Monday, October 11, 2010

Purveyors of Useless and Forbidden Knowledge

We received an email from one of our regular customers the other day expressing a discomfort with one of the titles we have in stock, "Uncle Fester's Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture", which led to some soul searching. Here is the text of those email exchanges.

"I propose that selling books about how to produce methamphetamine is
immoral and unethical.  Is this the way Last Word Books is revolutionizing
our community?  You have a karmic responsibility for the suffering that
will result from your decision.  Meth is a destroyer.  It turns people
into devils.  Tweekers will be the zombie armies of the future, and we
will all suffer as a result of your choices here.  Do not cash in on
suffering.  That's what Capitalists do."

To which we (or rather I) responded, saying thus:

"What is immoral and unethical? How to produce methamphetamines, or how to disrupt/destroy/overthrow a government? While both may fit the category of immoral/unethical activity, they are sources of knowledge. The interesting thing about Uncle Fester books (the guy who wrote the meth books in question) is that it takes a serious amount of knowledge of chemistry to be able to do anything. Uncle Fester also wrote about manufacturing LSD. Do you have a problem with that? I know, I know: it isn't the same thing. But I will posit a small caveat, if you will. Meth, or speed in general, is horribly destructive to a person's body/soul/anima because it is such a cheep, nasty drug. What if there were people who made it in the same way as craftsmen made chairs or books or LSD?

That isn't the same, I know. I, personally, have had discussions with my business partners about the ethicality of selling such books much to no avail. But were I to say this or that is ethical or not, I would be judging. While I enjoy doing so on a great number of occasions, I try not to judge based on the idea of knowledge. There is a whole category of logic dedicated to this fallacy which I won't go into now. Suffice it to say, knowledge is dangerous. Books on Ninjutsu sold to young boys can equally cause harm and damage and it must be assumed that certain titles in the wrong hands can cause a great deal of suffering.

We come to this then: There are books which no one should read. Should we then destroy them? Does that not make them more valuable and sought after? Does that not cause the exact opposite of the desired effect, namely the reduction of methamphetamine consumption? Should we not show those would-be meth heads what goes into the drug? How it is cooked? What it can do to your body? We also carry a title about the demonization of heroin, which supports the fact that heroin usage can be done in a manner that does not cause horrible addiction and death. Shall we burn that one, too? Where do we stop?

I understand what you are saying. But, in truth, we don't make money off selling books about the manufacture of methamphetamine. We make money (if only a little) off selling books in general. We discern and recognize patterns in individual's reading habits; what they like, or don't like; what they might want to read in the future, et cetera. That is not to say we graduate children from reading Treasure Island to manufacturing highly addictive drugs. We make choices. We keep the book in the case and only rarely have sold a copy, and even then to someone with an interest in chemistry and not for the purpose of manufacturing. There have been a few times when we have sold the book to someone looking to make meth, only to have them come back and say they don't understand what's in the book. Ha ha on them, then. They thought they were getting an Idiot's Guide to Methamphetamine Manufacture."

Then, I started thinking about what others might have said on this subject. Here are a few links to articles discussing similar titles (some of which we also carry) and whether or not they should be "censored". Read on:

What do you think? We'd love to hear your responses.


Rustin H. Wright said...

There is another aspect to all of this. None of us ever really definitively know all of the ways a text can be used. For all we know, somebody may buy this book because they suspect that somebody else is cooking meth and want to have some way to judge the credibility of their claims.

Or perhaps somebody will care about this someday as they analyze why certain substances become scare or valuable or common. I watched quite a few people get into making their own biodiesel and end up with pounds and pounds of glycerine to get rid of. If I care nothing about biodiesel but *do* care about the availability of glycerine, then I might want to know the dynamics of biodiesel manufacture near me.

The same goes about judging the flammability concerns for somebody who, as I was, living near what they suspect is a meth lab.

A responsible life is largely about analysis, about judgement, about understanding the dynamics that affect one's surroundings and doing a considered job of acting in a way that takes those dynamics into account.

Meth is a part of our world. Sadly, here in the Pacific northwest it is a big part. That being the case, there will be those who have socially positive reasons to want to understand where it comes from and how.

As the essay points out, all knowledge is potentially dangerous. And all is potentially useful. People in general and booksellers in particular, should be very careful indeed before they decide to declare some kind of knowledge off-limits.

Supermarkio said...

Man is doomed to be free and I thank you for standing up for our doomed freedoms.