The Ender’s Game Boycott

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s a new film coming out soon by the name of Ender’s Game. It’s based on the book by the same name written by Orson Scott Card. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I can’t tell you whether or not it’s a good adaptation, but when I was in 8th grade (I believe I was 14), we read the book in my English class. Out of all of the books I read in all of the various English classes I took when I was growing up, Ender’s Game was my favorite. I had the long-standing male complaint that too many of the books we read in class were too full of symbolism and metaphor. The characters in them were too often defined not by decisions or deeds, but by what I considered unnecessary narrative description. I still find today that the books I most enjoy are books in which characters show who they are with actions. But I digress–the reason I bring it up today is that Orson Scott Card is extremely opposed to homosexuality, and as a result many are planning to choose to boycott the new film.

Before I give my view on this, I want to make something clear. If people want to show their disdain for Card’s views on homosexuality (views that I very strongly disagree with myself) by boycotting this film, they entitled to do so. As I wrote about the Chick-Fil-A boycotts almost a year ago, while it is not acceptable for the state to imprison citizens for their views, it is perfectly acceptable for citizens to choose to freely disassociate from individuals who hold views they find repugnant. It is perfectly permissible for citizens to boycott the film. I also want to freely check my own bias here–as I said above, I really liked that book. Now, with all that in mind, let’s proceed…

I do not intend to boycott Ender’s Game, nor do I think it is in anyone’s well-considered interest to do so. There are many morally permissible activities that are not objectively useful. These activities are only useful to the extent that the agents undertaking them imagine them to be useful. While many boycotting the film are likely to derive personal satisfaction and utility from doing so, this satisfaction is unjustified.

We often enjoy things on the basis of premises that aren’t true. If Bob says something kind to Larry, Bob will gain utility because Bob will feel like a good person. Bob may feel like a good person even if, unbeknownst to Bob, Larry has taken Bob’s compliment the wrong way. In this scenario, Bob has made himself happier by complimenting Larry, but on a basis that is in reality illegitimate. This is what I propose is happening with the boycott. Those boycotting the film believe they are achieving the following through the boycott:

  1. They are furthering the cause of the LGBT community.
  2. They are reducing the income of a person they deem immoral (Card).
  3. In broader terms, they are making the world a better place.

Just as Bob really believed that Larry benefited from the things Bob said, those participating in the boycott really believe that they are achieving a variety of social goods by avoiding Ender’s Game and telling others to behave similarly.  It is because they believe that they are doing good that they are choosing to participate in the boycott. All of the satisfaction they derive from boycotting is based on this perception.

I propose that this perception is mistaken–the boycott does not and will not achieve any of the positive ends that the participants think it will achieve. I will argue instead that the boycott will ultimately result in harm–not the kind of harm that we put people in prison for inflicting, but harm nonetheless.

This boycott is not going to help the LGBT community. The next step forward for LGBT equality is the overturning of all of the various state constitutional amendments that block gay marriage, and the passing of legislation to expressly permit it and award to it all of the requisite benefits of heterosexual marriage. By what mechanism does boycotting Ender’s Game help in that quest? It’s certainly not a matter of needing to raise awareness–with the recent overturning of DOMA, the issue is already on everyone’s mind. What the LGBT movement needs to do (given the way our political system works) is change people’s opinions, particularly in the red states, and continue to attempt to overturn hostile legislation through the courts. This requires money for public campaigning, loud and beloved public spokesmen (like George Takei), continued political engagement, and most of all, time. The young generation is overwhelmingly pro-LGBT rights, and it is more or less inevitable that, with enough time, all impediments will be overcome. Where does boycotting Ender’s Game fit into all of this? Perhaps it drums up activist energy by playing to the base, but I don’t see any direct impact here. It’s not as if Orson Scott Card has hundreds of millions of dollars that he funnels into anti-gay groups. Even if Card were to recant his views, it would make little difference. A PR victory, perhaps, but there’s no reason to necessarily believe that would equate to real forward momentum. No new people are going to join the LGBT movement over this. If anything, those that think like Card will come to view themselves as persecuted and become still further entrenched in their positions.

While the boycott may very well reduce Card’s income, it’s not at all clear to me that this is a good thing. For one, it will also reduce the incomes of a myriad of other people associated with the film in some way or another who likely do not share Card’s views. Unless association with Card is to be equated with holding his views, many will be harmed unnecessarily. But also, it is not clear to me that Card is himself a bad person just because he holds a view that I consider repulsive. It’s not necessarily a good thing that Card suffer just because of this one particular opinion. For one, Card is not in the business of running the state–his opinion has no substantive impact on what the law is. He is not the leader of any great number of like-minded people. He is just a guy who happens to be homophobic. There are millions of those. There are probably lots of people involved in the manufacture or growing of various products that I use or consume who hold opinions that would make my hair stand on end. I’m fortunate to not be aware of all of those people or all of their views, but if I were to refuse to use products made by anyone who held an opinion I considered as awful as the one Card holds, I would have to go native. Many of the very people boycotting Card are happy to watch films by say, Roman Polanksi, who actually raped someone. Actually raping someone is much worse than holding a homophobic opinion. I myself watch Polanski films. Why? Because they’re good. They’re intellectually interesting. I think what Polanski did was pretty awful, but that doesn’t mean everything that Polanski has ever done has been awful, or even that, in aggregate, Polanski is necessarily a bad person.

And that brings me to the work itself–Ender’s Game is thematically a very good book, and I use “good” not merely to mean “entertaining” but to mean “morally desirable”. A running theme in the book is, I kid you not, the appreciation of beings from different backgrounds whose behavior we may struggle to fully understand. This is an actual quote from the book:

I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves

The point being, the themes of the book (and, presumably, of the film) are at odds with Card’s own beliefs. Card cannot see that, but the reader and the viewer can. Going to see this film is not going to indoctrinate people against LGBT rights, it may even itself influence them in their favor. By denying to themselves and potentially deterring others from the positive themes in Card’s work, those participating in the boycott are putting the man before his works. The works are still good, and they should still be read and seen.

In sum, there is a difference between the question of whether or not we like individuals as people and the question of whether or not individuals do good things. There are many enjoyable people who do bad things, and many unpleasant people who do good things. I do not expect anyone to befriend Card on the basis of his works–we choose our friends based on whom we find pleasant. But it does not follow that just because someone is pleasant his works are necessarily good or because someone is unpleasant his works are necessarily bad. Suitability for friendship and quality of work ought to be judged independently of one another. Card may be a jerk, but Ender’s Game is still a good read, and Card deserves credit for writing it.