In an effort to discourage letters from young fans, the curmudgeonly children’s book author E.B. White wrote in 1961:
When I was a child, I liked books, but an author to me was a mythical being. I never dreamed of getting in touch with one, and no teacher ever suggested that I do so. The book was the thing, not the man behind the book. (emphasis added).
It’s much easier for 21st Century readers to know the men or women “behind the book[s]” than it was for White’s mid-20th Century fans. Through social media, we can interact more easily with our favorite authors and consume news about their lives in addition to consuming their books. Whether rightly or wrongly, factors external to the book like authors’ reputations — their perceived personality and even their politics — often outweigh factors intrinsic to the book when we choose what books to purchase. We want to support authors we like as people.
Last week, I wrote about Paula Deen, whose admitted past usage of a racial epithet has tarnished her reputation. As a result, Food Network cancelled her show and Ballantine Books dropped her cookbook, presumably on the assumption that consumers would no longer want to affiliate themselves with someone they perceive to be racist. It doesn’t seem to matter that her past behavior and the allegations about her treatment of restaurant employees are unrelated to her shows and books.
Now, author Orson Scott Card is under scrutiny for his current anti-gay views. I haven’t read his sci-fi novel, Ender’s Game, but I presume that its content is unrelated to the author’s narrow view that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Even so, many have called for a boycott of the upcoming movie based on Card’s book (starring Harrison Ford and a bunch of other actors I don’t recognize).
Both of these examples, Deen and Card, highlight the power of the “citizen-consumer”: people who buy goods that promote certain ideals and/or use their purchasing decisions to support their ideological allies. It’s not hard to see why someone would want to put their dollars in the pockets of people with similar views or deny income to ideological opponents who promote causes contrary to their interests (for example, Chick Fil-A has donated millions to groups opposing marriage equality). A controversial view may turn away some consumers while attracting others. Either way, public figures, including authors, need to be careful about discussing their private views, and they need to know their audience.
Some may feel it’s unfair to “punish” a public figure for his or her private views. As Card has responded to the boycott of his book and its derivatives:
‘Ender’s Game’ is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984. With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.
It’s ridiculous for Card to imply that “show[ing] tolerance” means putting money in his pockets by buying his books and watching a movie from which he’ll receive royalties. A reader who believes in marriage equality has no more an obligation to “show tolerance” by buying Card’s book than a reader who opposes marriage equality has an obligation to buy a book from a gay-friendly author: in a free society, everyone gets to choose how to express his or her views, including consumers.
In addition, Card’s premise is faulty: If marriage equality will happen “sooner or later” then, by definition, it’s not “moot.” The United States Supreme Court did not explicitly interpret the Constitution as protecting gay marriage in United States v. Windsor (2013) or in Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013). The Windsor decision contains important language about marriage equality, but it only directly applies to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (federal benefits). Perry, in turn, didn’t decide anything at all about marriage equality by punting the issue on standing grounds (which had the practical effect of reinstating a lower court’s order blocking California’s Proposition 8, thereby permitting gay marriage in the state).
Same-sex marriage remains a state-by-state battle, and the majority of states continue to treat same-sex couples differently from other couples. In my state, it will take either a marriage equality bill to pass (there’s one introduced by my state representative) or a court decision (the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a case two days ago) to make the issue “moot” where I live. Plus, even after marriage equality exists in all 50 states, anti-gay discrimination will likely persist in other areas of life. This battle isn’t over.
At any rate, though I strongly disagree with Card’s view on marriage equality, I respect his right to hold these beliefs and I also respect the rights of consumers to boycott his work — or to buy more of it — as a result of his views (and it remains to be seen which side the market will go). Both expressing anti-gay views and protesting such views are aspects of personal expression, and neither implicates the First Amendment because everyone involved is a private actor. A boycott orchestrated by a public library or a public school would be a different matter.
UPDATE (7/14/13): I took a quick look at the website of the organization of which Card is a board member (according to a CNN article) and found that it uses the same boycotting tactic that those opposing Card are using. The organization encourages its members to “dump Starbucks” and “dump General Mills” for their pro-gay marriage stances. While I don’t know what role, if any, Card plays in this organization’s decision making (or even if he still sits on the board), I think he’s being a wee bit hypocritical when he insists that “tolerance” dictates that we support him by buying his books and watching this movie.
Here’s a screen shot from the National Organization for Marriage’s website: