Sacrificing Free Speech in the Name of Free Speech

When Penguin pulped Wendy Doniger, they may have set the stage for free speech — and more profit.

It won’t be long before India finds itself bookless, as authors line up for the chance to have Penguin, the hottest publishing game in town these days, turn their books into confetti. Eff my contract, Indian writers are saying, my book’s just as pulpable as Wendy’s.

At the behest of Shiksha Bachao Andolan — expressed in a lawsuit this organization-to-save-education filed four years ago — Penguin has decided not only to stop selling eminent scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, but to gather up the existing copies and feed them to the beavers. A few Penguin authors have, in protest, demanded that Penguin give their books to the pond rats, too.

Dinanath Batra, president of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, objected in an interview with Time to “the entire [eight hundred page] book”, but, perhaps, more specifically, to Doniger’s argument that historical Hinduism was not terribly squeamish about sexuality. He’s also not especially happy that Doniger expresses anxiety about a future India controlled by Hindu-right groups such as Batra’s SBA.

So, the hard and soft cover carnage will proceed, and in the near future, hordes of glassy-eyed, grey-skinned bookworms, risen from the dim, soft couches on which they’ve lain these many years, will go slowly lumbering through India’s alleyways in search of reading.

“Books,” they’ll moan through slack lips. “Booooooks.”

Prior to the outrage that has seized the literary world, a deep bewilderment seized the globe. Dinanath Batra? Asks the intelligentsia. Who is that? It appeared that Penguin had capitulated on this most important matter of free speech to a nobody in a bywater. Indeed, Penguin’s surrender to Batra’s lawsuit seems as strange as if Penguin (US) had decided to pulp all it’s copies of A History of Christianity because Jerry Newcombe objected that there wasn’t enough hell in it.

Which is why I think there’s something else going on here. Maybe the Pollyanna in me is to blame, but I can’t quite accept that Penguin — a great, big company with, no doubt, many business-school executives at its helm — would simply roll over thus.

And, it turns out, the Kindle version of The Hindus — the version that does not appear on paper and is still for sale—has jumped to top of the best seller list, ahead of Steve Jobs and Dan Brown. Paper, you know, is so yesterday.

But my Pollyannish cynicism hopes for principle, too. Surely, not selling books is contrary to Penguin’s business model. Even someone with college degrees in Arts and Humanities can see that. So Penguin’s own statement is highly suggestive. The company’s official explanation of its capitulation laments that the Indian laws that prohibit insulting religious belief “make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression.”

Long-term strategy: sacrifice a book that’s just important enough to be missed, but not so popular that its disappearance will really damage the bottom line, in order to generate outrage among a demographic that can direct policy-making in India. This way, rather than paying for legal defense against a succession of shrill lawsuits, Penguin sets the machinery of the world’s largest democracy cranking itself towards revising the statutes that put the publisher at a disadvantage. In the long run, pulping Wendy Doniger strengthens the right to speak freely.

Ya gotta break some eggs, and all that.

Give credit where it’s due. Penguin didn’t get to be one of the planet’s biggest publishers by not selling books.


David Mason David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College. He is the author of "Theatre and Religion on Krishna's Stage" and "My Mormonism." His biography of Brigham Young will be available later this year from Routledge. Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor.
  • Doug Wilkening

    Or, Penguin correctly sees that sales in Western Europe and North America are mature, whereas developing markets such as India, China, and the Middle East are where the future growth lie. Therefore, going forward, there is less need to cater to Western values such as free speech that are not shared by large swaths of the developing world.

    Seriously, how long do we think that our Western traditions will drive the global conversation?

    • WmarkW

      Not much longer, if the former defenders of free speech (universities, newspapers and the judiciary) keep carving out exceptions to promote feminism, homosexualism, and anti-white diversity.

      • Doug Wilkening

        You know, that’s a really good point. There’s no difference at all between pulling Doniger’s book from the shelves in one market segment on the one hand and on the other hand banning conservative speakers from commencement at certain left-leaning universities.

        Let UC Santa Barbara or UConn Storrs invite Rush Limbaugh to commencement, then we can talk about publishing Wendy Doniger in India.

  • WmarkW

    I’m looking forward to Morgan Freema narrating “March of the Penguins” as lines of readers throw their books into the bonfire.

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