Is it Right to Boycott? Peter David Responds to “The Turn of an Unfriendly Card”

9 09 2009

One of the great things about living in the Internet age is sometimes the little bit of attention you garner for your work can draw in the very people you’re discussing to put in their two cents. That’s what happened with my Angry Bear article “Turn of an Unfriendly Card (Read the original article here.) In the comments I came across a response by none other than Peter David himself who has a decidedly different take on the whole issue. Here’s what he wrote:

I think you make a lot of valid points in your very balanced and well-reasoned view of the situation (and thanks for the shout out on my work on X-Factor.)

The one place where we diverge, I suppose, is whether boycotts are a free speech issue. I feel they most definitely are, because the endgame (as you put it) is ultimately to restrict free speech. They are designed to put people who have voiced unpopular ideas out of business, and they are designed to make sure that anyone who possesses unpopular ideas think twice or three times about saying anything for fear of facing economic sanctions and potential loss of livelihood. The underlying strength of a free society is, “I disagree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” not, “I disagree with what you have to say, and will do everything in my power to punish you for saying it.”

Should free speech mean freedom from consequences? Well, no. But the answer to free speech is always more free speech, and that should be the only consequence of speaking your mind. Boycotts are not free speech, no matter how much the practitioners of them claim that they are. Boycotts–particularly as utilized by those who take issue with opinions that are in opposition to theirs–are attempts to bludgeon someone into submission economically.

It’s not that people are offended because, for instance, the CEO of Whole Foods has opinions they don’t like. They’re offended because they KNOW his opinions, and the reason they know them is because he availed himself of free speech in a free society. So they’ll boycott Whole Foods and shop at Pathmark or Shop & Stop, and for all they know the CEO of the former is opposed to gay marriage and the CEO of the latter thinks that abortion should be criminalized. So unless they’re performing due diligence to check and see the corporate record of every store they’re frequenting, I’m forced to conclude that this is entirely about free speech, because it’s the use of free speech that’s getting people in trouble and it’s the intolerance of free speech that’s causing the boycotts.

I suppose what it comes down to is this: Protecting popular ideas is easy. Unpopular ideas are the ones that need the most protecting, if for no other reason than that many of the ideas we accept today as truth or even simple common sense, began their existence as unpopular ideas. The Church boycotted Galileo because he opined that the Earth moved around the sun; is that really the lead we want to follow?


As much as I respect Mr. David, I’m afraid this is an issue where he and I are going to have to disagree. I told him so in an e-mailed reply:

“Boycotts aren’t free speech. What they ARE are other elements of freedom that are just as important — freedom of association, freedom of commerce and freedom of conscience. Note that none of those things necessarily make boycotts moral or ethical to use but by your argument I give up some freedoms (association, commerce, conscience) to protect the freedom of speech of a man I disagree with.


I’d have to reject that. I don’t believe my choice to buy or not buy a game prevents Card from saying what he will. If he chooses to modify his speech in the face of such things, that too is the free market in action and it works for both the right and the left. I have the right to, for example, choose to purchase my groceries only at markets owned by Caucasians or refuse to buy a game created by a designer who has donated to the Republican party (bye bye Sims!) and I should bear the full moral burden of exercising those rights (including the disapproval and possible boycott of those who disapproved of my actions). In doing so though, I don’t believe anyone else’s rights are endangered. These interactions are how societies get ordered in the first place.”

Peter responded again with the following:

I don’t think boycotts are free speech either. We don’t disagree on that point. What I was pointing out was that people who believe in boycotts contend that they ARE a form of free speech, of free expression, equal to and on par with voicing one’s opinion through the media or on line or wherever. And that if someone says something or puts forward an opinion that they find disagreeable, then it is an equal and appropriate response to declare that they are going to cease supporting that individual’s work and, even better, try to get as many people as possible to follow suit.

Except it’s not. Boycotts are not free speech (as you yourself say). They are a punitive measure designed specifically to get someone else to shut up, or to destroy their income in retaliation. Does the act of buying or not buying a game prevent Card from saying what he will? No. But it is an ATTEMPT to STOP him from saying what he will. It is an attempt to punish him for doing so. What else is punishment except trying to ensure that the target of the punishment ceases the behavior that the person inflicting the punishment finds disagreeable?

To say, “I have the right” to shop wherever you wish is utterly beside the point. I’m not contending that you don’t have the right. But just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do something. If you truly believe in a free market society, then where you shop should not be determined (to use your example) by the color of the shop owner’s skin. It should be determined by who has the best product for the best price. Everything else is beside the point unless you choose to make it the point.

Boycotts that are started up purely to shut people up have a chilling effect in a society that is supposed to value the free exchange of ideas. There’s a superb book on the subject by Nat Hentoff: “Freedom of Speech for Me, But Not For Thee.” It’s about the lengthy history of the right and the left to shut each other up.

I didn’t want to respond directly to Peter (though he is, of course welcome to elaborate further and I’ll be happy to print it) because I think we’ve each outlined where our disagreements are and while we’re actually not that far apart, they come right to the crux of the morality of using boycotts. Put in simple terms, each of us agrees that boycotts are a private act and as such, shouldn’t be subject to some sort of government interference. Each of us as individuals have the “right” to boycott. The question is — and this is what I was wrestling with in the article — is it “right” to boycott? Is it morally and ethically correct and if so, what are the rules for doing so? These are the questions we as a society are not answering, although Peter’s already given his. He says “no, boycotts aren’t moral.” I envy him that level of clarity because I haven’t found my answer yet.

In a larger sense, we’re throwing economic clubs and brickbats at each other and we don’t seem to be concerned with where they’re landing. It’s really easy to envision a future where every corporation and small business has to have a position paper on every controversial issue in the public domain in order to do business at all. That is after all, what the “Buy Blue” campaign was all about and is what powers sites like Buy Blue USA (no commercial endorsement implied in that link). I don’t think I like that very much and I’m a little frightened about whether we can get off the ugly road we seem to be on.

On a lighter note, if you’re interested in Mr. David’s work, why not check out his blog? I’m also adding it to my blogroll at the right.

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6 responses

10 09 2009
Peter David

A clarification: I didn’t say boycotts are immoral. I say they’re an inappropriate response in matters of free speech. You don’t have to envy me my level of clarity: You simply have to embrace the notion that the answer to free speech is always more free speech. It’s a simple philosophy and if you truly believe it, everything else falls into place.

For instance, that is why–and I say this at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law–the proper response to Nazis marching in Skokie was not to try and prevent them from doing so. Instead it was to mount protests in response and show up in force with signs and slogans declaring that those Holocaust-denying cretins didn’t know what they were talking about. That’s what the ACLU understood and that’s why they took the Nazis side. And they sustained a sizable membership hit as a result, because those members proclaimed they were in favor of free speech…until that free speech involved something that they found personally upsetting, at which point they were against it. If you truly believe in a society based on free expression, it cannot work that way.


28 09 2009
Stardock Takes a Stand for Fox News « The Angry Bear (ALPHA)

[…] 28 09 2009 I found this interesting, especially given the recent hullabaloo over the Shadow Complex boycott. Brad Wardell, the CEO of Stardock Software and an outspoken conservative, has decided to take a […]

29 09 2009
John Evans

For me, after hearing about this, Shadow Complex is inextricably linked with homophobia in my mind. I can’t hear anything about Shadow Complex without thinking of horrific hatred.

So, I haven’t consciously decided anything…I’m not “participating” in any sort of boycott. But I’m pretty sure any desire I had to buy it is going to be dampened.

2 10 2009

See, I don’t see myself “boycotting” someone else as a putative measure. I also have refused to purchase anything associated with Mr. Card ever since I learned the degree to which I disagree with the man’s views. Is this punishing him? No, it’s simply refusing to reward him. The man has no right to my hard earned dollars and cents, so my not giving him said dollars and cents can in no way be construed as infringing upon any of his rights and freedoms.
At the end of the day, if the man doesn’t make quite as much money as he might otherwise have expected to, that’s his problem, not mine. But me, and others who think like me, are under no moral obligation to provide a living for someone that we find repugnant.

4 10 2009

I have to say I think the matter is a little more complicated than is being presented here. When it comes to boycotting a product, I think whether the boycott is a responsible thing to do or not really depends on what the product is. I don’t think I would boycott Whole Foods, any more than I boycott Wal-Mart just because i don’t agree with some of their employees’ or executives’ views – because I really don’t know that everyone at Target or Trader Joe’s agrees with me any more. I’m buying groceries, not subscribing to their politics. On the other hand, a creative person, whether they are a writer, artist, talk show host or game designer is being paid to present their views and ideas in an entertaining way. Just as my view that classical realist art is aesthetically pleasing is reflected in my artwork, Card’s view that homosexuality is immoral is reflected in his writing. I don’t have to pay him money and listen to his views just to support the theoretical idea of free speech, and in fact, it would be irresponsible of me to do so. The flip side to the right to say what you want in a free society is that we also have the right to listen or not, as we choose. I can have whatever crackpot, offensive ideas I want but no one can be forced to pay attention to them.
That said, I did buy Shadow Complex, and played it, and at no point did it feel like any ideology was being forced down my throat. The entire concept of a militant liberal army trying to take over America is to me completely ridiculous and laughable, but that premise barely entered into the game, which could just as easily been a Metroid or Castlevania game with a different coat of paint. I feel that the influence of Card, whose opinions I could never support, was tempered by that of PAD, whose work I like quite a bit, along with the work of an entire game design studio responsible for some excellent game design and art direction. It seems to me that with any collaborative work, the result of many viewpoints and talents coming together, be it in movies, video games, or comics, as long as the end result is not propagandistic or proselytizing, it is wrong to punish the efforts of the entire group just for the views of one of the contributors.

6 10 2009

Boycotts are the only, the only, the ONLY power that consumers have over producers. So naturally producers find them immoral and wish them stamped out. Same with unions. Unions are the only, the only, the ONLY power that workers have over management. So naturally management finds them immoral and wishes they were stamped out.

When someone says “gosh boycotts should not be used here” I immediately know I am dealing with a shill or a useful idiot. This simple rule will never, ever fail you.

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