(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After an international outcry that included a Twitter campaign led by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Amazon has removed Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments from its site. Most observers — myself included — were heartened by this decision. Does the world really need these products, or, for that matter, an Auschwitz-themed mouse pad and bottle opener?
Still, the question arises: Where should a company such as Amazon.com Inc. draw the line when it comes to selling third-party merchandise? I propose a standard: Focus on whether the merchandise contributes to further understanding, one way or another, rather than whether it might embody evil.(1)
This principle runs counter to how the world of social media works, I realize. “Cancel culture” tends to issue decisions based on the worst aspects of a product, writer or public figure, because that is what is endlessly circulated and condemned. But there is another way of thinking about the problem — namely, by focusing on the positive.
It is still possible, for example, to buy Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” on Amazon, either through third-party merchants or Amazon itself. That book is more offensive than an Auschwitz bottle opener, as it directly calls for the extermination of the Jews and the conquest of Europe, and it probably still inspires neo-Nazis today. Nonetheless, I hope “Mein Kampf” continues to be for sale.
For all of its evil, “Mein Kampf” is an essential document for understanding the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As such, it should be allowed in spite of its potential downside. There is both intrinsic and utilitarian value in maximizing public access to as much knowledge as possible.
In contrast, it is hard to argue that an Auschwitz-themed mouse pad has anything positive to offer, whether to our historical knowledge or otherwise. At best, it is an act of obnoxious trolling and thus it was appropriate for Amazon to take it down. (As of this writing, it still appears to be unavailable.) Of course as a separate matter, Amazon should ban unsafe and illegal products as well.
This positive-contribution standard can also apply to a social media platform such as Twitter. There will never be hard and fast lines about whether any given individual should be allowed to keep posting or maintain an account, even if the content is widely considered objectionable. Better to focus on whether that person offers substantive contributions, rather than judging them by their very worst or most offensive utterances.
Of course that will lead to Twitter, Facebook and the like tolerating some pretty bad material. But if “cancel culture” is not appropriate for Hitler himself — and that seems to be the case — then surely other evil thinkers today should be tolerated as well. Maybe we can learn something from them, even if what we learn is not exactly what they are intending to teach us. The Nazi-sympathizing films of Leni Riefenstahl are not banned, for instance, and indeed are still watched for their aesthetic merits.
I once had a Marxist professor (H. Bruce Franklin) who edited a book titled “The Essential Stalin.” I did not necessarily agree with his views, but I did learn a lot about Stalin and Marx along the way. And I am certainly glad that no one stopped him from teaching that class. To this day, I think of him as one of the best professors I ever had.
One alternative option is for Amazon to allow everything on its site, in the interests of free speech and the free distribution of products. But Amazon has no obligation — as a private company — to sell offensive material, and Amazon is not outlawing whatever other channels people might have for buying the Auschwitz-themed mouse pads and other objectionable items.
Another option would be an Amazon-authorized independent third party to rule on merchandise decisions, much as Facebook appears to be doing for controversial posts. Yet this does not solve the basic dilemma. At times public outcry will demand that Amazon act swiftly, such as with the Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments. A third-party adjudicator, presumably, would be bound by bureaucratic procedures, just as a court system is, and furthermore it would face a heavy volume of cases.
It may strike you as odd that the standard I propose would allow Amazon to sell one of the most vile books of the 20th century yet prohibit the sale of a few tasteless ceramic ornaments. But Amazon — and its customers — should be grateful for any effort that reduces or eliminates their chances of encountering truly useless junk.
(1) To be clear, my conflicts of interest in any Amazon-related column are massive. Not only does Amazon sell my books, but it also receives thousands of dollars of my business each year, it helps shape the future and fiscal future of my place of employment and affects just about every facet of my daily life.
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Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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