Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Thoughts on blacklists and when an author crosses the line to "Will not read"

Orson Scott Card, most famous for Ender's Game and many other SF and fantasy novels, has been hired by DC comics to write the Adventures of Superman. As Card is also well-known for his anti-gay views, unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of outcry in response to this, including a petition to pressure DC to drop him.

So first, let me get a couple of initial arguments out of the way with before proceeding with my real point.


Anyone who uses the word "censorship" in this context needs to just shut up. Even if one doesn't adhere strictly to a legalistic definition (government censorship) and accepts that public pressure, boycotts, and what amounts to an attempt at blacklisting is effectively the same as censorship, this relies on a slippery slope argument that never actually manifests in reality. Card, like many other popular figures before him, may have made many people's lists of People I Will Not Support by virtue of his views, but he is in no danger of being deprived of a platform or a livelihood. Even if DC Comics does bow to pressure and remove him from Superman (which I think is unlikely), that will be at worst an embarrassment for him. The Ender's Game movie is coming out this year. Card remains a best-selling author. And people tend to vastly overestimate the influence of Internet outrage. The percentage of his fans who even know about his anti-gay views, let alone care, is small. Nobody is suggesting that Orson Scott Card be fined, jailed, forbidden to write books or editorials, or never allowed to make a living until he changes his views.

But let's say this was happening to a much smaller figure, not somebody already wealthy and well-established, who could conceivably be economically harmed by efforts to deprive them of writing gigs. Are petitions to get a bigot fired and calls to refuse to buy their books censorship? No. Your words have consequences. I suspect the degree to which people think Card is being done unfairly is the degree to which they do not believe that being anti-gay is actually bigotry. If Card were famous for saying that black people and white people shouldn't intermarry, or that Jews control American politics, you'd see a lot fewer people wringing their hands at "censorship" over the backlash.

Separating the Artist from their work

This was actually the topic of my very first Saturday Book Discussion. It's a long debate in fandom, literary circles, and so on. Can you still enjoy Wagner knowing about his anti-Semitism? Should we judge 19th century writers by today's standards? Is it okay to love Ender's Game even if you think the author is a prick?

I think saying the artist and their work are completely separate is an absolutist position. To an extent, there's a "death of the author" phenomenon here (should you really care what the author believes, especially if it's not apparent in their work?), but there's also the issue of supporting someone financially whose views you find abhorrent (which is why long-deceased artists tend to inspire less moral conflict).

I of course do not expect that every author I read has only views that I would find unobjectionable. On the other hand, I can find my enjoyment of a book diminished by the knowledge that an author is asshole. So for me, somewhere there is a line that I can't precisely define between "That's a shame, but oh well" and "Eww, I can't stand this guy." It's entirely subjective, and it's going to be different for different people.

All Mormon SF&F authors are not alike

So, that said, a lot of people in fandom know about Card's anti-gay views, but somewhat less known is Brandon Sanderson.

For those not familiar with him, Brandon Sanderson is one of the new generation of best-selling fantasy authors. He's most famous for taking over and finishing the Wheel of Time series from the late Robert Jordan, but he's also written many other books.

Sanderson is also, like Card, a Mormon, and he has publicly stated that he stands by the LDS Church's position on gay marriage. This has gotten him a little bit of flack, but not much. I personally am still willing to read Sanderson, whereas I consider Card an appalling human being.

Here's the reason why: even views on very polarizing issues are not binary. And I personally place a lot of value on nuance and on intent. Note that all of the following is my opinion and how I personally draw a line between people I disagree with but don't necessarily dislike/oppose, and those who I find beyond the pale. Obviously, other people will draw their lines in different places.

There are some views that are absolute "deal-breakers" in terms of my viewing someone as a decent person or worthy of respect as a functional adult human being. If you're a Holocaust denier, or an advocate of the bell curve theory of racial differences, or you think the 19th Amendment was a big mistake, or you're a creationist, my respect for you will drop to zero no matter how kind you are to small animals.

But on other issues, I will make allowances for nuance. For example, I have little patience for libertarians (because I've never met one who wasn't either a pure-grade asshole or else was "libertarian" based on some vague points of agreement like "drugs should be legal" or "the government is too big"), but a libertarian doesn't automatically flip the "dismiss as a cartoonish loser" bit in my brain - though my hand is on the switch.

Then there are the anti-gay marriage folks. I have no respect for their arguments, which absent a religious justification are stupid, and with a religious justification are irrelevant outside their religion, but I do believe that a (small) number of them are honestly struggling with their desire to reconcile a genuine lack of antipathy for homosexuals with their religious views.

If I were to take an absolutist position that I won't read anyone who isn't pro-gay marriage, well, for one thing, I'd have to not read anything by any author who is a member of a "traditional" religious group, absent evidence that they disagree with their church on those issues. So no Catholics, Mormons, evangelicals, fundamentalists, Muslims, Orthodox or Conservative Jews, etc. Admittedly, all those groups put together probably make up a very small percentage of authors (at least of the sort of books I read), but still, it's just too narrow a filter for me. There is context and room for engagement on the topic of gay marriage that there is not, for example, in the case of someone who categorically hates all things liberal.

So, take Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson. If you look at their respective views, there is a significant qualitative difference.

Orson Scott Card's most famous essay on gay marriage is probably The Hypocrites of Homosexuality, published in 1990. It's a long article, and yes, I've read all of it. Summarizing: Card takes pains to assure us that he doesn't hate homosexuals ("love the sinner," etc.), and I'm sure he's telling the truth that he personally does not want to see homosexuals beaten or jailed. But the key bit is here:

The goal of the polity is not to put homosexuals in jail. The goal is to discourage people from engaging in homosexual practices in the first place, and, when they nevertheless proceed in their homosexual behavior, to encourage them to do so discreetly, so as not to shake the confidence of the community in the polity's ability to provide rules for safe, stable, dependable marriage and family relationships.

What Card argues here, quite elegantly I must admit, so elegantly that it might take you a couple of readings to get his entire point, is that laws criminalizing homosexuality should stay on the books as a "discouragement." In other words, he doesn't want the laws to be enforced (much), but he wants the threat to be there to keep gays in their place.

I don't think I need to enumerate all the ways in which that is a despicable and hypocritical position to take: "Sure, you can keep being gay, just as long as you keep it out of sight and know we can come after you if you get too uppity."

Since then, Card has written plenty of other things demonstrating that his views have in no way become liberalized since 1990. Not just about gay marriage, but polemics about liberals in general and President Obama in particular. The latter essay is not the closest he's come to all but calling for armed revolution against an elected government he doesn't agree with.

So, Card is very consistently a hateful individual with views that I adamantly oppose.

Brandon Sanderson wrote about his views on gay marriage here. Even before his August 2011 update, it was obvious that he was struggling to reconcile what he feels in his heart with what the LDS Church teaches. His position originally boiled down to "I personally don't have anything against homosexuality, but my church says it's wrong and I have to go along with that," and he later amended it to a sort of fence-sitting position where he advocates for universally-recognized civil unions that give all the legal benefits currently assigned to marriage, while making marriage purely a religious ceremony. While it's not entirely satisfying, I believe it's his best attempt to be just while not actually breaking away from his church's teachings.

Unlike Card, I actually believe Sanderson genuinely has no animosity for people who aren't like him. His views are evolving and he's willing to engage, whereas Card's views are never going to change.

I am pretty sure that if the Latter-day Saints announced tomorrow that they'd just had a new revelation from God and He said they'd gotten it all wrong about homosexuality: gay marriage was going to be recognized immediately by the LDS Church — then Brandon Sanderson would say, "Cool, that's a relief." Whereas Orson Scott Card would promptly join a splinter sect.

Of course this also implies things about rationalization and cognitive dissonance, but I'll try not to get up on my atheist soapbox here. ;)

So, personally I'm willing to cut Sanderson some slack. But I realize other people may not feel the same. Jim Hines has written a few posts about this (in which Sanderson participated in the discussion).

For those who might ask: would I feel the same about someone who's anti-atheist? Well, again, that would depend on degree and context. I mean, if I find out an author believes that atheists are all immoral scum, then yeah, I'm not going to read that author any more. But an author who is deeply religious is likely going to subscribe to some subset of anti-atheist fallacies, and the degree to which that would alienate me would depend on which ones and how annoying they are about them.

Anyway, I won't be reading the Adventures of Superman. Or going to see Ender's Game. But I'll read the next volume of the Stormlight Archive.

Poll #1897223 Blacklists and censorship

Do a writer's views affect your willingness to read their work?

Yes, if I don't like an author's views, it ruins their work for me.
Yes, but I will only try to avoid giving them money, I'll still read them.
Only on some issues.
No, I don't care or pay attention.

What do you think of the efforts to get DC Comics to fire Orson Scott Card?

They have my complete support; shame on DC!
I don't object to the effort, but I don't blame DC for hiring a big-name author.
I don't really care.
I think it's misguided and/or foolish.
I think it's wrong; Card shouldn't be persecuted just because you disagree with him.

What do you think of Brandon Sanderson?

I may or may not agree with him, but he seems like a decent person.
I think he's trying, but he's still wrong and shouldn't get a pass.
I don't care.
His views are still pretty terrible even if he tries to rationalize them nicely.
He's a crappy writer.

What did you think of this essay?

High five! Write more like this.
It was interesting and/or entertaining.
Please stick to fan fiction and book reviews.

Tags: brandon sanderson, poll, soapbox

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