Orson Scott Card, Politics, Power, and Obligation

Posted: July 10, 2013 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Politics
Tags: , , , , , ,

I think this picture is super-hilarious. Look how jaunty he looks! With his jacket slung over his shoulder, Mr. Cool Guy, Mr. Hip Dad.


Let’s talk about Orson Scott Card. Okay! As many of you know, Card wrote a famous and popular book that will soon be released as a famous movie (whether it will be popular remains to be seen; my bet is yes). Orson Scott Card is also a famous bigot. I am not going to link to all of the articles (UPDATE: I will link to one that it is a pretty good rundown), because they are readily available with Google and also that is a lot of work, but Card has done some straight up bad stuff – he’s said that it’s impossible for gay people to be good Mormons, that laws should be constructed specifically to punish gay people in order to discourage them from gaying it up, that homosexuality is a genetic “mix-up”, that if America legalizes gay marriage then all the good people need to rise up and overthrow the government, in his retelling of Hamlet he pretty clearly equates homosexuality with pedophilia, and has flat-out said that homosexuality is caused by sexual abuse. He has also said that he has gay friends, which frankly just seems like a bald-faced lie.

Recently, in Entertainment Weekly, he was asked about people who want to boycott the Ender’s Game film due to Card being a shithead – he responded in the most hilarious way possible by: 1) saying that issues of gay rights did not exist in 1984, when the book was written; 2) that the issue of gay marriage is moot, Republican congressmen proposing constitutional amendments to ban it notwithstanding; and 3) that it remains to be seen whether advocates for gay rights will “show tolerance” to the bigots that have unsuccessfully opposed them. (Real quick: the answer to that is “no”; step 2 of the Gay Agenda is putting Orson Scott Card’s head on a pike.)

I’ve got a couple things I want to talk about before I get to my political theory, so expect this article to be long and scattered. This is mostly about the proposed boycott of the movie Ender’s Game, and is going to be about that specifically, and more broadly about Card’s positions, and even more broadly about whether or not we should boycott artists for being jackasses.

In the very first place, this issue actually is moot. As I pointed out once about Roman Polanski, even if Ender’s Game is a really good movie, it’s not like there isn’t a million things you could do with your weekend. You’ve got roughly ten thousand movies you could watch, and if you wanted, you could spend your entire life never watching Ender’s Game (or Chinatown, or Rosemary’s Baby) and never be the worse for it. Millions of people were born and lived and died before Ender’s Game the movie was released. You, yourself, probably have spent at least twenty years living quite happily without having seen Ender’s Game. So, who gives a fuck?

In the second place, let’s take a moment to clear up what the POINT of a boycott is. Will it hurt Orson Scott Card financially, some people ask? Will Orson Scott Card care, some others ask? Honestly, also who gives a fuck. Probably it will; even if Card isn’t getting points on the box (which he may very well be getting; Card isn’t some sad-sack first-time novelist with a shitty agent and no negotiating power), the subsidiary consequences – the possibility for a sequel, people buying more copies of his books, &c. – will all potentially be impacted by reminding everyone what a colossal fuckwad Orson Scott Card is. Will he care? Look, guys, he already cares. You don’t write an article in Entertainment Weekly passive-aggressively begging people to forget that you’re a bigot so they’ll go see your movie if you don’t care whether or not they see your movie.

(Honestly, that’s the most disgusting part of Orson Scott Card’s response – this sort of pissy, equivocal attempt at obviation. Artists have a long history of making no bones about their political positions, and telling other people to go to hell if they don’t like them. What Card SHOULD have said is, “fuck those guys”, but of course he can’t say that. He can’t say that because his desire to make a lot of money for his bosses outweighs anything like moral conviction he might have. And I don’t understand that at all, because I thought the point of having a lot of money was that it made it easy for you to tell people like that to go fuck themselves.)

Anyway, this is a point raised by people who don’t want to have to think about the problem. You can avoid the moral question (“is this the RIGHT thing to do?”) by a simple evasion of practicality (“it doesn’t matter, because it wouldn’t work”). That is bullshit, and the people who say it are bullshit. Even if it won’t work (this time), take the twenty minutes to figure out if it’s right, assholes.

In the third place, let’s Think of the Key Grips. Aren’t we worried about the key grips who will lose their jobs if Hollywood stops making Orson Scott Card movies? So, one: no, they’ve all already been paid. And two: this kind of economic hostage-taking is the worst. “See my movie or I’ll fire some poor blue-collar schlub who probably even agrees with you”? Bullshit. AMERICA DOES NOT NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORISTS. It is the way of the privileged to divide everyone else against each other, by using some of us as human shields. Don’t let them do it.

In the fourth place, I know it’s always a mistake to try to divine an author’s psychology through his books (god help me if someone thought to do that with mine), and so I’m not saying specifically that this is true about Orson Scott Card, but what I AM saying is this: if you imagine a kid, abused by an older sibling (or cousin, or maybe just a teacher), right around the same time he’s discovering his own homosexual impulses; if you imagine this kid growing up, carrying the shame of his abuse, internalizing it as a personal weakness; if you imagine him indelibly connecting it with sexual impulses that he believes are morally wrong and deeply suppressing those impulses, so that what you have is a closeted gay man whose repressed his own history of sexual abuse and sublimated it into open hostility for what he’s had no choice but to understand as a fundamental weakness of character…

If you imagine a person like that, you could easily imagine them rewriting Hamlet’s father as a pedophile rapist who turns kids gay, you could imagine them as a hysterical opponent to the very idea of homosexuality, you could even imagine a guy like that writing a story about a kid who maintains his innocence in world where no authority intervenes to prevent people from abusing him, who is so innocent that he comes to forgive his abusers and even recognize the moral authority and merits of that abuse.

I am not saying that’s who Orson Scott Card is; I don’t know anything about Orson Scott Card, or his life, or his psychology. I’m just saying that when I think of Orson Scott Card, that’s the guy that I think of. (It makes me feel sorry for him, actually, just not sorry enough to give a shit about supporting him.)

In the fifth place. I’m going to be talking about “rights” and such here, but I want to make it clear what Card’s argument is: it’s not that he has the RIGHT to be a bigot. It’s that if you want society to be tolerant of homosexuality, but want society to be INtolerant of horrible assholes, that makes you a hypocrite. This is a fallacy; I want the GOVERNMENT to be tolerant, I intend to maintain my own personal opinions of homophobes. There is no contradiction between demanding that the government take a neutral position on a moral question and holding a specific, non-neutral moral position myself. It’s the same thing as saying I want the government to be religiously neutral (i.e., that the government does not make laws that reinforce one religious point of view or another), while still maintaining my own religion. Maybe I think shellfish are a crime against nature; if I say that people should be allowed to eat shellfish, but I personally won’t, that doesn’t make me a hypocrite.

Likewise, I can say that the government should not restrict Orson Scott Card’s right to marry, his right to spend his life with his partner, I can defend his ability to adopt children, &c., to in all ways be a full citizen of the United States, and still think that he’s a prevaricating shitworm who doesn’t deserve a dollar from my paycheck.

Now, finally (hahah, I mean, “the final point of my introduction”): some writers will say, “I hope no one refuses to buy my books because of my political opinions.” Those writers are cowards, and probably also assholes. If your political positions are so shallow and insincere that you’ll throw them away the second it threatens your career as a writer, then fuck you.

I also have political positions. And I hope that people who hate me because of my political positions DON’T buy my books, because fuck those guys, too.


Politics, Power, and Obligation:

The question that underpins Card’s laughably insincere request for tolerance is this one: “Do we have the right to boycott a piece of art because we don’t like the artist?” We could also phrase it like this: “Does an artist have the right to be judged only by his work, and not by his personal convictions?” Or, “Does Orson Scott Card have the right to be a bigot?” There’s a bunch of ways we can say it, and the question here is actually a little thorny, so I want to propose that we clarify what we mean by “right”, and to do this I am going to suggest a change in vocabulary.

The problem with “rights” is that it’s not easy to figure out exactly what they ARE. You can’t carry them with you, or keep them in your pocket. You can’t “do” them. They’re articulated in places, but these articulations are often very broad, and many times don’t actually answer the question. The Bill of Rights, for instance, articulates a right that people should be able to say what they like and be free from government punishment, but that’s worded in a very specific way that doesn’t explicitly make it clear what the right IS.

Well, let’s try this. In the world, the only thing that can happen is that people DO things. Whatever a right is, it must be, in some way, something that we DO, or something that we specifically AVOID doing, or else it must be some rule about when we do things, or when we don’t do things. What there is in the universe is power (i.e., the ability to act). Can we define “rights” in this way?

When we say that Orson Scott Card has the right to be a bigot, does that mean that he has the POWER to be a bigot? Well, that doesn’t sound quite right; obviously he has the power to be a bigot, we’ve seen him do it again and again. The question can’t be, “is it POSSIBLE for Orson Scott Card to be a bigot?” (We can reasonably ask, “Is it possible for Orson Scott Card to open his fucking mouth and NOT be a bigot?” but that is tangential.)

Okay, so a “right” is not necessarily synonymous with a “power.” And this makes sense; we know that the Bill of Rights is actually a document that LIMITS the government use of power , so maybe that’s a better way to define a “right”: a “right” is an obligation, implicit or explicit, attendant on a power to either use or not use that power on someone else’s behalf.

That sounds cumbersome, but I think it makes sense. If you look at the right to property, for instance: if we look at what it means for me to “own” something. I can put things near me, or hold things, or write my name on them, or tell everyone else not to touch them, but none of those actions (powers!) actually make them MINE. After all, I can do that with things that AREN’T mine, too, right? I could write my name on your car, tell you not to touch it, I could even drive it around if I wanted.

What makes a thing mine is the attendant obligation on everyone else not to touch my stuff. My car is mine because the people who have the power to steal it are implicitly obligated not to, because the government (which reserves for itself the power to punish people for doings things) has an obligation not to punish me for defending it, and an obligation to use its power to punish on my behalf anyone who DOES try to steal it.

I have a right to life, which means the same thing, yeah? I am alive, and everyone else who has the power to kill me has an obligation not to. (This kind of makes the question of suicide interesting, doesn’t it? Can I be obligated to act on my own behalf? Does the obligation pertain if I specifically request it? I can certainly suspend your obligation not to touch my stuff if I want to lend you something; can I suspend your obligation not to kill me if I want to die?)

Let’s see what happens when we use this working definition of “right” (the obligation on behalf of others to use or not use a particular power).

Does Orson Scot Card have the right to be a bigot? Well, Orson Scott Card has the POWER to be a bigot, so if he’s got a right, that means there must be an obligation for everyone else. Who has that obligation, and what is it?

When we say that Orson Scott Card has the right to be a bigot, do we mean that when he exercises his power to be a bigot, that I have an obligation not to call him one? Hm. That doesn’t sound reasonable. Card’s assertion is that intolerance of the intolerant is a form of a bigotry; but if I’m a bigot, then I’ve got as much of a right to be a bigot as he does, and if I’m obligated not to call him a bigot, then surely he’s obligated not to complain about it? He does complain about it, though, so that can’t be right.

If I am an editor, and Orson Scott Card wants to publish a book with me, and I know he is a bigot, do I have an obligation to publish the book anyway? Oh, okay, well maybe. Maybe, that sounds reasonable. We have non-discrimination laws in America, and those laws, under these terms, essentially state that an employer who has increased powers (namely, the power to hire and fire people) has attendant obligations (namely, the obligation not to use his powers to punish people for their opinions).

What if I know that his being a bigot means the book is going to tank? Or else, if I could reasonably suspect that his bigotry would sink the book? How about then?

This seems trickier. I suppose you could say that as a publisher, I have an obligation to provide a platform for all opinions, except that this is manifestly false. You wouldn’t say, for instance, that I had an obligation not to edit someone’s book, because that person had the right to their opinions; if someone wrote a screed in support of pedophilia, we probably wouldn’t say that I had an obligation to publish it. And, in fact, as a publisher I don’t have a monopoly on publishing – we definitely don’t say that ALL publishers have an obligation to publish EVERYTHING that a person writes. And, in fact, it doesn’t seem to me to follow that a person, just because they’ve written something, has a right to see it published – even if we didn’t live in an age where anyone could be their own publisher, and just write something on the internet.

Okay, but what about Orson Scott Card’s livelihood? Doesn’t he have the right to a job, to a living, to a basic standard of well-being? Well, I am a socialist, so I would say that yes, he does, and by that I mean that everyone else has an obligation to, where we can, ensure that he is not condemned to a life of crippling poverty, ill-health, and desperation. But that’s not the same thing as saying that I have an obligation to help him sell books; there’s a lot of jobs a person can have, he can just get one of those. Certainly, I wouldn’t say that I have an obligation to help him become wealthy; I don’t have an obligation to ensure that he has a huge pile of money at his house; I don’t have an obligation to make sure his movie successful.

Why would I be obliged to make Ender’s Game successful?

Right , so in terms of individual buying decisions, Orson Scott Card’s right to be a bigot could be translated as, “Do I, as a consumer, have an attendant obligation to see Ender’s Game even though I know Orson Scott Card is a bigot?” That sure doesn’t sound right; I’m pretty sure I didn’t have an attendant obligation before I knew he was a bigot; does his being a bigot somehow obligate me? Do I have an obligation to see his movie because he’s a bigot?

That definitely doesn’t sound right.

Well, what about the boycott? A boycott isn’t an individual not seeing a movie, a boycott is an organized refusal to buy something. So, when we say Orson Scott Card has the right to be a bigot, does that mean that I have an obligation not to boycott his works? Well, this seems implausible on the face of it; a boycott, in its simplest form, is just me telling people that I don’t want to see Ender’s Game, and telling them why. Maybe it’s putting my name on a list, so Card can count how many people agree with me. Do I have an obligation to keep my opinion about Card to myself? Not to tell people that I’m going to avoid Ender’s Game? Not to write my name on a list? I didn’t before I knew he was a bigot, so this gets us back to the same issue; if it’s true that I have this obligation now, then it must be the case that I have an obligation not to tell people why I’m not going to see Ender’s Game BECAUSE I think Orson Scott Card is a bigot.

That actually sounds pretty stupid, when you put it like that. Like once we know that Card is a bigot, we’ve all got to play a big game of pretend, like we don’t KNOW that he is, and that we don’t KNOW why we aren’t going to see the movie, and when someone asks me if I’m going to go see Ender’s Game, I have to pretend there’s some reason other than, “No, because Orson Scott Card is a huge fucking asshole.”

Now, there is a point here worth addressing, and that’s the parallel to things like the McCarthy Era blacklists, but there’s a couple key differences worth pointing out. First of all, Card’s livelihood isn’t going to be threatened by any kind of a boycott of his movie, he’s also already rich. (Oh, what, so the rules are different for rich people? No, smartass, the rules are the SAME for rich people, they just consider the direct impact of an action on the individual, and the point of money is that it lessens the impact of an action like this.)

But also, the McCarthy blacklists weren’t just boycotts, they were coercive boycotts. That is, people were coerced and intimidated into going along with them for fear of being ostracized. And, so, I would agree that people have an attendant obligation not to coerce other people into joining a boycott, but what does that mean? That means that I have a right not to participate in a boycott if I don’t want to, but whether or not I have a right to boycott or not boycott something is completely independent of whether or not Orson Scott Card has a right to be a bigot, or even whether or not I have a right to boycott him.

In this light, those are quite clearly two very different and unrelated questions – a boycott is not implicitly coercive of its members, and while that kind of coercion could be reasonably criticized, it’s completely separate from whether or not the boycott ought to exist in the first place.

I think this clarifies the question of “rights” fairly well, and whether or not there is some kind of legal basis, or their OUGHT to be a legal basis, or some kind of principle basis for prohibiting a boycott of Orson Scott Card and his poisonous bullshit.

I think there is a question here about whether or not I’ve got some kind of moral obligation to support “art”, even when I disagree with the artist, but frankly, I’m not sure I see it. There’s any number of reasons that I might not engage with a piece of art – because I don’t like the book cover or I think the author has a stupid haircut or I think stories about space-pirates are boring. And we could say that I’m shortchanging myself by not exposing myself to every piece of art imaginable but 1) that’s impossible anyway, I was always going to have to not see SOME things, and 2) we haven’t cleared up whether or not I’ve got an obligation to myself, but if I DO have an obligation to myself, it’s not yours or Orson Scott Card’s business. Certainly, I don’t have an obligation to myself on Orson Scott Card’s BEHALF.

So, there’s no argument for a direct moral obligation on my part to support Ender’s Game, but is there maybe an indirect one? An argument that people use a lot is, “if we boycott art made by shitty people, then where does it end? Will we eventually start boycotting art by not shitty people?” This seems specious, because by saying that I have an obligation to support art by shitty people, it implies that art by non-shitty people is somehow contingent on art made by shitty people. Which, what? No, it’s not.

We could also argue that I have to fundamentally support a platform that doesn’t give regard to one form of art over another, because if I don’t support a platform in which all artistic expressions are permitted, then I must be arguing for one in which no artistic expressions are permitted. Well, this is the Fallacy of Exhaustive Hypotheses, and so is self-evidently false when presented as such. But furthermore, does this gets us back to that consumer questions: do I seriously have an obligation to suspend my discretion when it comes to the aggregate availability of art? That I have an obligation to support every art in every form, because if I don’t, then there won’t be any art left at all?

That actually just sounds stupid. Boycotting Ender’s Game isn’t going to put the movie industry out of business, it’s not going to put the publishing industry out of business, it’s not going to shut down the internet, it’s probably not even going to monetarily impact fucking Orson Scott Card. And while we can say that this is the first step on a slippery slope, let’s bear in mind that “the Slippery Slope” is actually a logical fallacy, and that we’re talking about THIS movie at THIS time. If there are far-ranging consequences, we can roll down that hill when we get to it.

Okay, now, finally. I want to take a second and talk about where I think I DO have a moral obligation. I think that gay people have a right to be treated as full citizens of the United States, that they have the right to be secure in their jobs, that they have the right to publicly acknowledge their sexuality, that they have the right to whatever benefits we are willing to confer on straight couples, that they have the right not to be physically assaulted or emotionally abused. And when I say they have that right, what I mean is that I have an obligation to stand up on their behalf, to see that it happens, and to refuse to patronize shitheads like Orson Scott Card, or the amoral sociopaths that enable him.

That is my opinion on Ender’s Game.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    That picture will never stop cracking me up.

  2. braak says:

    It’s my considered opinion that, far worse than a boycott, the best way to stick it to Card is to make sure that this the picture that he’s always known by.

  3. Fritz Liess says:

    Excellent essay. I agree with most of what you wrote. I will comment on one small point:

    “Boycotting Ender’s Game isn’t going to put the movie industry out of business…”

    According to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, one bad year could put the major studios out of business. If they don’t have at least one hit to make up for the numerous failures, each could experience ruin. I think the only one that could possibly survive such a catastrophe is Disney. So boycotting Ender’s Game could result in a studio going out of business, which would damage the distributor and the entire industry. It is like a house of cards (no pun intended).

  4. braak says:

    Well, think that’s a legitimate point in the short-term, but not really in the long-term. The movie studios don’t create the industry, they’re a consequence of the industry. If there’s a billion dollars to be made on movies, Warner Brothers going out of business isn’t going to change that; they’ll file for bankruptcy, and then someone else will lunge after all those dollars, and probably hire all the same people.

    The studio heads might suffer, but the Key Grips will make it through.

  5. Fritz Liess says:

    It would be more than just the studios. The prediction made recently by Lucas and Spielberg involves the collapse of the distributors and the theaters following the failure of several major studios. That would result in more independent films, but they would be produced for home viewing rather than for theaters. I’m not agreeing that will happen. However, the studios have to be concerned about such a warning coming from two major director/producers. That’s why a threatened boycott is significant. Even a 5% decrease at the box office could spell disaster. Lucas and Spielberg said that such a collapse would result in going to see a movie at a theater being an expensive event that will be available only in major cities — similar to a Broadway show.

  6. braak says:

    Well, I guess it’s just as well, then; if you couldn’t hurt the studios with a boycott, then it really wouldn’t matter.

  7. John Jackson says:

    I’m a big fan of viewing rights as obligations. Breaking down “rights” and how they can be “inalienable” and “self-evident” is not done often enough.
    I had written a big paragraph about how there is no moral obligation to withdraw support of people you disagree with, if you still like their art. But I concluded that none of these decisions about what art to monetarily support is anywhere near an obligation, so I wiped it out. In our capitalist system of art requiring monetary support from consumers, any decision to support one art or another is purely a choice, and any obligation you feel beyond that is entirely within your own individual moral compass.

  8. Alex says:

    Relevant: “Orson Scott Card has always been an Asshat” http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2005/5/28/22428/7034

  9. paintedjaguar says:

    “I think that gay people have a right to be treated as full citizens of the United States, that they have the right to be secure in their jobs”

    Really? Since when have workers in the U.S. had any such right? You can be as white and straight and male as you like, but unless you have a damned good union your boss can fire you at any time for any reason. You’re asking for rights for protected classes that most workers do not have. Speech and assembly are not protected in the workplace either.

  10. braak says:

    Well, I would actually be in favor of increased protections on that score as well, while we’re on the subject.

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