A REPLY TO SOME ARGUMENTS
IN DEFENSE OF AMAZON.COM
(This essay refers to my last post, below. If you haven’t read that, scroll down and give it a look, then come back to these current observations.)
My last post elicited several comments in defense of Amazon.com’s right to refuse carrying products its managers deemed objectionable — specifically, books by the late Catholic psychotherapist, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi.
A reader named Eric suggested…
“Start your own platform if you want to peddle conversion therapy books. Amazon is under no obligation to provide you a platform, nor should they be.”
Another, named Mary, echoed that sentiment…
“Sorry, the First Amendment does not give you the right to have your work carried in all major bookstores.”
J.R. observed with free-market enthusiasm…
“If something is sellable, then companies will try to sell it.”
He then asked me in a distinctly accusatory tone…
“Why do you hate capitalism?”
John took a wry approach…
“I self-published a novel on Amazon. I DEMAND EVERYONE BUY IT! IF NOT, IT’S CENSORSHIP!”
He capped his commentary with this tongue-in-cheek complaint…
“I can’t find a single authentic snuff movie on Amazon Video. CORPORATE CENSORSHIP!”
Finally, my most frequent commenter, Al, raised this question…
“How many Christian book stores have ever carried books of non-Christian beliefs: Buddhist, Atheist, Hindu, etc.?”
And he drew a parallel with the Catholic Church…
“When I was still amongst the fold, the Catholic Church did this thing called condemning things like books, movies, etc., and attaching a mortal sin to it to boot.”
These statements come from individuals I assume (and, in some cases, know) to be at quite different points along the ideological spectrum. But evident in each is the essential Libertarian outlook that’s embedded in our American character and seems to transcend political divisions.
They all express the primal appeal of personal freedom. It’s what makes those on the right spring to the defense of a Christian baker who resists providing a cake for a gay wedding, even as it prompts those on the left to defend someone demanding their own preferred pronouns.
At the heart of the Amazon issue is a fundamental question of civil life: how to balance competing rights within the peaceful functioning of society.
This was the central question raised by the Civil Rights Movement when it touched on segregation in private businesses…
Weren’t business owners free to decide with whom they wished to do business? At the same time, didn’t black people have a right to expect accommodation by businesses that served the public in general?
For the most part, the question was settled in favor of equal accommodation. But let’s examine it in this current context.
In respect of the comments by Eric, Mary, J.R., and John (which make basically the same point in different ways) — the folks at Amazon are free to prohibit any category of books they choose, though eliminating religious titles would pose challenges.
First, they’d have to show no denominational bias by banning works of all sectarian stripes. And then they’d have some difficulty distinguishing between books that are explicitly faith-focused and those that merely touch on religious themes and questions — which is well neigh impossible in many instances — but I suppose they could try.
Amazon hasn’t taken such an inclusive approach, however. Instead, it’s been highly selective in the books rejected.
As to Al’s comment — the banning of Nicolosi’s books isn’t really a sectarian issue. No one would expect the operators of, say, a Latter-Day Saints bookstore to carry Catholic or Evangelical material. The store’s interest is in disseminating Mormon teachings, and its owners are perfectly within their First-Amendment rights to select their inventory with that aim in mind.
But Amazon is different from that hypothetical LDS bookstore. It isn’t a religious organization. It isn’t allied with a church. Moreover, the problem with Nicolosi’s books isn’t that they’re Catholic, as such. Indeed, all kinds of Catholic books are available through Amazon.
The key point — and one that’s relevant to all my readers’ comments — is that none of the books in question is marketed by the Amazon company itself. Rather, individual private vendors make their titles available via the Amazon platform, for which they pay certain fees. Consequently — in good Libertarian fashion — they expect (and are entitled to) neutrality or evenhandedness in the presentation of their products.
Yet, it was Amazon’s corporate decision-makers that barred Nicolosi’s book. They did it because his clinical approach, informed as it was by traditional Judeo-Christian morality, transgressed the current orthodoxy about sex and gender.
And that raises an authentic religious-liberty concern.
Religion involves more than just freedom to worship as one chooses (which is the minimalist view assumed by the Left). A religion is a way of living, guided by a set of constitutionally protected theological and moral beliefs.
Nicolosi advanced an understanding of human sexuality that reflected certain of those beliefs. And he was perfectly entitled to do so. Amazon arbitrarily decided that his views should not be put before the public — at least not via the channels it controls.
But Amazon provides a public venue for conveying a broad range of merchandise in which it has no direct interest (religious or otherwise) beyond the fees it charges to make its platform available.
The action it took was ideologically driven (or taken in response to ideological pressure), not religiously inspired. It wasn’t even based on market considerations, since the company bore no out-of-pocket risk if Nicolosi’s books didn’t sell.
Yes, online platforms are compelled by law to block certain kinds of illegal or dangerous items. But when you impose restrictions that exceed those mandated by statute you step into very murky legal waters.
I fully expect that, at some point, somebody will go to court and press the argument that Amazon is bound to offer its services on the basis of equal accommodation. And given the precedent of the Civil Rights Movement, which established that concept, the argument is likely to prevail (though that may require going all the way up to the Supreme Court).
Despite their Libertarian pedigree, the objections raised by my readers do not persuade.
The Nicolosi ban was in line with the blocking and deplatforming efforts by social media happening with increased frequency. All these are rightly seen as threats to the First-Amendment freedoms on which our national life depends.
Amazon would do well to stick to the statement of purpose it has often propounded…
“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
You don’t accomplish that by imposing ideological restrictions. You accomplish it with a commitment to openness, freedom, and respect.