Recently, DC Comics hired Orson Scott Card to write a Superman story.
Mr. Card is a fierce opponent of same-sex marriage, and as a result, a gay rights organization called All Out launched a petition asking DC to fire him on the grounds that he’s an advocate of “hate” and an opponent of “equality.” The idea that the signers would boycott the story if it appeared isn’t stated but is certainly, I think, implicit.
All Out’s effort prompted Mr. Card’s supporters to create their own petition urging that he be retained. In their view, All Out’s petition constitutes an attack on the author’s “right to free speech and free thought.”
Setting aside (to the extent we’re able) the specific issue of same-sex marriage, let’s look at such petitions and boycotts. Are they ethical and fair? Are they mean-spirited? Are they likely to affect change in the desired direction?
Before I get into the subject, I should make a couple disclosures. The first is that years ago, I saw Mr. Card speak at science-fiction conventions, talked to him a few times, and always came away thinking he was a friendly, decent, reasonable person. The other is that I support same-sex marriage.
So, with that out of the way …
First off, it seems to me the argument that All Out has attacked Mr. Card’s rights to freedom of thought and speech is wrong. By launching their petition, his opponents have simply exercised the same rights themselves.
“Ah,” my own hypothetical opponents might say, “but there’s a difference. Mr. Card has merely stated what he thinks. All Out is threatening his livelihood.”
That argument gives me pause. Heck, I’m a writer, too. I’m sure I offend people from time to time (this column may be doing so at this very moment), and I’m OK with those outraged folks letting me know they think I said something asinine. But I cringe at the idea of an organized campaign to discourage readers from buying my books. That could be bad, and it would undoubtedly feel like a vicious overreaction to me.
But nobody has an obligation to patronize any writer’s work, and that includes Mr. Card’s or mine. And as far as turning away from an artist’s work because his public utterances or behavior offends me, I have to admit, I do it, too. I don’t plan on watching any more Mel Gibson movies. The anti-semitism issue has put me off.
I suspect most of us are ultimately like that even if we imagine we buy into the proposition that the artist and the art should be separate. They can be, of course, particularly when the artist is dead and the matter over which we take issue with him is long settled.
At this late date, few of us feel obliged to shun the Oz books because L. Frank Baum wrote editorials advocating the extermination of Native Americans. But when we believe a contemporary writer is taking an indefensible position on a moral question of the utmost importance, he may well provoke a response that encompasses more than the immediate discussion. That’s just human nature.
So I think the attempt to separate Mr. Card from DC is both ethical and understandable. But it may also be harsh, especially if, as seems likely, the story he would write would have nothing to do with gay rights, pro or con.
If All Out’s campaign does look excessive or abusive, is that useful in terms of winning support for same-sex marriage, or is it likely to alienate those who aren’t already on board with the movement’s point of view? Will it facilitate or discourage the kind of dialogue necessary to resolve the issue?
To me, those are the toughest questions. If someone is a fan of Mr. Card’s work (and many people find a great deal to enjoy and admire in it), I can imagine that person bristling to see the author denounced. I can see him closing his mind to any argument that proponents of same-sex marriage might later make to persuade him.
Yet despite such concerns, I’m ultimately skeptical of the argument that those who feel themselves to be the victims of injustice (in this case, gays unable to marry) should speak ever so softly and courteously and only at those moments when the mainstream condescends to hear them at all.
History indicates that’s never been how we’ve made progress toward a society that truly embodies “truth, justice, and the American way.”