Saturday, April 16, 2005

On eBay's Marketplace

Apparantly, someone on eBay was auctioning off a supposed Host consecrated at one of Pope John Paull II's 1998 Masses.

Some, like Verity at Southern Appeal and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights argue that this type of sale should be prohibited by eBay, given that Catholics are offended by the sale of what, in the words of the Catholic League, is considered to be, "the center of [their] religion, worthy of the utmost reverence." EBay, according to the League, refused to stop the sale:
The Community Watch Team of eBay’s Trust & Safety division said that ‘even though these auctions may be offensive to some, please remember that most of the time the law does not prohibit these items.’
The League responded:
But the law has nothing to do with this issue: lots of things are legal and immoral at the same time.
Yes, the debate appears to about something other than the law.

Some Catholics argue that, regardless of the law, eBay should have stopped the sale because it was offensive to their faith. EBay and others might claim that this is a marketplace that operates within the law and relies on the market to regulate itself.

I'm inclined to sympathize with this latter position. In our society, religious belief and faith is partially established and maintained through an open discussion of religion that allows people to freely choose or act in faith. The Catholic Church is able to proudly and openly exist and convert people of every generation because, in the marketplace of ideas that emerges from our Constitutionally recognized rights, Catholics are able to hear the Church and its doctrines and can openly accept the Church's tenets and values. In the same way, Evangelicals, Muslims, and all the people of all the other faith and belief systems--and maybe some without!--are able to come to express their beliefs and act in their faith. In the process of moving throughout this chaotic and bustling marketplace of ideas, a marketplace filled with all sorts of claims (religious or otherwise), I'm sure folks will come across ideas that they are unwilling or unable to appreciate or attach a particular meaning to. This symbolic and abstract conception of the marketplace of ideas seems to have been made material on eBay, recently. In this instance, then, someone was selling a wafer touched by a dead Pope. Naturally, Catholics were offended that anyone would sell a Eucharist consecrated by Peter's successor.

In the marketplace of ideas, it seems, these folks can hash things out and the rest of us can decide where we stand. If one idea sounds better than the other, well, we'll drink the cream that rises to the top. If it's terrible to sell the Host, we won't buy it and this fellow will close-up shop. Folks can call the seller bad and others can call the seller good. Deliberate! Deliberate! Deliberate! It should all work out in the end.

Now, if the marketplace of ideas actually mirrors a marketplace of goods and services, then eBay should just let this item be auctioned, since it isn't illegal; EBay should just let the market regulate itself. EBay, regrettably, doesn't always act like this, though. It seems that they have a policy that allows them to prohibit "offensive items"--stuff like Nazi patches and helmets, I imagine. This policy, then, allows them to pull off items that might be offensive to a group of people, something that they have done in the past. (The League letter cites at least one silly example.) Given that eBay has decided to place some restrictions on its marketplace and that the selling of the Host offends something like 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide (though, admittedly many lapsed Catholics and folks without the Internet make up this figure) eBay should have stopped the sale. It's good business not offend so many people, after all.

So, as far as I'm concerned, if you're going to hype up your "marketplace" status, then, sell everything that is legally allowable--Nazi caps or Eucharists, the market will correct itself. If you're going to make excpetions, then make one for this case too.


Anonymous Miriam said...

IIRC, the eBay policy on Nazi memorabilia is a bit more complicated than that; because its operations are international, it has to forbid the sale of certain items in particular countries. As far as I know, you *can* buy Nazi memorabilia *if* you're in the USA, but a non-US resident may not be allowed to participate in the auction, depending on the country of residence (e.g., France, Germany). eBay certainly has lots of other awful stuff up for auction, including KKK memorabilia.

4/20/2005 6:42 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Thanks for thoughtful comment, I never knew that people actually could get Nazi and KKK stuff on ebay. About the worst thing I've ever seen up for auction were some robin's egg blue commemorative Eisenhower plates!

In any case, the business about some things being legal here but not there sounds like the type of situation I recall the government having with regulating pornography on the web and its acessibility to folks in areas with different community standards. The laws, as they were written, didn't fully understand the structure of the internet and didn't really work all that well. I wonder if it's just as difficult for eBay to make sure that only the people who can get these things do get these things.

Given the complexity of selling so many things to so many people, I guess it's an efficieny reason for why eBay should limit its involvement in sales as much as it can.

4/20/2005 7:09 PM  

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