Going Godwin on Orson!!

Orson Scott Card

Like most reasonable people, I don’t jump straight to Nazi references when talking about people I disagree with. OK, I know this makes twice for Main Street Plaza within two months. 😉 But while reading for SiOB a few weeks ago, I found this interesting article in which the author made this rather compelling argument:

To this day, the most common response by Card fans to my essay is that they just don’t see it. My goodness gracious, why should anyone imagine that hundreds of pages of meditation on genocide and forgiveness wasn’t just pure science fiction, with nothing to say about the twentieth century or its most notorious genocide? To which I can only shrug and say, Hmm-kay, I start with the assumption that the guy is not a complete idiot and that he knows what he’s doing and that he actually had something to say. I don’t agree with what he had to say, but he did have something to say. The argument that he’s an oblivious airhead is not particularly flattering to either you as a fan or Card as an author.

Since reading this statement, I haven’t been able to get this question out of my head because — I honestly can’t decide which it is. Did Orson Scott Card write hundreds of pages of meditation on genocide and forgiveness without once pausing to contemplate how it might relate to the twentieth century or its most notorious genocide? Or did it seriously not occur to him? Do any of you who are (or were) his fans have an opinion on it?

The whole essay was interesting (as is this one, in case you haven’t seen it), but the other bit that really made me think was also from the epilogue:

Very occasionally I get the question I expected in the first place: “So? What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it a perfectly valid enterprise to try to understand these monsters? What’s wrong with using art to get into that kind of brain and figuring out how it works?”

Well, there you go. That’s the answer. There’s nothing wrong with that. Why do we read if not to get into other people’s minds? I think Card took on a most ambitious project — to see if he could get us into the mind of somebody that we would normally never dream of identifying with in a thousand years.

I’d have to agree that it’s an impressive work for this reason. I have not read it, but — given the legions of people who love and identify with the main character — it teaches us an important lesson about human nature and our ability to justify evil. Our natural expectation that evil should be easy to spot because it is so different from our ordinary experience leads us to false complacency.

However, I would guess (pure speculation alert) that if OSC thought about the comparison with Hitler, he ultimately rejected it. I think that (like many authors) he fell in love with his character, which affected his assessment of what he’d created.

18 thoughts on “Going Godwin on Orson!!

  1. I haven’t read Ender’s Game but I recently read The Chosen. I don’t think it’s a spoiler for The Chosen to say that there is some abuse enacted to train a leader. Granted, it wasn’t anything like Ender’s Game evidently had, but it did provoke a very interesting discussion at my book club. What is appropriate? When are actions justified? Who is justified to take actions or revenge? These are difficult moral, ethical questions.

    I didn’t fully read the first essay. But it’s folly to assume that genocide began in the 20th century or was a 20th century invention (not that anyone was suggesting that).

    Humans have always been social, tribal beings. It is only recently (i.e. the 20th century) when vanquishing one’s enemy and taking/stealing their land and resources became morally wrong.

    I’m not sure that OSC was influenced by some of those events or questions – but it is an interesting one. What was the standard in the past? What is the cost? Would taking another people’s land – committing genocide – ever be justified?

  2. But it’s folly to assume that genocide began in the 20th century or was a 20th century invention (not that anyone was suggesting that).

    You’re right: absolutely no one was suggesting that.

  3. Here’s a part I really liked:

    The doctrine that the morality of an action is solely determined by the actor’s motive rests on a significant assumption: that the good always know what their motives are, and are never moved to do things for selfish reasons while yet thinking themselves moved by virtue. Ender has perfect knowledge of his own motives and the motives of others. Ender never suspects himself of doing other than what he thinks himself to be doing, and indeed, in Speaker for the Dead he makes a career of delivering faultless moral judgments of other people.

    It is particularly interesting since in Speaker for the Dead Ender is apparently a leader in a religion that holds “as their only doctrine that good or evil exist entirely in human motive, and not at all in the act.” (Am I reading that right?) It seems obvious that someone who committed an atrocity — with only the purest of intentions — would have a strong (unconscious) selfish motive for promoting such a philosophy.

  4. @3 Holly – What I was trying to say was that OSC may not have been responding (consciously or unconsciously) to Hitler, but to the many examples of leaders/groups of people over the centuries who have committed genocide.

  5. It turns out that (according to the second article) Card explains that he was thinking about 20th century genocides:

    On the broadest level, it should be obvious to every reader of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead that I do draw one key parallel between historical monstrosities like Hitler, Stalin, and Amin, and my character Ender: they are thought of in the public mind as loathsome mass murderers. Despite their similar public image, however, every other element of Ender’s story is designed to show that in his case the image is not reality—he is not like Hitler or Stalin, exactly the opposite of what Radford claims. Far from using Ender to try to make people approve of Hitler, I use the contrast with Hitler, Stalin, and other genocides to illuminate the character of Ender Wiggin.

    But it’s possible that this is after-the-fact analysis. It’s quite possible that while he was writing it he was just thinking in terms of the poor, abused-for-being-brilliant kid who gets to take the most extensive and brutal revenge while remaining totally innocent of any wrongdoing.

    But those two essays make his contrast look pretty weak. Kessel describes how Card argues that the morality of an act depends solely on the actor’s intentions, and Radford makes a strong case that Hitler’s intentions were no different than Ender’s…

  6. Radford makes a strong case that Hitler’s intentions were no different than Ender’s…

    And the similarities between Ender’s and Hitler’s characters may be entirely coincidental, but they’re still really creepy.

  7. @8 very true. The incest might be coincidence, but there’s a certain logic to similarity in abuse they suffered.

    I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn, those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

  8. Ok. I initially read only Radford. But I took the time to read Kessel too.

    Really fascinating and repellent stuff.

    I have always loathed Richard Nixon’s defense that “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal,” just as I loathe the religious claim that when god does something, it’s not immoral.

    I wrote a whole essay on it, in fact.

    But that’s exactly what OSC praises. Ick.

    Makes his homophobia a little easier to understand–by his logic, you would be evil just for having gay desires; whether you act on them or not would be irrelevant.

  9. My sense of why a patriarchal homophobe like Card is attracted to the idea of “innocent violence” is because violence is still one of the few things that has the ability to overwhelm power. I read some philosopher (I think it was Baudrillard) who talked about how the “evil” of terrorism is not that it is somehow more evil than statist responses (which are also “terrorism”), but because it unmasks violence and power in this world. If you introduce enough violence, it upsets a status quo, and for those in power, this is the definition of “evil.” Conversely, when the powerful can practice violence in order to maintain the status quo (that is, quash dissenters and get away with it), then there’s very little that can actually overturn the status quo. Thus, the appeal of “innocent violence.”

    Of course, it’s possible for the powerful to introduce too much violence into a system and it backfire on them. This is the issue of the Assad regime in Syria, and also the considerations that go into the potential American bombing of Syria. In basic war theory, excessive violence should only used to achieve a short-term goal because things can get out of control quickly. An example would be how Hiroshima/Nagasaki was intended to force an immediate surrender of Japan; if there was a sense that this wouldn’t have been the end result (that the war would escalate, for example) then the bombs would not have been dropped.

    Unfortunately, since the founding of the country, Americans often feel they have a God-given right to exercise “innocent” violence toward given ends. There only seems to be a questioning of the violence if it gets out of the control of those in power, so of course Card would write a novel about violence working well and being forgivable/just. You can also throw in the idea of the the powerful painting themselves as the true “victims” in order to facilitate the sense of “innocence” of the violence … (e.g, Dalin Oaks’ comparison of treatment of Mormons following Prop 8 as similar to treatment of blacks in the Civil Rights era).

  10. One of the fascinating things about Mormon theology is the streak of moral relativism within it. While most Mormons would reject this idea out of hand, Mormon theology and scriptures are laced with relativistic concepts. The story of Laban is perhaps the prime example, but there are others as well.

    The Old Testament itself is, of course, deeply morally ambiguous. What will God and his prophets not do in that book in the name of good? Yahweh, after all, was not just sympathetic to genocide. He insisted that his chosen people practice it as a matter of faith.

    Mainstream Christian theology conveniently dodges the Old Testament (and Mormons, to some degree, attempt to borrow this dodge) by claiming that Jesus, by coming to earth and sacrificing himself, hit the theological reset switch, and that thereby God made a new, and more enlightened, covenant with humans.

    Mainstream Christian theology tries to put God in a place wholly removed from human beings. Similarly, they find it important to freeze the Word of God in place, to make it the unassailable, immutable statement of God’s will.

    Joseph Smith, though, breaks down this wall by claiming that gods are evolving beings and that revelation must be ongoing. Prophets and and the creation of scripture, and even the creating of gods themselves, are ongoing things. Why would this be were it not for the basic concept of relativistic morality? Times change, and God’s message must address changing times and needs. What is that, if not moral relativism?

    So I guess what I’m saying is that there are deeply rooted precedents within Mormon theology (again, not that Mormon theology is something that’s well codified or universally agreed upon) for moral relativism, and particularly for the notion that the ends justify the means.

  11. If morality of an act depends solely on the actor’s intentions,– then if some straight guy does an Esther and marries the King and saves his people, it means some same sex activity is moral.
    So while gay desire may be evil, engaging in gay sexual activity may be righteous.
    Am I understanding Card right???

  12. Very good points. The quotes from OSC in the second article seem to underline his moral relativism: Ender is good and Hitler is bad because Ender’s a good guy and Hitler is a bad guy, despite their actions and consequences being the same.

  13. Fascinating! I’m afraid I’m behind the curve and haven’t read Card’s books yet. Will see if the local library has them (they don’t sound like something I’d like to pay to read!).

    Alas, the Kessel essay is no longer publicly available (I get the ‘Forbidden!’ message page when I click on the link).

    Thanks very much for more thought provoking read!

  14. @16 I’m getting “forbidden” too. That’s unfortunate because it’s a really fascinating essay. I think it’s relatively well-known, so it might be available somewhere online with a bit of googling.

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