I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.
Recently there has been a few noteworthy boycotts attempting to punish disagreeable speech. The new CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, resigned because of an outcry against him. He donated money to California’s prop 8 initiative, that banned same sex marriage. When this was disclosed there was a push to boycott Mozilla’s browser, Firefox. A boycott was also started against the movie Ender’s Game because the author of the story on which the movie is based, Orson Scott Card, has made many anti-gay remarks. I find this troubling because tolerance is a cornerstone of our society, from which liberty springs.
This is the reason we have the first amendment in the US, in order to protect the people from government action suppressing their speech. In effect it prevents the majority from making certain unpopular view illegal to talk about. Of course the 1st amendment only applies to government action, yet the idea of free speech exists as a concept for all citizens to engage in. As is seen in the Oscar Wilde quote and as Evelyn Beatrice Hall sums up Voltaire’s thoughts, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), the idea is not limited to the Americans.
The point of free speech is to have political discourse without fear of repercussion. If I don’t believe in your speech I counter it with my own speech, in the marketplace of ideas, rather than the literal marketplace. If someone speaks out in opposition to gay rights, I should speak out in support of gay rights, rather than attempt to start a movement to financially ruin that person.
Is economic action the correct response to those who you do not agree with? I think those who have been loudest in attacking Mr. Eich and Mr. Scott Card would be quite upset if opponents of same sex marriage started a boycott of Caputo’s Market & Deli or Third Sun Productions Inc. because the owners of those small businesses support same sex marriage. The idea that people would organize to attack your business due to your political beliefs are antithetical to the concept of free speech.
Although some people might see this as a logical outgrowth of the grape boycotts that Cesar Chavez led, or boycotting Coke over apartheid. There is a big difference between these examples and the current crop of boycotts. In the grape and apartheid boycotts the businesses being boycotted were actively participating in the political realm being protested. The grape growers were actively refusing to negotiate with the union so the union response was a direct result of the business activity.
The link between Coke and the other targets is weaker, but one can still say that by doing business in South Africa at the time they were actively supporting a certain political regime. Thus one could argue that the business being boycotted opened itself to the boycott by actively supporting apartheid.
In the case of the Mozilla and Ender’s Game boycotts that rational does not exist. The CEO of Mozilla was acting as a private citizen using his free speech right to speak how he wanted (money as speech will be an upcoming post). He did not instruct his company to support or not support any political cause. In fact his actions were taken before he was even CEO. Should he as a an executive be fired for his political views and should Mozilla have been boycotted for having an employee who spoke in a controversial subject? In fact the California Labor Code Section 1102 prohibits a company from terminating an employee for their political activities.
The case for boycotting the movie Ender’s Game is even weaker in my opinion as Orson Scott Card is not an owner or officer or employee of the movie studio. The story the movie is based on is not a political statement on same sex marriage has little to nothing to do with the subject. Some of the organizers of the boycott want to prevent him from earning money from the film because he may use that money to finance his political agenda.
It is true many people use their money in support of speech that is hateful and stupid. Just as I use my money for speech that is enlightening and intelligent (which no doubt some people think is hateful and stupid). That is the beauty of free speech. We all get to say what we want and the government cannot censor us (within certain limits, eg. libel, etc.)
Of course the 1st amendment protects us from the government not each other. Yet for our society to be great we need as individuals to follow the ideals of the first amendment and tolerate speech we do not agree with. When people start boycotts over every objectionable thing said by someone attacking those people’s livelihoods when that livelihood is not related to the speech, we are engaging in a form of censorship. I find it ironic that in these cases people who believe anti-gay bigots should be tolerant of gays are themselves intolerant of those bigot’s rights to freely speak about their intolerance.
This is a difficult area to traverse, I do not want to support people who use their money for political goals I do not support. Therefore, I choose to avoid some businesses. The key difference is my personal action is not the same as political action, which is collective. This article is political action, the public urging of a collective action, in this case collective non-action. We need to not only tolerate, but encourage discourse on political subjects. As Ben Franklin said:
Without Freedom of Thought there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as Public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.
– writing as Silence Dogood, No. 8, July 9, 1722