A boycott is not a ban

Just a brief comment on the Facebook-originated boycott of the Ian Wishart & Macsyna King book Breaking Silence.

A bunch of private individuals, however coordinated, choosing to publicly signal their intention to not patronise outlets which choose to sell a particular book is not a ban in any meaningful sense. You could (and no doubt Wishart will) try to parlay it into something like “de facto ban” or “virtual ban”, but it’s nothing of the sort. Even if major chain and independent bookstores decide against stocking the book, it’s not a ban — they are perfectly free to make whatever commercial decisions they feel like, and in this regard the signal provided to them by a Facebook group is potentially useful. It’s not a “ban” until the state applies its coercive authority to prevent the book’s dissemination, and there is absolutely no suggestion of this happening. The boycott, at present, is nothing more than a civil society movement: a large number of people have apparently decided that the book is (or will probably be) repugnant enough to their values that they will not support its distribution. That’s what you get in a free society. There are a lot of idiots making analogies to the Nazis and book-burning; these people need a serious dose of perspective.

I think the Facebook group’s judgement that the book will be repugnant to them is a fair one. I do not support the boycott, but I wouldn’t buy the book. I’ve read a lot of material I disagree with — Rand, Stalin, Irving from the “war fiction” section, and Kiwiblog comments for example — but it has to be worth my time. I wouldn’t read this book because I don’t think it would be worth my time, not because I find it repugnant. But I can see how this sort of book would be anathema to many people, given the nature of the case, given Macsyna King’s perceived truculence during the investigation, and given Wishart’s well-established reputation as an exploitative, delusional hack.

That having been said, I think the decision by ‘popular’ bookstores to not stock the book is misguided. It’s fair enough for the independent stores — Unity and such — who have a reputation for quality to maintain, but I think it’s an overreaction for the lowest-common-denominator chains to presume that a Facebook group could substantively harm their brands. “Book” people — people who buy lots of books — in general don’t approve of banning or boycotting books, however stupid they might be. I’ll bet there aren’t many such people in that Facebook group.

But it looks like the boycott is going ahead. And that raises an interesting question. People will still be able to buy the book if they want — Wishart can sell it online or whatever. But if his stated motivation that he’s not in it for the money but just wants to “break the silence” is true, then why doesn’t he make it available for free online?


31 thoughts on “A boycott is not a ban

  1. A bunch of private individuals, however coordinated, choosing to publicly signal their intention to not patronise outlets which choose to sell a particular book is not a ban in any meaningful sense.

    Consumer boycotts like this leave me cold. The effect is less free speech. While calling for a consumer boycott is itself an exercise of free speech, such tactics are bad for the marketplace of ideas.

    It’s perhaps less likely to happen in New Zealand, but I can imagine circumstances where a conservative boycott of bookstores (real or on-line) that carry books like ‘Heather has two Mommies’.

    In a comment on the Paul Henry saga, and the calls for Boycotts of Heritage Hotels, I argued:

    But if we are going to accept the notion of corporate sponsorship, why should we in the least worry about sponsors being told that their money is not yielding the result they wanted?

    Because of the other ways this can be used. Because punishing Heritage Hotels for something Paul Henry said over which they had no control (and shouldn’t have control) isn’t fundamentally different from arranging a boycott on Canwest/TV3/C4 for airing an episode of South Park about the abuse by Catholic clergy, or someone else for airing pro-homosexual something propaganda something like Queer Nation or The L Word.

    We have ad-supported television. While there might be a place for a real public broadcaster, most of the television we have will continue to be ad-supported. I like that there is a variety of things to watch (most of which I don’t). If we really start holding advertisers to account for the content of programmes or channels on which their ads appear, then they will be more circumspect about placing ads, and some voices may be lost.

    I think liberal non-racists outraged about Paul Henry should be able to call for a boycott of him, and all of TVNZ, and the advertisers who support TVNZ. I think Christians should be able to call for a boycott of The L Word, and the channel it appeared on, and every advertiser who supports that channel. But I think if they do, despite being an exercise of free speech, it will be bad for free speech.

    I remain of that opinion. Threats of consumer boycotts force companies to be more conservative, leaving out voices. Those voices may still be able to get through, but in some circumstances they may not.

  2. Surely by your own logic, the ‘popular’ bookstores are not boycotting the book but simply choosing not to sell it. Which, as you note, is perfectly reasonable. The Facebook group, whom you infer to be the ‘lowest common denominator’, will clearly take umbrage at the stocking of this book and it would inevitably harm their brand.

    Or perhaps they, like the independent bookstores, surmise that few people would actually pay for a book by a truculent King and delusional Wishart.
    The book will appeal to neither ‘book’ people nor (at least a reasonable portion of) the ‘lowest common denominator’.

    It seems perfectly logical not to bother with it.

    ‘Book’ people are presumably more likely to frequent independent bookstores that are concerned with quality. Yet you suggest that the chain stores should take into account the sensitivity of ‘book’ people around the banning/boycotting of books. And ignore those that frequent their stores. While hurrahing about the right of independent stores to maintain their own quality standards. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

  3. Phil — I “imply”, you “infer”.

    But yes, they possibly do surmise that. However such a position isn’t supported by the evidence — Wishart’s previous books have sold very well, and the public interest in this case is extremely strong.

    Your last par doesn’t necessarily hold, either. “Book” people are just that — voracious and promiscuous readers who get their material from many sources, not just the fancy independent stores. My main point is that it’s very easy to hit ‘like’ on a Facebook page — somewhat harder to remember which bookshop you’ve boycotted and act on that, when you need to buy something from a bookshop.


  4. Just some perspective and a thought exercise

    What if New Zealand was a racist society where mixed race marriages was frowned on and “Breaking silence” was a book about dating an Asian man and there was a consumer boycott applied on it.

    Still cool with you?

  5. Francisco, it’s not “cool with me”; as I say I don’t support the boycott. I just recognise that people in a free society have the right to enact one, even if it is wrong.


  6. It may well have been Graeme’s influence during the Paul Henry business that left me uncomfortable (without precisely changing my mind).

    The essence of free speech is no state bans. And it conversely implies that people should not be obliged to carry (any more than to buy) books that, for whatever reason, they don’t want to.

    But there is, I think, a place among the humanist angels for those that foster a free-speech environment, perhaps even actively defending – at least not shouting down – what they don’t agree with.

    Tempting to think of bookshops as having a public-good role as “buying libraries” from that point of view. (Though of course they make decisions about stocking all the time and it’s not normally called censorship.)

    I guess it’s the same old story: the right means nothing if you can’t put it into real effect.

  7. given Wishart’s well-established reputation as an exploitative, delusional hack.

    You give Wishart too much credit.

  8. WRT the free speech argument, I think it’s not hugely relevant. Free speech, as a concept, is about speaking freely without government intervention or prevention. But, even if one is free to say whatever they like, there is no obligation on another (whether an individual or business) to listen to them or facilitate their speech.

    Sean Plunket made a good point on Twitter (and I don’t say that lightly) : Let Wishart put his “non-money” where is mouth is and put it online free of charge.

    It’s not as if a boycott would prevent Wishart having the opportunity to speak freely. But it might prevent him from making money out of that opportunity.

  9. WRT the free speech argument, I think it’s not hugely relevant. Free speech, as a concept, is about speaking freely without government intervention or prevention. But, even if one is free to say whatever they like, there is no obligation on another (whether an individual or business) to listen to them or facilitate their speech.

    That’s one conception of free speech.

    But government action isn’t the only action that can impact on the expression of ideas.

    If every woman who fronts a campaign to get the government to do something, gets her entire sexual history published in newspapers, or has fake pornography involving her put on the Internet, then many more women might think twice before taking a public position on some important issue.

    If you write a letter to the editor criticising the government and 20 national party members stage a two-day protest outside your house you might not do it again, or others might not do it at all.

    what if Chorus, in providing the superfast broadband decides they don’t want their privately-owned network to carry people to the Labour Party website? I suppose you could build your own, but really?

    Private actions can chill speech just/almost as much as state action.

  10. Straw men, Graeme. No one is preventing King/Wishart from having their say. People prefer not to fund it, that’s all.

  11. In my hypotheticals:

    No-one is preventing people writing letters to the editor in my example.

    No-one is preventing women from fronting public campaigns.

    You may have misunderstood (or I may have misunderstood) the boycott calls. I had thought people were calling for a boycott of stores that carry these books. If people are just calling for others not to buy/read the books, then my argument won’t apply to this situation.

  12. I generally don’t buy any Wishart book, mostly for the reasons so succinctly stated in your foregoing comments.

    Isn’t it a matter of individual choice whether anybody or nobody buys anything, books or otherwise?

    How can individual choice exercised in this manner possibly be construed as ‘book burning’? Is it time for those who are suggesting it is to get off the grass, and develop a modicum of that very old fashioned and greatly valued quality that use to be in universal use in this country widely known as ‘Common Sense”.

  13. I haven’t yet formed an opinion as to whether or not I support the said ‘boycott’. However, I would like to point out that by stocking the book and placing it on their shelves, bookstores are not only ‘selling’ the book, but they are effectively ‘advertising’ it. I think this is an important aspect of the issue which has not been properly dealt with.

  14. Boycotts are an effective tactic in some situations, but I prefer a slow burn educative, informed approach before one is ever contemplated. As a unionist I have seen the effects of boycotts linger, they are not so simple to turn on and off.

    My concern in this is the increasing acceptance of rolling ‘Vox Pop’ instantly pumped up FaceBook groups. It is shoot from the hip stuff with no expectation or likelihood of majorly informed views. The King/Wishart page is a glimmer of talkback with the delay removed.

    Last year there was the “whadarryaa? not a true kiwi if you don’t support Hobitts at any cost” on FB, and now this. While I might be in Lew’s idiot classification on this one, my one brief online comment certainly did not mention nazis. In this instance the mechanism and expression of peoples concerns on the exploitative book is a worry in itself for future publishers.

  15. Lew – Great post, Graeme, an excellent argument.
    Tony Judt in “Ill fares the land” makes exactly the same point about how making outcasts of people who express an outlying view turns everyone into conformists. This has a dampening effect on progress and leads to less freedom rather than more.

    His argument is directed at self serving politicians who follow the party line, but the principle is exactly the same.

    I may disagree with a lot of Wisharts and Hone Harawiras views and output but they are both valuable outliers.

    I completely agree with Lew as to the difference between state and private action but also agree with Graeme that we should challenge those who would punish those to enable outlying views to be heard.

  16. Would it matter if the company refusing the stock the item was a monopoly? Or if both halves of a duopoly refused?

    If TVNZ and TV3 both stated they would turn down paid advertising of the book would that be less reasonable?

    Or if both APN and Fairfax refused to cover it in their books pages?

    Or if Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees all chose to refuse to provide phone services to Wishart and/or King?

    I guess I’m asking at what point does a company’s power become so great that its actions become overwhelming?

  17. Pingback: Macsyna King is Hitler | mydeology | mydeology

  18. Anita, hypotheticals are just lazy argumentation. And the slippery slope is a fallacy, easily countered by simply digging in ones toes at the appropriate point.

    I’m all for freedom of publication, and that has not been denied to Ian Wishart.

    I’m also all for freedom of choice for what retailers stock for resale, and that commercial freedom has been exercised by many, as is their right.

    I wouldn’t read or buy this book because, as the father of a two year old, I just find the whole thing distasteful.

    But more than distasteful is Wishart’s “Air Con” book condemning the scientific basis of anthropogenic global warming.

    That particular moneymaking enterprise of Wishart’s is downright dangerous to children of my daughter’s age, who, statistically, will most likely still be living at the end of this century, and I’m even more gobsmacked to find that Wishart has a child about the same age as my daughter.

    But then (sigh) at last sighting Wishart is a professed creationist.

    Says it all, really.

  19. I am not buying it I do not care if anyone wants to I am not disputing their right . My issue and many others express the same on the boycott page is the method of how this one sided version of events is being done and the timing. Ok it might have been leaked but does not remove the fact he has them sitting ready to throw out into the public arena riding on the coat tails of emotion after the inquest. I can not see how that is helpful for child abuse and whatever other rot he speals about his reasons.

    If he had to wrote this book why not years ago … in my view he is using the inquest to sell it ..well I guess you got your wish Ian W. Your remarks to the media relating to the facebook page have been misguided and at times out of date. You ignore the majority and leech onto the minority who are expressing their rage. Comments out of line by supporters are monitored as a group as quick as possible and people reminded often it is not what we are there for but is that shared nope.

    I can never morally read this book now …

  20. One point made to me over the weekend by someone who knows Wishart and by another who is in the publishing industry was that they would not be surprised to find that Wishart himself started the Facebook page in order to prompt a boycott/ban. The benefits would be to a) give him a victim position and so be defended by people who ordinarily wouldn’t have a bar of him , and b) drive all the purchasing via his webpage. Not sure I believe he’s that clever, but just putting it out there.

  21. Luc,

    I am not making a slippery slope argument, just wondering what the bounds are and where, in your words, we should dig our toes in.

    I think I would feel differently about a refusal to provide phone services, as that seems to me to be about penalising, rather than refusing to take part in something. Also I think I would feel differently about a monopoly which had sufficient power that their choice constituted a blanket ban – I think because I would feel they were taking away the choice of others to take part (by buying and reading in this case).

  22. I’m a member of the Facebook boycott page, as far as I am concerned I’m boycotting the book alone, and not any book store that wishes to sell it. I wouldn’t advocate boycotting stores that choose to stock the book, that’s a line too far for me, but I certainly wanted to publicly state that I personally want nothing to do with this exploitative work.

  23. I read heaps of books, seriously, and the first time in my life I have boycotted one. Normally I walk away and say what nonsense. However, the fact that the crime is unsolved has led me to the FaceBook page. I agree with your opinion of Wishart and I would hate for a book like this, to sully any chance of justice for those small children. That is what it is about for me, anyone can sell it, I just think the book stinks. Thanks for your blog about it.

  24. Opinions are like arseholes…everyone has one and most people are not interested in any one elses

    There are some pretty opinionated points of view here and whilst I agree that everyone is entitled to a voice it makes me laugh that everyone thinks they are right and feels they have to argue to the death to prove it

  25. An interesting article. I feel I must comment on two aspects though. I am a member of this group, perhaps because rather than boycotting a book something more will come from it. NZ’s child abuse statistics are appalling. It’s time we as a nation stopped ignoring the real issues and made a positive difference for those that may have no voice of their own e.g babies and toddlers.

    I am a huge book reader although I admit to relying more heavily on the library to support my addiction unless it is a book they will not purchase. However, this idea of being able to publish whatever one chooses I find a bit concerning. Is it OK for someone to write a book (non-fiction of course) about how to make a snuff movie? Is it OK for sexual predators to write about the enjoyment they get from such actions? I am sure there would be an audience for such books but just because people tout the “free speech” angle doesn’t make it right or moral.

  26. Surely the boycott is the ultimate example of freedom of speech. In a true democracy isn’t it the responsibility of society to determine what is acceptable to that society? Surely the best people to shape a society are the members of that society?
    47,000 people stating that they find this book distasteful and stating that they won’t frequent stores who sell it is sending a clear message. This debate should be about whether or not 47,000 supporters represents a significant enough proportion of our society to speak for everybody.

  27. I read books every week, I am never without at least one on the go & have been an avid reader since my childhood. I’ve never boycotted a book before but I’m boycotting this one & my decision has never wavered, in fact the more I hear about what’s in the book, the happier I am to be a boycotter. Thank you for the blog.

  28. There is evidence to suggest that at least two outlets (Paper Plus and Marbecks) decided not to stock the book because of threats made to bookstores that would stock it, and that management had concerns for the safety of their staff. One only had to make a casual glance at the facebook page to realise that the concerns were probably warranted.

    I think also it’s too easy to dismiss Wishart as an exploitative delusional hack. Such people rarely publish back to back to back best-sellers. Much of the opposition to Breaking Silence has been based on people’s dislike of Wishart, which has been a convenient red-herring, especially when the book began to prove to NOT be what the Facebook page engineers and many in the media had been saying it was (even before they or anyone had read it)

  29. Peter: There is also significant evidence which suggests that book stores refused to stock it because they thought it was in bad taste and/or not something their customers would want to see on the shelves.


    Early Paperplus press releases also gave similar reasons. The story that it was caused by fear is in my opinion spin generated by the Wishart publicity team.

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