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Culture Q&A

Ryan Anderson

Big Tech and a canceled book

A political philosopher discusses Amazon’s recent ban of his bestseller

Big Tech and a canceled book

Ryan Anderson (Illustration by Raúl Allén)

A Harvard CAPS–Harris Poll released on March 1 revealed that 64 percent of Americans—including 48 percent of Democrats—believe cancel culture poses a threat to U.S. freedom. Amazon.com’s recent decision to deplatform Ryan T. Anderson’s 2018 bestseller When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books) is the sort of news likely contributing to those fears. The megaretailer purged the book from its main site, as well as subsidiaries Audible and AbeBooks, sometime around Feb. 21. Here are edited excerpts of my conversation with Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, about the delisting.

You’re a prominent critic of the Equality Act, and Amazon deplatformed your book around the time the U.S. House of Representatives was voting on that legislation. Do you think the timing was strategic? My publisher reached out to Amazon, asking what was going on, and didn’t hear back. Obviously, this is a concern—and not just for my book, which is three years old and has already sold well. Amazon controls a huge market share in the United States, and it can now pressure publishers into not publishing controversial books. If you are a publisher, you might say, “If we publish this and Amazon yanks it, are we ever going to sell enough books to recoup our costs?” So this could have a stifling effect on the entire market of book writing, book publishing, and book buying. Amazon might be using its market dominance to actually distort the market. 

Some conservative Christians say that, as much as we may dislike it, Big Tech is composed of private companies that can do what they like. What are your thoughts on that argument? It’s not true. Our government has never said private businesses can do anything they like. The most obvious example, though not morally equivalent, is if Amazon said, “We’re not going to sell books by authors of a certain race.” Or, “We’re not going to sell books to buyers of a certain religion.” We would say private businesses can’t do that, right? In the same way, the electric company can’t say, “We don’t provide electricity to conservative homes any longer.” 

When companies grow so large and exercise so much power, I think it’s a little naïve for people to say, ‘Just leave it to private businesses.’

Obviously, economic liberties have limits. Historically, we’ve had robust competition. If one local bookstore decided not to sell a conservative book, other independent bookstores would carry it. We could say, “Leave it to the market.” But when companies grow so large and exercise so much power, I think it’s a little naïve for people to say, “Just leave it to private businesses.” Just as big government can be a threat to our liberty and to our flourishing, so too can big business, particularly Big Tech. 

I’ll play devil’s advocate. Here’s a specific challenge I’ve heard: If government can’t force Christian baker Jack Phillips to bake a cake for a gay wedding, it can’t force Amazon to sell Ryan Anderson’s book. In one of my books that Amazon is still selling, I’ve written precisely on this—how we think about the tension between nondiscrimination laws and the free exercise of religion or free speech. So is Amazon asserting a religious claim, that it violates their religious beliefs to sell my book? Because if that’s the case, let’s hear it! And, if so, I would want to know how selling Mein Kampf doesn’t violate their religious beliefs, but selling my book does. 

What about the free speech argument—We only sell books that we agree with? Looking at all the other books that Amazon sells, it’s hard to see that. In Jack Phillips’ case, he says, I only make custom-­order cakes that support messages and events that I agree with. So he wouldn’t do anti-American cakes. He wouldn’t do a “happy divorce” cake. He wouldn’t do cakes with lewd images. He ran his entire business in keeping with a certain moral vision. If Amazon wants to say that’s the type of business it is, then let us know about it. Because it doesn’t seem like that’s what they’ve been doing. 

What if Jack Phillips had a policy of not serving gay people at all? In that case, I don’t think you would have seen any conservatives defending him. His argument wasn’t that as a private business, he can do what he wants. His argument was that there’s an important distinction between saying, “I don’t serve gay people,” and, “I don’t celebrate things that I don’t believe are moral.” A lot of people on the left refused to acknowledge that distinction. If Amazon wants to say, “Look, we have sincerely held beliefs about transgender issues, and we don’t sell books that violate our sincerely held beliefs”—OK, just let us know. Because the way that they’ve marketed themselves to customers is that they sell all books worth reading, not just books they agree with. 

Amazon didn’t respond to my request for comment, but it has pointed a few reporters to its guidelines on “hate speech.” That seems to imply they’re classifying the contents of your book as hate speech. If so, it took them three years to discover it. The book has sold tens of thousands of copies through Amazon. So the timing of this is suspicious, the very week when the House of Representatives is going to ram through the Equality Act. But also, anyone who has read the book will tell you that even if they disagree with it, it is a model for how someone with my perspective on the issue should write.  

How so? It has 30 or 40 pages of footnotes. At the end of the book, I cite all the relevant scholarly sources. It was endorsed by the former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, by a professor of psychology at Boston University, by a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, by a former professor of psychology at New York University, by a medical ethicist at Columbia’s medical school. This isn’t some fringe, bomb-­throwing, red meat, name-calling book. This is about as mainstream as you get from someone who holds the positions that I hold. So it seems like it doesn’t matter how charitably you say it or how rigorously you argue if you have the opinion that I have. It’s about the position that orthodox Christianity holds on this issue, not about the way that we say it. 

I think conservatives are going to have to think about the limits of economic liberties when it comes to Big Tech.

Is Amazon testing the waters with your book, seeing how long it can hold out? They’re possibly thinking, “We no longer have to worry about President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr, or Sen. Josh Hawley doing something in response.” Throughout the Trump years, there were various tech-related hearings on Capitol Hill, and the Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google. And so Big Tech feared that if it engaged in too much blatant censorship, there might be legal ramifications. Maybe now they’re saying, “Look, there’s a new sheriff in town, let’s see what we can get away with.” Again, I don’t know, because no one from Amazon has said a word about this to me or to the publisher.

Though your story has made the biggest headlines, this isn’t completely new for Amazon. In 2019, it removed books about how to overcome unwanted same-sex attraction, as well as books from ex-gay authors. Last June, it blocked publisher Regnery from purchasing ads for Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage. Last August it stopped selling The Health Hazards of Homosexuality. Right now, it appears Christians have few options for pushing back besides exercising the power of the purse and the press. Is that enough? In the short run, it’s going to have to be enough. Consumers can complain and perhaps cancel Amazon Prime accounts and start shopping at Barnes & Noble, Target, and directly from Encounter Books. And it may be that economic pressure in the short run is what forces Amazon to change its policy.

And in the long run? I think conservatives are going to have to think about the limits of economic liberties when it comes to Big Tech. We have various limits for mom-and-pop stores, right? They have all sorts of rules and regulations they have to comply with to be on Main Street. We’ll also have to think about the rules and regulations those businesses will have to comply with to be on the cyberstreets. Just saying, “It’s a private business, they can do whatever they want” really doesn’t address those questions. 

Meanwhile, many conservatives may get soured on Amazon. I think the lack of transparency on these issues leads many consumers to be a little skeptical: How much can we trust that Big Tech is actually doing what’s in the common good versus its own private interests?