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Dear philosophers,

I have a question concerning politics and movies. Do people who boycott movies involving a certain actor/director/producer simply on the basis of the political views of that actor/director/producer acting reasonably? I wouldn't think so because a large part of how people decide whether to watch a movie or not is the history of the quality of the actor/director/producer's work and not that actor/director/producer's political views. What do you philosophers think?

February 16, 2011

Response from Louise Antony on February 17, 2011

I think there may be a couple of different questions here. One is: do people have the right to refuse to view a movie on the grounds that they disagree with the politics of someone involved in the making of the movie? The answer to that is, yes, of course. No one has an obligation to see any particular movie, so one can decide whether or not to view it on any grounds whatsoever. Sometimes people find the politics of some director or actor so repugnant that they cannot bear the thought of viewing a film in which that person was involved.

That, notice, is a separate thing from making an aesthetic judgment about the film. One might consistently judge that a particular film is a masterpiece, and yet condemn the politics of the director who made it, or the actor/actress who starred in it. I wish that intelligence, skill, and artistic vision were always bundled together with moral virtue and political correctness – but the reality is that they are not. (Wagner, in my estimation, is a case in point. A notorious anti-Semite, but he wrote sublime operas.)

But you might be asking a different question. You might be wondering about whether people have the right to organize a boycott – that is, try to persuade a large number of people to refuse to see the movie -- against a particular movie on the ground that they disagree with the politics of someone involved in the making of the movie. Here, again, there’s an easy answer: one has the right to try to persuade others of anything they want. But I do think that there are issues of moral responsibility here. Boycotts, if successful, have a serious economic impact on their targets, but also on many innocent others. This makes it morally incumbent on those who are thinking of organizing a boycott to consider very carefully the likely consequences of the boycott, both in terms of the aims the boycotters have, and in terms of the foreseeable effects on people who are not actually the targets.

I do not myself approve of boycotts aimed at simply causing economic pain to some individual whose politics one dislikes. I want to see an argument that refusing to buy a certain company’s product – or view some director’s movie – will promote some positive political end. I would support a boycott of a film, for example, that was produced by a studio that refused to abide by fair labor practices, or that allowed animals to be tortured during filming. In that case the boycott would not only deprive the studio of income, but would publicize the abuses, all of which would put pressure on the studio to change its policies. And if the studio did change its policies, I would want the boycott to end. I would also support a boycott of a film that was promulgating some slander or propagandistic message. But a boycott of – oh, I don’t know, say, Mel Gibson movies – what would be the point? To pressure Gibson into changing his politics? Economic pressure is not a legitimate means to achieving that sort of goal.

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