Boycotts have, historically, been powerful and effective tools for change. There was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, in which Martin Luther King, Jr. '...helped to launch a 10-year national struggle for freedom and justice'. Several years later, there was the Grape Boycott, organized by Cesar Chavez, which ultimately convinced grape growers 'to agree to a state law guaranteeing California farm workers the right to organize and bargain with their employers', which led to the creation of the United Farm Workers Union. In the 1980s-90s, there was the Anti-Apartheid Boycott of South Africa. As a result of that call to action, the apartheid laws were repealed, and a new constitution was drafted. It is clear from these examples, what tremendous power to bring about previously denied freedom and liberties that a serious boycott wields.
Increasingly, in recent years, however, the calls for boycotts have not involved lofty ideals of civil or human rights. Boycotts of modern times are being organized, rather, because an increasingly vocal few are seeking to use a boycott in order to impose their morals and beliefs on the freedom and liberties of others. The use of a boycott for such purposes not only erodes the potential impact of any boycott; it is also represents the first step down a slippery slope toward eventual censorship.
The first of this type of boycott to be organized was the boycott of Disney in 1996 by the Assemblies of God, the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S, because Disney World permitted Gay and Lesbian Day to be held at Disney World annually. The Southern Baptists joined in later, because they were concerned about Disney's choice of directors, its choice of which projects to produce, and the corporation's 'equal treatment of employees of all sexual orientations in its insurance plans'. Juxtaposed with the conditions which gave rise to the Montgomery, Grape, and Apartheid boycotts, the complaints by the Pentecostals and Baptists are clearly not on the same level. In those first mighty boycotts, people were being denied basic human and civil rights. Those denials were often accompanied by violence, imprisonment, and brutal subjugation. The boycotts that were unleashed were last resorts in desperate battles for freedom and equality. By contrast, one must ask, to what exactly were the Pentecostals and Southern Baptists being subjected? Who were the victims there?
The 'Disney Boycott' was ultimately ineffective. People still visit Disney World and Disney Land in record numbers, people still watch Disney movies, and little girls still dream of being Disney Princesses. That boycott, however, was just the beginning of the usurpation for illegitimate purposes of a boycott's true power. The day the call came to boycott Disney was the day when a boycott stopped being used to promote such high ideals as freedom and social equality, and started being a barely disguised tool to promote religious intolerance.
The Harry Potter books, for example, have captivated millions of readers worldwide, and have been honored with many literary awards. They have been translated into multiple languages and created countless new readers. Yet, they are targeted for boycott because God does not appear in the books, and because Harry and his friends are witches.
Does Harry Potter worship the Devil in those books? Does he practice human sacrifice? Does he use his powers to commit base and evil acts? Ask most of the supporters of the Potter boycotts those questions, and you will find they simply cannot answer them, and for one simple reason: they haven't read the books.
They wouldn't, therefore, know that Rowling's books deal with some of the very same timeless values these boycotters are trying to teach their children: self-reliance (God helps those who helps themselves, right?); honesty; loyalty; courage; love; compassion; and wisdom. How would these boycotters know this if they have been instructed by the proponents of the boycott never to read them? And why do they feel it necessary to deny others the chance to find out for themselves what the book is really about?
The latest victim of a call to boycott a work of fiction is Philip Pullman, with his trilogy His Dark Materials, more widely known by the title of the first book and the movie, The Golden Compass. The trilogy title alone must have given boycotters a shiver, as evil-sounding as it is. Had boycotters read the work themselves, they would have learned that the title comes from John Milton's Paradise Lost, Book II (to date, modern religious groups have not yet called for a boycott of that work).
I will confess, I myself ignored the call to boycott Disney, went to Disney World with my children, and had a wonderful time. I also ignored the call to boycott the Harry Potter books, read them with my children, and enjoyed them immensely. Neither of those boycotts moved me or frightened me; but now, the shadow of censorship that I see lurking has broken the proverbial camel's back.
My previous responses to calls for boycotts of literature, films, and entertainment conglomerates have been somewhat passive-aggressive in nature. In fact, those boycotts probably inflamed my curiosity more to learn just what the fuss was all about. But this was different: here were people I knew, who seemed rational enough, joining the call to boycott a literary work which they had never personally read.
Now, before I wind up as the next target for boycotting, I must admit, in all fairness, there are some aspects of organized religion in general that are portrayed in a negative light (Catholicism may be one of the most organized and ritualistic of the world's religions, so it stands to reason that a book that is critical of organized religion would feature some prominent characteristics associated with Catholicism.)
Philip Pullman responded to the concerns of people fearful of his 'Catholic bashing' or of his promoting an atheist agenda in this trilogy. His response makes it fairly clear that his real disagreements stem largely from concerns with organized religion in general, not with anyone's God or with Catholicism or with any other "-ism"(Thank you, John Lennon): '...human beings turn so easily toward these structures which give them power over other people: the power to order our lives, to tell us what to do and how to behave, how not to behave, tell us what's right and what's wrong...'.
To Pullman, that kind of power is dangerous, and he is right. The call for the boycott of his work proves it: here we have a large, powerful structure (organized religion) no longer telling us how we should spend our vacations, but lately telling us that we should not be reading books which depict their structure in an unfavorable way or which create a fantastical world in which there is no organized religion. (I believe that Pullman's genre may be called Fantasy for a specific reason, if I'm not mistaken.) This is a concrete illustration of the very fears that Pullman highlights by his depiction of organized religion in his books. Is it a flattering depiction? Not by any means. Is it Catholic bashing? I suppose one could see it that way, if one were highly sensitive to any questioning of one's faith. But for me, it would take much more than a work of outright fantasy to shake my own personal faith and beliefs, nor do I need to impose those beliefs on others by encouraging them to surrender the right to decide for themselves.
My argument here is not that Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Southern Baptists, or religious groups of any faith do not have the right to be offended, or protective of their children's moral upbringing, or hurt, or disgusted, or fearful, or even outraged by unflattering or negative representations of their faith in literary works or motion pictures. My argument here is that, in calling for a boycott of works they have never read, or movies they have never seen, they themselves are upholding the negative impressions that cause people like Pullman to have issues with organized religion in the first place. They are advocating blind censorship, rather than open-minded tolerance of ideas, that are different from their own. They are calling for people to narrow their minds to the width of a single ideology, and calling for others to follow suit. And those people are doing so in increasing numbers, and it is no longer limited to faith-based groups, either.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will note that there was one passage, in the whole of Philip Pullman's trilogy, which I did feel had an agenda, and which I did feel was an unnecessary bash. In one segment of the trilogy, Pullman's youthful hero, Will, is taken in briefly by a figure easily recognizable as a priest. Ultimately, it is implied that the priest molests Will. It was one short passage, but, to be sure, it was jarring in the trilogy as a whole-it did not advance the storyline nor it did not further develop Will's character. From a writer's perspective, I remain perplexed as to why he included it, and could only conclude that in those two to three pages out of a total of nine hundred, Pullman, for me, lived up to the hype of the emails I had received. (Hopefully, the boycotters lighting their torches and grabbing pitchforks with my name carved on them will settle down now.)
In the end, my point is this―even if I did eventually come to the same conclusion as those who called for the boycott, the one critical, and glaring difference between us is this―I read the books (and for the most part, enjoyed them, as well). My decision was not made based on hearsay, or a call from a friend or acquaintance for a boycott of works unread. My conclusion came out of an informed and educated position. That is the only position from which such decisions should be made, but it is a position to which, increasingly, many out there seem to be bent on denying the rest of us access. As James Poniewozik said in the Time article, "Making those educated choices can be overwhelming...But it's in the spirit of democracy, where the ideas are life or death." It is up to those of us who value our freedom, our right to think for ourselves, our right to learn, our right to be insulted, or outraged, or disgusted, or simply entertained, to ensure that we continue to educate ourselves, to ensure that we do not blindly follow the call for a boycott―ultimately, you may decide that a boycott is the proper course of action, but it is everyone's responsibility to make sure that you know what you're boycotting first. Anything less than that is merely a call for censorship, abusing a weapon for freedom.