Let me stipulate right at the beginning that I accept that boycotts are and should be perfectly legal. I believe in free markets and the right of free association which means that people have the right to buy or not buy a particular product based on whatever reason they like. Nor is this a free speech issue. Boycotts are political maneuvers designed to influence a person or an organization to act in a certain way by a form of social and financial ostracism. No one’s rights are being trampled here. Card can continue to espouse his position as he wishes but only a fool believes that freedom of speech means freedom from consequences. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey learned that by writing and anti-Obamacare op-ed in the Wall Street Journal(corrected — originally said Washington Post) that sent his predominantly liberal customer base into a tizzy and resulted in calls for a boycott to the store.
For me, the issue is the ethics and morality of the boycott itself — any boycott. There are those who advocate separating the art from the artist. If Shadow Complex is a great game that of itself doesn’t promote a hateful agenda (and by all accounts it doesn’t — I haven’t played it myself), why wouldn’t I want to play it? I often quip that if I restricted my entertainment choices with those who agreed with me politically, I’d be stuck listening to country music and watching my DVD copy of Red Dawn in which case I’d simply have to kill myself. The fact is that art of any type can (and often should) espouse a particular point of view. If gaming means to be taken seriously as an art as well as a business then these situations are going to come up more and more often and we need to be prepared to discuss and deal with them like semi-rational adults. If I can choose not to view the films of Jane Fonda or Sean Penn because of their political activism, I can choose not to play Shadow Complex because of Card’s and tell others about to help them make their own choices.
Note however, that I’m not saying I will boycott Shadow Complex, merely that I can and that that decision should bear the same moral freight as my decision about whether or not to shop at Whole Foods or buy a Dixie Chicks album. In fact, that’s kind fo the crux of my issue. Boycotts aren’t exactly a precision weapon in one’s political arsenal. What’s my end game here? Am I looking to put the devlopers at Chair out of business for associating with Card despite the fact that hundreds of people worked on the game who no doubt represent a wide-ranging spectrum of political and religious viewpoints. One of the game’s other writers is Peter David, a noted comic-book scribe who’s a very gay-friendly artist (he put the mainstream comic world’s first man-on-man kiss in X-Factor 45). Shouldn’t I take his politics into account as well when making my decision? As for Card himself, he may very well have other political opinions that I do agree with. Shouldn’t those count as well?
I’m reminded of the controversy surrounding the El Coyote restaurant in Los Angeles when the owner, a Mormon, donated money to the “Yes on 8″ campaign. El Coyote is a Los Angeles institution and has long-been known as a gay-friendly establishment. The restaurant’s managers took pains to distance themselves from their boss’ views and pointed out that the resulting boycott wouldn’t hurt the owners nearly as much as the 83 families that depended on El Coyote for their livelihood. This was matched by duelling boycotts in San Deigo where a local union and a conservative Christian newspaper faced off by boycotting first a hotel and then not tipping service people. It’s the kind of action that can really nasty, really fast and the ones who get caught in the middle are usually the ones who have the least to do with the point of contention. Right now there’s a coder at Chair who needs to pay his mortgage looking at this whole situation wondering why his house payment is being held hostage to the political whims of Orson Scott Card and those who disagree with him.
Unfortunately I don’t really have an answer to this conundrum. I could fall back on my basic libertarian sensibilities and just say that this is a personal matter and everybody needs to make their own choices. I certainly do that with Sean Penn. I will not watch or pay for anything he’s in (including Fast Times at Ridgemont High which really hurts) because I’m personally offended by some of the actions he’s taken in support of his political beliefs. As a practical matter, I know that this affects Penn not one iota, especially as this is a completely personal choice. I’ve never encouraged anyone else to boycott Penn’s work nor do I have any plans to do so in the future. Ultimately though, that position is a cop-out.
The fact is, there is such a thing as the public sphere and public life and a collective social environment and the shaping of that environment amongst disagreeing individuals is what politics exists for. I understand that in practical terms, boycotts almost never work but in the modern world, that’s hardly the point. This is a world that runs on image and duelling press releases. Boycotts are more about generating discussions, op-eds and uncomfortable looking people stammering into the unblinking eye of a news camera than actually taking money out of anybody’s pocket. The boycott as a modern-day political tool is simply too effective and powerful to hope that it’ll just be put aside the way poison gas was supposed to be after World War I. I just wish someone could give me a simple answer on just how, when and in what way these things are actually supposed to be used.