Is it fitting for publishers to profit from, say, Mein Kampf?
The essay I found the question buried within is less interesting than I’d hoped, but as we’re in a season of heightened awareness about what constitutes acceptable speech, the question seemed worth reflecting on some. As Ryan Holiday writes
“With the rise of the alt-right and other controversial figures in the U.S., the concept of #NoPlatform has become popular with activists and critics. Inside the publishing industry, there has been debate over whether to #NoPlatform incendiary figures like Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos’s book was ultimately cancelled by Simon & Schuster…Despite this, there has not been much reflection about publishing’s past, or even current, enabling of such figures.”
Here’s a minimum requirement for those seeking to ‘inform’ the public about putatively unacceptable opinions that they think are having influence: they ought not whitewash what a particular writer thinks about a subject, but present it in its full, unvarnished glory. If a publisher determines that Mein Kampf is important enough to print, they ought not redact the most repellent bits—as Houghton and Mifflin did in their 1933 edition. (FDR, the story notes, had read the original German and declared the translation “a wholly false view of what Hitler is or says.” And Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature. My generation has never known such literate world leaders.)
Beyond that, however, things get hazy quickly. The essay notes that as long as profit is possible, publishers will be stand ready to send out morally repellent and repugnant books. I’m half inclined to respond: one can only hope. While intellectual argument, if anything, should be as free as possible from being dominated by an interest in economic advantage, the latter at least has the advantage of being somewhat viewpoint neutral. Yes, certain high-profile publishers will decline to take risks publishing retrograde material despite a strong appetite for it—but it is much easier to see how they might when profit is possible, than it is if the venture is strictly one of good will. High-minded declarations about ‘corporate responsibility’ can quickly become ideological barriers, where once renegade ideas are simply treated as unacceptable for public discourse. At the same time, an intellectual marketplace dominated wholly by profit will soon gravitate toward foisting the most spectacular and transgressive views upon the world. One hypothesis is that the same dynamic we’ve seen in politics has played out in publishing: the large, creditable houses have become exceedingly cautious, and have been dominated by a sense of ideological responsibility—while the internet has veered toward highlighting and emphasizing the most disreputable of views.
None of this is anything like a meaningful answer to what seems to be an intractable problem: communities have to place boundaries around ideas, and not simply the people who are members of them, if they are to remain coherently ordered. Whatever ‘freedom of speech’ means, it cannot mean the freedom to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre without recrimination—nor must it necessarily mean the freedom, say, of contemporary Germans to deny the Holocaust happened. In a context and history such as those Germany has, an idea like that might be uniquely imperiling and destructive to its post-WWII self-understanding. The strength beneath freedom of speech must recognize the particular vulnerabilities and dangers which, if ignored, would imperil and undermine it. Chesterton warned in an intellectual context against a “thought that stops thought.” We should caution against thoughts that stop society as well, and be acutely aware of the dangers of promulgating them.
It seems inevitable to me that communities have to set boundaries around opinions, and rule some points of view as simply inadmissable to ‘polite discourse.’ And they can only do so, I suspect, by treating those ideas as contagious. We might #noplatform Milo—but we also cast anyone who appears with him into the outer darkness. What Milo says is creditable to those who merely appear in the same context. Optics are substance. Co-presence with ‘heretics’ means endorsement, the only penance for which is public denouncement—a stronger form of repudiation. Mere disagreement is simply not enough for someone to cleans themselves of the stain of being associated with discreditable ideas through being near the person who holds them. “I denounce them” have become ritual words of cleansing, as we perform our secularized versions of baptism ceremonies: those who are associated with discreditable points of view may enter the community anew through uttering the incantation publicly, and leaving behind the evil and all its works.
As I say, none of this is an answer to the question of whether we should #noplatform Nazis. If anything, I’m trying to understand and describe the dynamics at work these days in speaking publicly—dynamics which are always present, but which the fragility of our social order have intensified, as we have lost confidence in the deeper bonds that hold us together.