It was 1986 and I was twenty-six years old, attending a regional science fiction convention with a bunch of my friends. One of the guests of honor was an author (we’ll call him Mr. C) that two of my friends were very fond of. I had read a couple of his short stories and thought they were good, but he hadn’t really wowed me.
But hearing Mr. C talk about the writing process, his influences, and so forth, made me much more intrigued. It didn’t hurt that when another panelist made a disparaging joke about my favorite science fiction author (who was not in attendance), Mr. C rather emphatically jumped to the defense of my favorite author.
After that panel, one of my friends commented that Mr. C’s takedown of the other panelist had been mean. It was true. Mr. C had ended the rebuttal with something along the lines, “…and it infuriates me when writers who don’t have a fraction of his understanding of how to write or a sliver of his talent make thoughtless critiques.” But, she had called my favorite author a fossil, I pointed out. Once one makes an ad hominem attack, you invite something similar in return. Since it was my favorite author being defended, I was more than a bit prejudiced.
So I wound up standing in line with one of my friends, clutching a pair of just-purchased books of Mr. C’s work, waiting for his autograph. That is the one and only time I have met Mr. C in person. He was pleasant enough, despite having had to smile, listen, and sign however hundreds of times.
After the convention, I tried to read one of the books. It was a collection of his short stories, which included the couple I had read before. They weren’t bad by any means, but after reading a few in a row, an unsatisfying feeling was developing. I sat the book down, not quite sure why I wasn’t enjoying the reading.
A few weeks later, I picked it up again and started on the next story. Again, the story itself was well written and interesting. I read another, then started on the next after that and, well, a few paragraphs in I realized that same feeling of wrongness was building up.
I did eventually finish the collection, but it took a few months, reading only a few stories at a time. And by the end I couldn’t really say that I’d enjoyed them all, but I also couldn’t put my finger on their shortcomings.
The other book was a novel. A novel for which he had won a lot of awards. It was based on one of the short stories in the previous collection. And the short story in question had been one of those I had enjoyed more than the others. Plus, I had friends who swore this book was a masterpiece. And it had garnered all those awards, so it had to be good, right?
I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think I’d even gotten a quarter of the way through before I found myself intensely disliking it.
I tried explaining what I didn’t like about it to one of my friends who loved it. As we were talking, I kept finding myself talking about abstract concepts, rather than actual events in the story. My friend said it sounded more like my baggage than the story. So I started explaining how a similar philosophical assumption underpinned one of the short stories. And that’s when I finally managed to connect the dots and say what was bothering me about all of the stories.
There was a fundamental notion forming the foundation of all the tales: if you don’t know your place and stay in it, horrible things will happen to you. A corrollary was that if you prevented someone else from achieving what was “rightfully” theirs, even more horrible things would happen to you.
When I articulated that, my friend began to argue. That wasn’t what was going on at all, he said. So then I made a guess at how the book I hadn’t finished would end. Specifically what would happen to certain characters.
My friend blinked. “How did you know?”
“Because, if you don’t know your place and stay there, forces, whether they be social, cultural, or fate, will strike you down. And if you stand in the way of someone else’s destiny—”
My friend grinned and interrupted. “Oh, wow! You’re right! That’s so messed up, because it’s like the opposite of what the main character says, but it’s really what happens!”
“Mr. C believes in hierarchical, patriarchic societies in which you behave according to societal expectations, and people who have the temerity to want to choose their own way of living are evil,” I said.
My friend shrugged and said, “You’re probably right. But I still love the stories.”
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Just a few years later, a controversy erupted in a forum dedicated to Mr C on the (now long defunct) Prodigy network. The controversy was about a protagonist in another of Mr. C’s novels who experimented with gay sex midway through the book. Some people were angry Mr. C had included an “abomination” as a sympathetic character. Others thought people who thought gay people were abominations were bigots.
As the arguments raged, Mr. C waded in with a rather long discussion about the sin of homosexuality, why he felt he had to include it in the book (his reasoning, as I recall, was that in any community where people amass power there will be people who must dominate, possess, and destroy others, and of course homosexuality is all about dominating and destroying each other), and then had the gall to claim that anyone who called him homophobic were themselves bigots. Because he didn’t hate any gay people. They were just sinners, and if they refused to repent and stop being gay, well, they would face consequences.
His comments were quoted far and wide. And he got angrier and angrier as people “mischaracterized” his comments. He repeated, again and again, that he didn’t hate gay people. He wound up writing (in 1990) a long essay and getting it published in a magazine that catered to the members of the church Mr. C had been raised in, in order to explain his side in context.
While the essay repeatedly said that he did not condone violence against sinful people, it talked about how just as children must be punished in order to learn right from wrong, then adults will face greater penalties when they continue to act outside the bounds of propriety. He talked abstractly about the “day of grief” that each homosexual would eventually experience if they did not repent. He talked about the horrible consequences homosexuals face if they refuse to adhere to propriety. But he was not advocating violence even then, he said. If the faithful, such as himself, had been compassionate but firm in condemning the sin, they would “keep ourselves unspotted by the blood of this generation.”
It’s an old lie that bigots of a religious persuasion tell themselves all the time. They don’t advocate or condone violence, it’s just that god’s law causes these things. And when it happens, they pretend that the people who did resort to violence never took all the words of condemnation as permission to commit violence.
Think about it: if it’s god’s will that homosexuals should experience a “day of grief”; if god’s law demands that “blood of this generation” must be shed, then the person who inflicts the violence is doing god’s will. They are a special tool of god!
Heck, it isn’t just permission to commit violence: it’s encouragement!
I had already guessed most of this about Mr. C before he began writing publicly about his reasons for opposing the decriminalization of gay sex and other topics back in 1990. And so I had already made my decision not to buy any more of his books. I didn’t post rants about him, nor try to organize boycotts of his work. If I was asked, I would say that I disagreed with what I perceived to be the underlying philosophy espoused by his work.
Once he did make his very public statements, I felt it was appropriate to go a step further and point out that Mr. C was a hypocrite and a bigot who advocated against the rights of myself and others. I would suggest that perhaps there were other writers whose works were more deserving of people’s money, but wouldn’t go further.
In the years since, he has continued to write and speak out against gay rights of all sorts, eventually becoming an officer for a large organization that says it is out to protect “traditional marriage.” They try to portray themselves as narrowly focused on marriage, but anyone paying attention to their rhetoric and some of the other causes they support, can see that they want to roll back the few rights gay people have won. He donates his own money to the cause, he has organized efforts that have raised millions of dollars for the cause. He has claimed victory for every anti-gay amendment, law, proposition, or initiative that has been passed in the last ten years.
He has, now, gone far beyond the point of simply stating his opinion and trying to persuade others to it. He has gone beyond that disingenuous tactic of saying he was opposed to violence while providing double-speak that actually encouraged it. He has helped spread distortions and outright lies about all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. His organization has refused to obey public disclosure laws regarding their election activities in several states. He continues to fight to prevent gays, lesbians, trans people, and bisexuals full equality before the law. He continues to put forward arguments to take away what rights have been extended.
So, for that reason, yes, I agree with the people who have been disappointed that DC Comics hired him to write a prominent new Superman series. Yes, I support the comic book shop owners who have said they will not sell comics written by him. I support the artist who decided not to illustrate his stories after learning of Mr C’s views and activities. I urge everyone I know not to buy things he writes, not to go see the movie that is being made of his most famous novel.
I re-iterate: this isn’t just about a difference of opinion regarding marriage equality. For over 20 years he has advocated for restoring laws that made it a crime for consenting adults to have gay sex in the privacy of their own homes, and against laws that protect people from being fired, evicted, or denied medical care just because they are gay. And he has done more than just advocate those things, he has taken action to make them happen. It is not hypocritical of us to advocate a voluntary boycott of his work, it is hypocritical of him and his apologists to decry a voluntary boycott while they are campaigning for laws that will take away jobs, housing, health care, and more from entire classes of people.
Orson Scott Card is a hypocrite and a bigot who uses distortions and outright lies to hurt innocent people. Those are the facts.
8 thoughts on “Abyss gazing”
A third of the way through this post I was going to email you and ask who you were referring to…then I read more and figured it out for myself…then you outright gave it to me. I have always liked your style of writing.
I am curious as to who the writer who was disparaged was (the one whose writing you, yourself, like– not the person making the remark).
This is a dilemma I have wrestled with for a long time. Is it moral or even relevant to separate the artist from the work? What if you find out that an actor whose work you really enjoy is a racist? Does it depend on whether he visibly or financially supports those views with money earned from your patronage of his works? With an individual artist (a singer or writer, for instance) this is easier to do than if they are a member of a team. How do you withhold your money from this person and still support the many others who may be involved in the film or project? Is it ethical or relevant to hire or not-hire a racist or person with whom you radically disagree with– or does that intrude into freedom of ideas? It’s all very complicated– I still haven’t figured any of this out.
One of the reasons I structured this one that way is because it is so very hard to separate the art from the artist.
I think that art should be able to stand on its own and be judged on its own merits without dragging in the artist’s personal life.
But just as importantly, I think that artists should not be given a free pass when their personal behavior is less impeccable. That is to say, their prominence or celebrity shouldn’t entitle them to lenient treatment if they wind up in court over drunk driving charges.
About ten years ago or so, when Mr Card became involved in the current anti-gay rights organizations, I saw a lot of confused and shocked commentary in various sci fi/fantasy and related forums and communities. I was surprised that there were people who didn’t know, because of the 1990 incidents. That essay which included the lines about a “day of grief” and “the blood of this generation” was reprinted and is widely available. In fact, one of the LDS history sites that pops up at the top of any google search you do on Mr Card and homophobia, has an introduction that he wrote only a few years ago explaining why he has asked them to keep it prominent on their site, and trying to explain how people are still taking it out of context.
I have intentionally left the name of my favorite science fiction author out of the essay because I don’t want to imply in any way that he ever endorsed Mr Card’s feelings on these topics. To prevent pronoun problems, I will call this other science fiction author Mr. A. Mr. A died in 1992, and while he was alive Mr. A wrote in some non-fiction columns that he thought homosexuality, like all consenting adult sexual activity, should be considered a moral right if for no other reason that it decreases overpopulation pressures. I am not aware that Mr. A ever directly addressed Mr Card’s comments on homosexuality, however.