Boycotting, striking, and a teen lit fest

So many (most?) of you have probably already heard about the Humble, Texas superintendent of schools’ decision to uninvite YA author Ellen Hopkins from their Teen Lit Festival. Pete Hautman, Matt de la Peña, Tera Lynn Childs, and Melissa de la Cruz have also dropped out in support, and there’s since been lots of debate about whether boycotting a teen book festival is a good idea or not. When I tweeted about this, Tucson communicator Elena Acoba commented on why she’s skeptical about the effectiveness of boycotts. That got me thinking, and when Laurie Halse Anderson expressed similar concerns on her blog, I thought about it some more.

I think what I’ve realized is: boycott may be the wrong word here.

Because when I think of a boycott, I think of consumers refusing to purchase a product. If large numbers of students and parents were to choose not to attend the Teen Lit Fest, that would be a boycott.

But when workers refuse to produce or provide a product, what they’re doing is going on strike. And I think that’s closer what the writers who’ve withdrawn from the Texas Book Fest are doing when they refuse to appear and give/provide speeches, too.

This sounds like a subtle distinction, but I find my thoughts about a boycott and a strike are not quite the same. I support a boycott, but I do so somewhat more ambivalently than I support a strike.

When workers go on strike, they’re generally doing so because of unacceptable workplace conditions. An employee in a factory may go on strike because of safety concerns, or a nurse because her hospital gives her too many patients, or a trucker because the hours required of him to meet his deadlines are too long.

For writers, censorship is a workplace condition.

It’s easy to think dismiss workers as selfish when they walk out of a difficult situation, especially if their work is in some way tied to the public good. But over the long term, bad workplace conditions affect consumers as well: the quality of healthcare goes down when nurses workloads are too high, the number of traffic accidents increase when a trucker drives tired. All manner of quality control issues that affect our well-being begin with poor workplace conditions.

Working under censorship conditions doesn’t just affect where writers are invited to speak–over the long run it can affect what they write. And when the content of writers’ books is affected, readers are affected, too.

If books matter enough that readers can be harmed by not getting to hear writers speak at a book festival, then those readers are going to be even more deeply harmed if a chilling effect creeps into the books they’re reading, restricting the range and types of books available and making it harder for individual readers to find the books that speak to them–the books that they need.

So I respect the range of views on this issue (and hope that any comments here will strike a similarly respectful tone). And sometimes, there are good reasons for staying in a bad situation in hopes one can make change from within, as Todd Strasser, who’s decided to attend the Teen Lit Fest, points out. (Or, indeed, as many of us who’ve decided not to move out of Arizona in the wake of the many troublesome happenings here lately have also pointed out.)

But sometimes there are also good reasons for walking, including, as Matt de la Peña points out, bringing the conversation to the larger community, where maybe it can have a more long-term influence over how we think about these issues.

So in this case, I still support the striking authors, and am hopeful that the conversation already coming out of this does, indeed, have the potential to result in positive change.

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