In the past few days, the anti-fascist group Hope not Hate has made headlines by mounting a campaign to raise awareness of the ways that books denying the Holocaust, as well as other key pieces of neo-Nazi literature, are being sold on online bookshops run by Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles and WHSmiths.
Particularly notable among these are The Turner Diaries, a book read by many neo-Nazi terrorists; ‘classics’ of the Holocaust denial movement such as Did Six Million Really Die? and The Truth at Last; and longstanding exemplars of anti-Semitism such as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
While Hope not Hate have developed a social media campaign to embarrass these bookshops into removing such titles, their standard line of defence has been that these texts are not stocked in their physical bookshops, and they do not endorse them. Moreover, they have explained that their online lists of books draw from a standard industry database, Nielsen BookScan, and curating and editing online lists would not be possible. To do so could lead to accusations of censorship, they add.
Yet campaigners counter these points by highlighting that this type of extremist material, a literature often read by neo-Nazi terrorists among others, is clearly something that would not be tolerated in physical bookshops, so why online? By it appearing in respectable parts of the online world, these companies are giving an aura of legitimacy to a literature that helps give license to hate crimes and political violence.
A generation ago, these types of text would certainly have been very difficult to access, perhaps purchased through a mail order service run by a poorly resourced dedicated bookshop specialising in neo-Nazi material. Their easy availability today is as a result of online environments, spaces that are helping to give new life to Holocaust denial movements, and the wider extreme right more generally.
The internet is also a place that is difficult to police, and preventing the dissemination of such material is all but impossible. However, does this mean that respectable brands such as Amazon, Watersones, Foyles and WHSmiths, should take no ownership of the material they sell online, and profit from?
While bookshops do seem to have removed some titles in recent days – and Amazon has removed books in the past under similar pressure – this issue points to a more complex set of problems being created by online bookshops. Should distinctions really be drawn between books sold online and books sold in physical bookshops? To what degree can such campaigns change attitudes regarding what is seen as ‘taboo’ online?
It is worth highlighting that this debate is not over what should be seen as legal or illegal, merely over what should be seen as culturally acceptable in commercial, online spaces. Campaigners such as Hope not Hate are not calling for outright bans on such material, but rather are trying to embarrass respectable businesses, and encouraging them not to turn a blind eye to their role in facilitating access to extremist material. In other words, they want to make online spaces more reflective of cultural understandings of the boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Clearly, this already happens in physical bookshops.
However, Paul Currie from Foyles and James Daunt from Waterstones both worry about the ways bookshops could be seen as censoring material if they removed such texts from their websites. By restricting access to such literature, bookshops could be engaged in limiting freedom of expression, they suggest. This argument has also been developed more starkly by Jodie Ginsberg of the Index on Censorship, who stated in the New Statesman that ‘Anything that limits people’s ability to find out information is a threat to freedom of expression’.
However, this latter claim does seem rather exaggerated and, personally, as someone who teaches about both the Holocaust and the history of fascism, I do think bookshops can be a bit bolder here. Is not selling something really ‘censorship’? Freedom of expression is not the same thing as the right to be heard loudly, everywhere. Having the right to a freedom to express one’s thoughts is not the same as having the right for every bookshop to sell your literature. Yet extreme right activists are always quick to frame any opposition to their views or arguments as restricting their freedom of speech. Moreover, they don’t merely want to spread their messages, they want to do so in mainstream spaces, as these help to normalise their agendas. Freedom of expression has limits, and comes with responsibilities to not harm others.
Despite some of the more hysterical worries in reaction to this campaign, the impact on Britain’s freedom of expression by removing these types of books would not be a step towards the UK becoming a totalitarian state, as defenders of such material sometimes contend. There is a fundamental, qualitative difference between bookshops putting resources into managing their online lists, in the same way as they manage physical bookshops, and the types of denial of free speech that existed in states that actively punished and imprisoned people for what they believed and said, from the Communist states of the Eastern Block to the old fascist regimes of Europe.
Rather, this is an issue that feeds into the ways online systems are challenging cultural attitudes regarding what is seen as culturally taboo, and what is seen as acceptable – in this instance how to remember and engage with Europe’s fascist past. What was once taboo has now become far more freely available. Both sides of such debates will have a role to play in deciding where these boundaries lie in the coming years.
Dr Paul Jackson, Senior Lecture in History