No, boycotting ‘Dangerous’ is not censorship

Image credit: Read Brightly
Image credit: Read Brightly

Type ‘dangerous’ into the Amazon search bar and the first item to present itself is the #1 bestseller book, Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s also a book that hasn’t even been published yet. Plenty of people don’t think it should be published at all. 

Dangerous, expected to arrive on the market in March, will be the work of one of the most well-known troublemakers of the World Wide Web and a familiar face to York students of yesteryear. Banned from Twitter, Yiannopoulos spends his time touring American university campuses to inform students, among other things, that “feminism is cancer,” that transgender students are mentally ill and that “whiny gay leftists,” radical Islam and “social justice warriors” are destroying Western culture.

The Chicago Review of Books has made headlines for electing not to review the books produced by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Dangerous, this year. “I remain convinced that to protect the victims of discrimination from its traumatic and sometimes deadly consequences, the literary community must stand against anyone – author or publisher – who peddles hate speech for profit,” its editor-in-chief Adam Morgan concluded in an article for the Guardian.

As expected, a number of critics, few of whom do agree with Yiannopoulos’s opinions, have sneered at this response. It’s symptomatic of a culture of intolerance where hurt feelings are all the justification needed to demand action against someone or something offensive. People should not get so worked up about mere words, argues Brendan O’Neill. Words are not the same as weapons:

Please. It’s a book, not a bomb. It’s words, sentences, ideas, not fire and pogroms. Everyone needs to calm down […] When you’re scared of a book — a book! — then you have truly lost your faith in reason and in other people. You have submitted yourself, mind and soul, to the tyrannical logic, if not the practice, of the censor.

Certainly, words themselves are not as damaging as guns, bullets and bombs, and the ‘sticks and stones’ argument stands to a point; but I can imagine it’s hard to ignore words when those words are telling you that you and people of your colour are more like gorillas than human beings.

“No matter what Morgan et al. say, boycotting a book is an attempt at censorship,” adds O’Neill’s deputy at Spiked! Online, Tom Slater. “They may not be calling for the state to step in or ripping copies off the shelves of Barnes & Noble and setting them ablaze, but they are trying to silence and de-legitimise a point of view they dislike.”

O’Neill and Slater might well have written their articles while sitting next to each other – both refer to a specific quote from a single author and both argue that the reaction to Yiannopoulos’s forthcoming book stinks of censorship.

No, it is not censorship, and they know it. In fact, O’Neill concedes that critics of the publisher “aren’t legally blocking S&S from publishing ‘Dangerous’. But their hissy fit, their fear of this book, their dread of its ‘deadly consequences’, has all the ingredients of censorship. All of them.” So, it isn’t really censorship, but it kinda looks like it. Really?

If the government officially banned Yiannopoulos from uttering any of his outrageous statements or writing any of them down, or if Simon & Schuster’s headquarters were burned down or their executives assassinated, I’d be in the (admittedly bizarre) position of standing up for the Breitbart provocateur, fighting for his freedom of speech.

Student journalists are well aware of the dangers of censorship on campus. Censorship is when somebody or someone’s idea is banned or stripped from the page. Censorship is when certain thoughts and ideas are not permitted to be held on campus: banning the works of Shakespeare, for example. Censorship involves prohibiting certain news stories from making it to the press or denying journalists the opportunity to write about particular people and goings-on, to avoid humiliation and the publication of uncomfortable truths – who would do such a thing?

But choosing not to read something is not censorship. Refusing to pick up a copy of Nouse is not a call for Nouse to be shut down. Nor, if Simon & Schuster rejected Yiannopoulos’s first draft, would that be censorship either. The various other publishers that Yiannopoulos may have consulted before receiving $250,000 from Simon & Schuster would not have been proponents of censoring his opinions. The Chicago Review of Books are not censoring his work by not reading it, and Simon & Schuster’s books will still be reviewed by countless other reviewers for other publications. As Morgan wrote, Yiannopoulos retains the freedom to say what he wants everywhere else.

In fact, isn’t the widespread choice not to read Dangerous simply a healthy aspect of a free market? Isn’t the mood of the consumer and how it directs publishers’ plans something that lovers of freedom should be celebrating? If Simon & Schuster want to survive, they have to respond to public demand; it’s an awkward truth that cannot be simply explained away as a consequence of an illiberal, easily-offended culture.

If you were wondering, I intend to purchase Dangerous, though only after it has been printed. Yianopoulos has promised two other books in the last few years, but neither were ever written.

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Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018 and acting, 2018/2019. Waiting to graduate with MA in Philosophy at University of York in 2019.