Is my local bagel vendor racist? What if he is, and I buy a bagel, and the portion of that expense that goes towards his wage gets spent partially on racist stuff? One could make the argument that I’m supporting his racism, albeit indirectly. Bagel buyer beware.
Consider the case of Doug TenNapel’s Kickstarter campaign. He’s raising money to make a video game. Unlike the recent kerfuffle about the Idiot’s Guide to Committing Sexual Assault, there’s nothing particularly troubling about the project itself. As far as we can tell, TenNapel is asking for money to pay for the production expenses of completing a claymation adventure that will scratch a nostalgic itch for a certain demographic. But TenNapel himself has expressed pretty bigoted views, most notably about homosexuality. Some folks have made the argument that dollars put toward his campaign support his anti-gay ways, so anyone considering making such a contribution should refrain in order to stay on the right side of an ethical imperative.
I don’t agree that such an ethical imperative exists, particularly because of that tricky word: “support.” If you give to this campaign, you “support” Mr. TenNapel, or so the reasoning goes. But what do this campaign’s critics mean by “support”? In a literal sense, the Kickstarter funding makes the game’s production possible. Typically, this means paying for development software, hardware and staff. The money goes to art, design, sound and code that, as game ingredients themselves, don’t seem to have any ingrained bigotry. The money only “supports” Mr. TenNapel in the sense that some of it will likely go to living expenses. That is, because of this Kickstarter campaign, he will maintain his supply of food and shelter, allowing him to keep living and therefore have the opportunity to keep articulating his noxious beliefs. It’s reasonable to infer, though, that he would go on living and saying nasty things even if he didn’t have this project. If he had to, he could probably get a job selling bagels, which Kickstarter fans might buy, noses down in their phones, not realizing their money was “supporting” a hateful bagelista. And even if we could boycott him out of all employment and into an early grave so as to silence that particular font of hate, isn’t that a bit harsh?
Now, our material support doesn’t seem to map to the proposed ethical issue, but maybe there’s an intellectual matter at stake. Maybe we should hold back our funding because there is some kind of “support” that isn’t material but purely conceptual. If this is the case, we’re making long-distance judgments about a person’s overall quality in society and pushing currency into the estimated shape of a virtuous economy. In a world where poverty, institutional bigotry and systematic oppression had been thoroughly done away with, this Kickstarter-campaign-by-Kickstarter-campaign fine-tuning of wealth distribution might be a pertinent concern for adults. However, we do not live in such a world. We live in a world where the Supreme Court is on the verge of deciding whether gay people can actually get married or not. They’re not raising money for something else and we think some of it may go to that decision, they really are making that decision. The future of gay rights are being decided by government officials whose power far exceeds even that of the most influential claymation adventure game designers.
To fret over Doug TenNapel’s Kickstarter campaign is to do a disservice to the concept of civic responsibility. Government needs an informed, engaged electorate to study its actions and constantly correct its course. The government’s power to affect justice dwarfs the haphazard boycotts that pass for social concern on the internet. Only once we accept the premise that government is hopelessly corrupt or boring can we develop attention for questions such as “Which otherwise morally and ethically sound Kickstarter project stands the greatest chance of inadvertently helping a bigot pay his bills?” The popularity of such questions stands as a testament to the dysfunction of contemporary political culture. Before you decide how to vote with your dollar, maybe you should figure out how to vote with your vote.
But hey, maybe if we all change our Facebook profile photos, that’ll do the trick.