Lately, you hear a lot of complaints about censorship. It’s a big, newsy topic.
Conservatives complain that they’re censored on social media by the progressives who run Big Tech – which they are. Progressives complain that conservatives want to censor what students can read by removing certain books from school libraries – which they do.
But there’s another form of censorship afoot – one that’s had me in a stranglehold for quite some time – and I never hear it mentioned in the media or even among friends. And because it’s virtually unheard of – as far as I can tell – it’s been a source of secret shame. There are no support groups.
The censorship of which I speak is particularly insidious because I have no idea what I did to deserve it nor any power to reverse it. My censor is omniscient, omnipotent, and way too big to fail.
Y’all, I’m being censored by Amazon.
It all started a few years ago, when I sat down to write a review of a friend’s new book, at her request. I clicked the “write a review” button, as I’d always done before, and was confronted with the following message, spelled out in bright red letters:
“We apologize but Amazon has noticed some unusual reviewing activity on this account. As a result, all reviews submitted by this account have been removed and this account will no longer be able to contribute reviews and other content on Amazon. If you would like to learn more, please see our community guidelines. To contact us about this decision, please email email@example.com.”
What? Surely there had been some mistake! I rarely wrote Amazon reviews, and when I did, it was usually an upbeat critique promoting a local author. We have a lot of them, and because of my job, they typically send me their books. And when it comes to locals – people I actually know – I’m not about to get on Amazon and write a nasty – or even “unusual” – review. If I can’t say something nice about the book, I won’t say anything at all. (Yes, I’m that southern.) And I’ve never reviewed anything but books. Product reviews? Who has the time?
Bumfuzzled, I checked out the Community Guidelines page. Who knew there were community guidelines? Perhaps I’d violated them accidentally. But a quick perusal assured me otherwise. Hate speech? Sexual content? Illegal activities? Profanity? Harassment? No, no, no, no, and no!
Clearly, Amazon had me confused with somebody else. Somebody “unusual.” It occurred to me that maybe my husband or daughter had been miffed about a disappointing order and let it rip on our account, but when I asked them, they both laughed in my face. I think Jeff said something like, “You’re the only person in this house who would ever bother to write an online review – on any site, about anything.”
Still confused, I clicked over to a writer/friend’s Amazon page and saw that, indeed, the long, lovingly-crafted review of his novel I’d written – the one that had lived at the top of his page for over two years, garnering hundreds of “likes” – was now gone. I checked another local author’s page, and another. Same thing. Amazon had completely wiped me and my “unusual reviewing activity” from existence.
I was perplexed – and more than a little peeved about the wanton destruction of my “work” – but I was certain I could clear up this misunderstanding going forward. I sent a friendly email to the address provided by Amazon . . . and waited. And waited and waited.
A few weeks later, I tried again, this time with a bit more force. I made it clear that I was a loyal customer – not just Amazon, but Amazon Prime, baby! – and that I had been for years. Surely they wouldn’t want to lose my business! Surely they understood that the customer is always right! And if, in fact, I truly had written something that breached their community standards, surely they would tell me what it was, and give me the opportunity to defend myself or make amends!
Nope. (And don’t call me Shirley.) Again, no response. Nada. Bupkis. Crickets all the way down.
The third time I pled my case, I added the following information: “I am the editor of a well-known arts and culture publication in Beaufort, SC. An award-winning columnist and arts writer with a master’s degree in English, I have essays published in collections throughout the South.”
A bit much. But I wanted Amazon to know I wasn’t some disgruntled young man sitting in his parents’ basement, pounding out conspiracy theories on 4chan. I was, in fact, a dignified professional who would never, ever engage in “unusual reviewing activity.”
Was Amazon impressed with my resume? Intimidated by my eminence? Not even remotely. Their silence was resounding.
Reader, I gave up.
I go for long periods of time when I don’t think about my censored status. After all, I have plenty of platforms for self-expression: this paper, Facebook, Instagram . . . Even Twitter, if I’m feeling masochistic.
But then I’ll read a book I really love and feel inspired to share my thoughts, or a writer friend will ask me for an Amazon shout-out, and it all comes rushing back. The frustration. The humiliation. The powerlessness. The injustice!
First World Problem? For sure. But I live in the First World. That’s mostly the kind of problems I have.
Every now and then, I hop on Amazon in hopes that something has changed. I keep thinking there must be a statute of limitations on this thing. If my reviewing activity was merely “unusual” – not obscene or illegal or dangerous – then maybe it’s just a matter of time before they restore my privileges.
But it’s been over two years and still no change. My exile feels pretty permanent.
You know what really galls me? The official statement: “We apologize but Amazon has noticed some unusual reviewing activity on this account.” That “we apologize” part is so grating, so obsequious. If you’re gonna strip a writer or her writing rights, just do it. The fake niceties are nauseating.
Another thing that bugs? While I am inexplicably and irrevocably banished – “canceled,” to use today’s parlance – every other Tom, Dick and Harriet with a keyboard is free to bang out crappy critiques ‘til the cows come home. Don’t believe me? Get on Amazon and read some book reviews!
But living with anger and envy is no good. So I have decided to view my exile as a spiritual challenge. An exercise in self-denial and humility. Ommm . . .
Maybe I’ll order some books on the topic. Despite having banned my thoughts and feelings, Amazon still seems happy enough to take my money.