The invisible censor

Confessing one’s ignorance is not, perhaps, the ideal way to begin an article, but the recent debate about whether or not Grand Theft Auto V is misogynistic is not one to which I’m able to contribute. The last video games I played regularly were Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner, and, frankly, I was terrible at them. (I do occasionally tune in to Good Game, but only in order to stare wistfully at Stephanie Bendixen, aka ‘Hex’.) Certainly GTA5 looks quite nasty. From the promotional clips I’ve seen on YouTube I would even go so far as to say that the principal characters are up to no good. But that’s as far as I’ll go on the matter.

As for Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, a comical spin on six traditional fairy tales published in 1982 – there I am able to enlighten you, proud father as I am of a boy and girl aged 7 and 4 respectively. And I’m here to tell you that the book contains the most horrendous depictions of violence against women. I would draw your attention in particular to Dahl’s version of Cinderella, in which the prince, having mixed up Cinders’ glass slipper with a malodorous clog belonging to her sibling, summarily decapitates both ugly sisters in order to get out of marrying them. (Here, there is at least some karma involved. Cinderella, seeing what a shit the prince is, decides to marry a jam-maker instead.)

The merits and demerits of these products aside, it remains the case that in recent times both have been targeted by angry consumers – the first for its (alleged) misogyny and the second for its inclusion of the word ‘slut’ in the abovementioned version of Cinderella. In both cases, the customers got what they wanted: the product removed from a retailer’s shelves. As of last week, Target’s customers will have to go to a rival store if they want to buy GTA5, while Aldi’s patrons will look in vain for copies of Revolting Rhymes, which was nervously snatched from the shelves in August. It is a victory for consumer power. And a defeat for the idea of the one stop shop.

This is an increasing trend. Flexing their collective muscles through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, consumers are pressuring companies, not only to remove ‘offensive’ products, but also to cease sponsoring controversial events and even to sack or reprimand staff members who have expressed offensive or unpopular opinions. The last twelve months have seen a whole range of cases in which protesters have exercised power in this way, from the cancellation of soprano Tamar Iveri’s contract with Opera Australia – this for making offensive comments about gay marchers in her native Georgia – to the absurd campaign against Australian companies that display a halal certification. In a strange mutation of the old idea of ‘ethical’ or ‘socially responsible’ investment, whereby consumers simply withheld their dollars from businesses they disapproved of, today’s consumer-activists demand that companies reflect their values through their range of products, hiring choices and cultural associations.

Those who defend these political tactics see in the 45,000 signatures with which the anti-GTA5 protesters came armed an instance, not of censorship, but of democratic will at its purest. Market libertarians are especially fond of this line, having always regarded ‘the marketplace of ideas’ – a phrase attributed, wrongly but plausibly, to the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill – as a tacit compliment to capitalism. In this vision, the citizen is a consumer of ideas and the consumer a voter in the great democracy of the market. The Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, formerly of the IPA, expressed precisely this opinion in the wake of the decision to cancel a talk titled ‘Honour Killings Are Morally Justified’ at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The Festival’s decision to cancel the talk, which followed a social media campaign, ‘should not be confused with censorship’, wrote Wilson. In changing its program, FODI was behaving like an individual citizen who had ‘bought’ a particular proposition.

Of course, there is an important distinction between the desire of companies to respond to their customers and the attempt to police opinion through the state. But what market libertarians miss (and this, ironically, was Mill’s main point) is that ‘the people’ are just as capable of behaving tyrannically as the politician or the bureaucrat. The claim that censorship doesn’t happen, or cannot happen, in the private sphere is, finally, an ideological position stemming from a deep distrust of the state and an equal and opposite trust in the market. It takes, at once, too narrow a view of censorship and too sanguine a view of capitalism.

The first point to make is that in the majority of cases companies that bow to customer pressure do so for commercial reasons, not because they think their customers are right. Companies are not moral actors – money, not morality, is their reason for being – and it follows that in cases of consumer pressure the loudest voices will tend to prevail. Take the case of Brendan Eich. In April of this year he was forced to step down as CEO of the Mozilla Corporation following revelations that in 2008 he had donated $1000 (US) to an anti-gay marriage campaign in California. It fell to Mozilla’s Executive Chairwoman Mitchell Baker to don sackcloth and ashes:

We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organisations and hold us to a higher standard. But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.

In other words: we’re all for freedom of opinion, but not if the opinion is disagreeable to our customers. Take that seriously if you can.

But there is more at stake here than commercial hypocrisy, which was, in this instance, merely the compliment capitalism payed to political correctness. There is also the fact that in treating companies as screens on which to project our values we give them a new and effective way to advertise their products and services. It has been clear for some time that many companies, far from merely responding to demands to clean up their commercial profiles, are now attempting to excite and exploit the increasingly censorious mood of the public. The withdrawal of sponsorship in particular has become a form of furtive advertising. In the case of soprano Tamar Iveri it was Opera Australia’s major sponsors who, if they didn’t lead the charge, were more than happy to put the boot in, while the ostentatious exodus of sponsors from Channel Ten’s morning show The Circle following Yumi Stynes’s incautious comments about Aussie warrior Ben Roberts-Smith gave commercial respectability to what was, in essence, a revolting and ridiculous hate campaign. Thus the kind of anxious brand management that led Lacoste to try to stop Anders Breivik from wearing its clothes in 2011 finds a fresh (and less self-satirising) outlet.

To see in such a situation an expression of democratic will is to invite ‘the invisible hand’ of the market to become, in effect, an invisible censor. It is also to ignore the fact that companies, far from merely responding to demand, seek actively and energetically to create it. If the bottom line demands more censoriousness then more censoriousness is what we’ll get, and we’ll only have ourselves to blame. At any rate, we ought, this Christmas, to be very careful what we wish for.