Yale and those Muhammad cartoons

Great moments in publishing: Judgment by committee at Yale

One of the offending Danish cartoons.
One of the offending Danish cartoons.

Imagine you're a major academic publisher. You've committed yourself to publishing a book on a controversial subject. It's so controversial, in fact, that the last time someone published something in a newspaper about this subject, it resulted in violent and fatal protest demonstrations across much of the globe.

Yet the topic is important; it screams for further investigation. The violent reaction itself creates almost a moral imperative to publish more about it. There is one little hitch, however: You don't want to instigate more violence by publishing something offensive.

So to mitigate the possibility of similarly violent reactions to your planned publication, you decide to cover yourself by finding out the best way to avoid any violence when your new publication is released. You assemble a list of experts— those who know well the violent terrain your book is about to enter, those who can perhaps help you avoid, God forbid, bloodshed. That's what happened last time, and you and your press don't want to get blamed for any deaths. The topic is important, yes. But is it worth anyone dying over?

The experts are worried


The experts on your board have spent their lives wrestling with such issues. They have spent their lives studying the violent tendencies of others; they have attended forums and conventions, worked as consultants around the world, counseled ambassadors and various foreign leaders, offering advice on how to avoid the dangers of these violent few who choose to inflict terror on those who offend their religion. Oh, are they ever worried about your book.

They insist that it's dangerous. They tell you to at least avoid publishing the offensive parts. "Fix your book," say the experts. "Otherwise there'll be hell to pay." The fact that the cartoons are readily available on the Internet doesn't seem to have occurred to any of your experts, nor do you offend them by pointing out their oversight.

You thank your experts and walk back to your office. You tell your publishing team to remove the offending pages. You tell them why. You repeat the experts' advice. You tell them you agree it's for the best. Violence will be averted.

Self-congratulation

You put the offending pages in a drawer, safe from the world and the angry eyes of those who might see them and blow something up. Perhaps something housing innocent people. You tell yourself your prudent action has saved those innocent people. And of course you've protected your press. You did what you had to, giving the experts what they wanted: Prudent editing, out of respect (not fear); consideration of their values, out of respect (not fear); silence where they insisted on silence, out of respect (not fear).

You publish your book. You tell the world why those pages are missing. You tell them you consulted experts. You identify the experts, who go on TV and talk to magazines and newspapers. Their voices are well measured, their research is spot-on, their clothing is well tailored.

The usual suspects

TV commercials come on soon after, between the news clips. You have a moment to reflect that your experts now look quite familiar. You recognize some of them as the usual suspects who spoke to the nation before the previous war, during it and after. You remember vaguely hearing something about government "experts" on TV who turned out to be government employees posing as independent experts. Perhaps you've been duped by the same group of experts that the government hired to support that war? No. Can't be.

And besides, it's too late. The new book, with its famous missing pages, is advertised and widely reviewed. Very good, then. And better yet, you created a much safer controversy, without violence, and the book is selling. Your press is safe.

When critics accuse you of intellectual cowardice, you tell yourself that some irresponsible people fail to understand the consequence of their actions. These days publishers must think about whom they might offend. Liberal scholarship must be tempered with both high intelligence and sensitivity to real-world concerns.

Besides, all you left out was a handful of cartoons. What harm could that do?♦


To read a response, click here.


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