill's argument; books are knowledge, and in a perfect world readers should be able to access that knowledge and read all kinds of books. I would absolutely encourage people to read widely, particularly views that are not their own.

However, a bookshop is not a library. Libraries are public services, while bookshops, and publishers, are private businesses, with every right to decide what they will and won't stock. They operate for a profit, not a moral duty, and so decisions come down to business. These days politics sells, with many brands taking a stance against Trump's policies. While the owners of the Book Hive may have strong political opinions, it is also likely that they have seen how well liberal, radical dystopian fiction, and an anti-Trump attitude, is selling.

You can argue that Simon & Schuster's decision to publish Dangerous, (and their decision to drop it) is the same thing, and that is absolutely true – there is no denying it would have made the company a significant profit. Like the Book Hive, they made a business decision, however, in the publisher's case it backfired, with many boycotting the brand, arguing that they didn't want Yiannopoulos' ideas given a bigger platform.

Do either of these examples of no-platforming constitute censorship? Not at all, Yiannopoulos can still write his book and he can likely afford to self-publish, no-one is stopping him. Equally, you can still buy Trump's books, just not at Book Hive. Neither are being suppressed, banned, or made illegal. Another business can choose to pick up Dangerous or sell Trump, and that is their choice and a business decision, however, at the rate the Trump brand has been boycotted, probably not a very savvy one. Equally, as consumers, we have a right to shop (and not shop) where we want and, in 2017 those are decisions we are paying a lot more attention to.


Ellen Orange

Ellen Orange Contributor

I am a 24 year old Marketing Officer from the North East with a passion for arts and writing. I did a BA in English Literature and an MA in Twentieth and Twenty First Century Literature at Durham University, because I love books and reading! I have experience in writing for a variety of student publications, as well as having contributed to Living North, a regional magazine and Culture magazine, a supplement to regional newspaper, The Journal. I have been part of a Young Journalists scheme writing for NewcastleGateshead's Juice Festival, a young people's arts and culture festival, and have since become a Team Juice member. As well as reading and writing, I love theatre, photography and crafts.

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 22 March 2017, 10:15 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    Politics seems to be defining this entire decade - now books are getting involved...

  • Ellen Orange

    On 22 March 2017, 10:28 Ellen Orange Contributor commented:

    Books have always been political! The very books people are turning to like 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale were written decades ago in response to the politics of their times. I think it is just more evident to us now as because political positions are getting more extreme, it affects our lives more.

    I also think turning to 1984 is interesting because it was originally written in response to Russian totalitarianism - communism rather than fascism or 'alt-right' politics, so slightly ironic that it is being held up as 'liberal' now? It shows that books aren't just words on a page, but also how you read, use and interpret them!

    I think the uniting factor is a defence of justice, fairness and true 'democracy' (ie the voice and rights of the people, rather than a political voting system) as opposed to the simplistic delineation of 'left' and 'right'.

  • Sienna James

    On 25 March 2017, 09:17 Sienna James Voice Team commented:

    I love this new topic theme on Voice - v important.

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