June 06, 2013

Borderlands' Brush with Censorship

by Alan Beatts

In general the temptation to engage in censorship is not a problem for me.  I truly believe that there are no ideas too dangerous to discuss, no books that are too obscene to sell, no person whose ideas are too repugnant to be expressed.  Moreso, I think that censorship is one of the most slippery ethical and legal slopes that we face, as individuals and as a society.  As a result it's something that I steer clear of almost by reflex.

That's a good thing for a bookseller.  Along with publishers and librarians, we are uniquely equipped to act as censors -- in part because we can be very effective by inaction, unlike most other parties.  All that we need to do is refrain from purchasing a specific work and we've achieved our goal.  And we can always come up with reasons for our decision that are solid, hard to challenge, and lack all but the faintest whiff of censorship.  "The market isn't ready for it", "That sort of book just doesn't sell," "We're working on a limited budget and there are more important works to buy," "Our space is limited," and so on.  The explanations are limitless.

So I'm very happy and comfortable in the knowledge that I would never consider restricting what I allow my customers to buy based on my personal political or social agenda.

At least that's how I thought until about five years ago.

Like other conclusions I have come to about my own ethics, it's the ones that I didn't worry about and agonize over that almost come around and bite me on the ass.

Back in 2008 a friend mentioned that Orson Scott Card had written a piece for a newspaper (I recollect that it was the Deseret News) about same-sex marriage.  One of the comments that he made was that there weren't any laws stopping homosexuals from getting married . . . as long as they married someone of the opposite gender.  Yup, you read that right.  The article made me a bit hot under the collar but then I did some more looking and found this gem - http://www.deseretnews.com/article/print/700245157/State-job-is-not-to-redefine-marriage.html .

In case you didn't follow the link above, the article was graced with phrases like,
- "The first and greatest threat from court decisions in California and Massachusetts, giving legal recognition to "gay marriage," is that it marks the end of democracy in America."
- "We already know where these decisions lead. We have seen it with the court decisions legalizing abortion."
- "Marriage is, if anything, more vital, more central, than property."
- "With "gay marriage," the last shreds of meaning will be stripped away from marriage, with homosexuals finishing what faithless, selfish heterosexuals have begun."

I went ballistic.  My first thought was that I was going to return (or just burn) every copy of his books that we had in the store and never, ever stock one of his books again.

It wasn't that I was hugely committed to the idea of gay marriage.  I'm in favor of it, sure, but it's not a huge personal issue for me.  At least in part because I have no interest in getting married to anyone and I'm not very fond of the institution in general.  Also, even back then, I thought it was probably a forgone conclusion that it was going to become legal.  I didn't expect it to move as fast as it has, but I was pretty sure we were going to get there.

So, what pissed me off so much?  It was the self-satisfied way that Card seemed so sure that he was with-a-capital-R right, that what he was espousing was clearly evident to anyone with half a brain, and the deceptive way that he was supporting his position.  And yeah, growing up in the 80s as a pretty weird kid, I've always hated the right, white, and up-tight, Leave It To Beaver, 1950s middle-American, bullshit world-view.  Which Card seems to embody about perfectly.

But, regardless of the reasons, I was all set to go plunging right off the censorship cliff while shouting my righteousness to the stars.

I'm so glad that I've learned over the years to slow down and think when I'm pissed.  And, to talk to some people I respect before I act.  After talking with some of the folks at the store and cooling down, I realized that it would be with-a-capital-W wrong to stop carrying Card's books, because it would have been censorship in exactly the sort of fashion that I mentioned at the beginning of this article.  Just because I disagree with his social views, that doesn't mean that I have the right to restrict access to his work.  Likewise, him pissing me off and my deeply held belief that he's an asshole doesn't make it right for me to put myself in the position of acting as a censor for my customers.

And so we still stock his books.  And we'll sell a ton of copies of Ender's Game as the excitement for the movie grows.

But, if anyone asks, I'll tell them just what I think of Orson Scott Card, his views and the way that he works his agenda into his writing.  (As an aside, even before all this, I thought it was kind of weird that the aliens in Ender's Game were called "buggers".  That just weird, isn't it?  As in, I'm-not-sure-that-word-means-what-you-think-it-means weird.)  And, I'll sure as hell suggest a used copy before a new one.  Authors don't get a dime when a used copy of their book is sold.


Obviously what brought this story to mind was the impending release of the film of Ender's Game.  I had been deeply undecided whether to see it or not, since I really didn't want to be part of making anything Card is associated with a success.  Then a friend pointed out a solution -- just buy a ticket for another move and then sneak into Ender's Game.  Not something I would have thought of but I think it's an elegant compromise.


  1. You know how some bookstores attach a 3x5 card with their employees comments below certain books -- recommendations from our employees, that sort of thing? You could post some of these Card quotes below his books. Come to think of it, what's to stop any of us from surreptitiously doing the same?

  2. Hi Doug,

    You're right, we could post something of the sort but I think doing so would fall under the "chilling effect" of censorship. Someone who wanted to buy some of Card's work would, reasonably I think, feel that they were giving the staff here an idea about their views. That might be something that they were uncomfortable doing and so they might not buy the book. Which would have a censorious effect.

    Granted, I'm being over cautious about this but I think that avoiding censorship deserves that sort of caution.

    As to your suggestion that a customer could put something like that up surreptitiously -- I've no problem with that at all. In fact, I sort of adore the idea. I just apply my standards to my actions at the business. But, I can't promise how long such a note would stay up.

    Thanks so much for commenting and I hope to see you around the shop soon.