In defense of Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams

Recently, rock musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams announced that they are declining to hold concerts in two states who have laws which they find morally objectionable.

In other words, Springsteen and Adams are willing to forgo income they usually receive because they do not wish their participation to give the impression that they support or agree with something.

One might ask whether the rockers hope to instigate change by their refusal to offer their services.

I suspect that they would answer that they hope that they do cause change, but taking a moral stance is worth doing for its own sake.

They will presumably sleep a little better at night knowing they were true to their deeper principles, putting a value on something transcendent (freedom of conscience) that is higher than the almighty dollar.

A preemptive response to cynics

Now, it would be easy to be cynical about such actions, but I do not think that warranted.

To be sure, we could label this as merely the social posturing of men who do not really need the money, and will not miss it. A cynic might claim that they will gain more in good will from the rest of their audience than they lose from those whom they exclude from their commerce. These claims might even be true.

But, that isn’t really fair, and it’s hardly relevant anyway. We can’t access their hearts and minds; we can only take them at their word: their sincere convictions mean that to offer their particular service under the circumstances that currently prevail feels immoral to them. And, we might look at their past behavior or expressions of belief to determine if they are sincere in their moral concern. They seem to be.

Hypocrisy?

Now, surely Adams and Springsteen have performed in states or in nations which have laws with which they did not agree. Our cynical observer might therefore accuse them of hypocrisy. Again, I don’t think this is warranted. We all pick the battles we think worth fighting. No one might have assumed that Springsteen (for example) agrees with New Jersey’s tax code simply because he agrees to perform there. But, if Springsteen were to decide that the tax code in New Jersey was egregious enough to warrant speaking out, if only through a refusal to participate in his profession under those conditions, we cannot and should not claim that his moral scruples deserve no respect.

It would be wrong to compel Adams and Springsteen to perform in venues or circumstances which they believe would morally compromise them, even by implication. As Springsteen put it, “some things are more important than a rock show.”

Indeed, few things are more important than the free exercise of conscience.

Fines or jail-time?

Therefore, I wholeheartedly reject any calls to fine them or penalize them with jail-time if they don’t comply and won’t pay up–after all, they have already taken a financial hit for their stance, and there are very possibly other concert-goers who don’t live in the affected states who will choose not to attend a concert because they in their turn disagree with the rockers’ boycott or the moral code which drives it.

So, there will always be costs and risks to such a stance, but those are clearly Adams’ and Springsteen’s to run. The government has no business penalizing them for a sincere expression of conscience. If anything, government exists to prevent anyone from hampering their rights of conscience.

The slippery slope is unlikely

I think worries about a slippery slope (“if we let them do this, soon there will be no music in those states at all”) are farcical. There are other bands and orchestras. Worse case scenario, people can perform their own music locally. Sure, it’s not Springsteen, but it proves that they’re hardly going to have to go without any music at all, even in an implausible worst case scenario.

No one, after all, has any inherent “right” to attend a rock concert. There might well be industries where the bar might be considerably higher: people need food, fuel, housing, lodging, transport, clothes, and the like. If, say, Exxon-Mobile was to stop shipping gasoline to Alabama based upon a moral stance, we might be more troubled. (Boycotts by large companies feel inherently less defensible–Adams and Springsteen are individuals, inseparably connected to their ‘brand’–they are the brand.)

But, even if a large conglomerate like Exxon-Mobile tried something similar, other providers would likely step in and fill the gap. It’s actually much easier for someone to replace Exxon-Mobile than Springsteen or Adams. (Music purists might well debate as to whether this is a compliment, but let’s assume that it is.)

All of this surely means some inconvenience for those in the states embargoed by the Boss and the Canadian Boss. But, despite what some seem to think, none of us has a right to be free from inconvenience–especially at the cost of making someone do something to which they have sincere moral objections.

Historical precedent

In the early days of the American experiment, there was great debate about those who were conscientious objectors–they considered military service to be a grave evil, even in self-defense. Many were also loathe to take “oaths” of truthfulness–this made it difficult for some to trust them in official capacities, such as in positions of public trust or as witnesses in a court case.

It is to the early Americans’ credit that they found a way to handle even these (fairly significant!) inconveniences.

Rather than oaths, objectors were allowed to “solemnly affirm.” That’s an easy fix–a distinction, we might think, without a difference. But, morally, it was significantly different for those affected.

More tricky is the issue of military service. But, even there, those who objected due to sincere religious or moral conviction were exempted from the draft. That’s potentially a major inconvenience to others–I might end up in the army if my conscientious objector neighbor doesn’t serve. And, if everyone is a conscientious objector, the nation might not last long. But, that theoretical problem didn’t materialize in reality, and so the compromise held. If clear disaster is in the offing, we can always reevaluate how much moral objection the society can accommodate without being destroyed.

I think it a great and noble thing to value conscience that highly. The bar for forcing someone to violate their conscience must be high indeed, or freedom and liberty have no meaning. Even–or especially–when we disagree with a moral stance, we must still bow our heads with a bit of reverence to someone willing to cling to it. If nothing else, we’d want the same respect to our own scruples. (And, if we don’t have any such scruples, then we’ve no business lecturing others about theirs, any more than the deaf should explain why Springsteen’s or Adam’s music is junk.)

Conclusion

So, I say “Bravo!” to Springsteen and Adams for declining to participate in a commercial exchange that they sincerely believe implicates them in something deeply immoral. I hope I’d have at least as much courage in similar circumstances.

It’s a great idea, in the spirit of that which is best in the American and liberal (in the traditional sense) tradition.

So great, in fact, that maybe conservative Christian florists, Orthodox Jewish cake bakers, and devout Muslim wedding photographers ought to take notice.

Maybe this is an approach they should look into?

I’m surprised they haven’t thought of it.

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