Lawrence Khong's performance is not Lawrence Khong

The recent brouhaha about IKEA’s continued promotion of Lawrence Khong’s magic show is focused entirely on Khong’s identity as a pastor. He has made no secret that his interpretation of the faith has no room for acceptance of LGBT people so long as they remain non-heterosexual. LGBT groups, individuals and allies have pressured IKEA to drop their promotion of the show; with IKEA’s refusal to bend, outrage is once again sweeping the Internet.

IKEA’s rationale for continuing to promote Khong’s work is that it offers “high family entertainment value”. Khong himself has acknowledged that he uses his magic shows to evangelise to the audience. The natural assumption is that the performance is somehow tainted by his beliefs.

But to mangle the Bible, shall the clay say to the potter, “Am I thou?”

A person does not have to agree with the ideology of an artist to enjoy a work of art. A person does not have to buy into the underlying ideas that inform a work of art to appreciate it on its own merits. The created is not the creator, and what a person does in one capacity need not spill over into another.

John C Wright is a Catholic and his religion informs his latest stories, but I don’t have to be a Catholic to be in awe of the breadth and depth of his imagination and his ability to ignite literary fireworks as casually and naturally as breathing. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon who has spoken out against gay marriage in the context of his faith, yet his work Ender’s Game is at heart a treatise on leadership and military innovation with nothing about his faith or politics. Larry Correia and Michael Z Williamson inject libertarian ideas into the Grimnoir and Freehold series respectively, but for them the story came before the message. I care not a whit about John Scalzi or his ideology, but I felt his Old Man’s War series and Fuzzy Nation were pretty good stories in their own right (being derivatives notwithstanding). I thought L Ron Hubbard founded a religion of nutjobs, but his novel Battlefield Earth set me on the path to writing science fiction. I don’t have to like Tom Clancy’s politics to study and adapt his craft.

It is one thing to slam a show because the show in itself promotes anti-LGTQ messages. It is quite another to slam it because the creator holds those same ideologies. The idea is not the man, the art is not the artist, the clay is not the potter. A person does not have to agree with someone to appreciate his work, and similarly does not have to like that person’s work to have a profound relationship with that person. A person who believes that he can only enjoy a work of art so long as he agrees with the artist’s ideology is not interested in art; he is only interested in keeping his mind closed.

I’m of the opinion that if you disagree with a person’s stated ideology the best approach is honest open debate. Attacking a person’s livelihood or art just because that person does not hold the same beliefs you do is not productive. The former approach opens up everybody’s ideas and assumptions for examination, and ideally all sides understand where they are coming from and open the door to reconciliation or changing beliefs. The latter is simple punishment, and it does not one thing about pre-existing beliefs. It merely says, “We do not like you because you do not think like us, and if you want to be accepted you must be like us”, It is bullying, plain and simple. It punishes someone simply for committing thoughtcrime, or holding doubleplusungood ideas. This approach only works on the weak and those who cannot defend themselves.

Against people so strong-willed that they rise and retain positions of prominence amidst controversy, it merely confirms their beliefs that everyone is out to get them. They and their supporters will circle the wagons and redouble their efforts, cling ever so strongly to their ideas and redouble their efforts to broadcast them. This strategy cannot work on those as strong-willed, connected, and rich as Lawrence Khong. They simply do not respond to such tactics.

IKEA values tolerance, and so does Singapore. Tolerance must include tolerating works of art whose creators may hold intolerant views, and indeed to treat such people fairly regardless of what beliefs they may hold. Tolerance, it must be remembered, is about being fair and objective, to hold a permissive attitude and to be free from bigotry. In this context, it means judging Khong’s performance on its own merits, and him as a performer in the context of the show. His identity as a pastor is relevant only so far as his ideas permeate his show and no further. For instance, his show may hold elements of Christianity, but it is unfair to say that the show promotes anti-LGBT messages if there is nothing in the show that does that.

By using pressure tactics against a work or art because the artist holds ideologies a group disagrees with, the organisers signal approval of those same methods. In so doing, the means become the end. It means that it becomes socially acceptable to coerce people into conformance by targeting their creations. Which means that Christian groups may urge organisations to boycott a play by a gay playwright simply because he is gay, the government may order additional red tape to strangle a website just because the owner happens to disagree with the ruling party, that corporations are free to turn down sponsorship and advertising deals from a local entrepreneur because she is also a political activist. And the ones who approve of pressuring IKEA to cease promoting Khong’s show have no moral right to decry any of the above scenarios.

By using pressure, the nags and the bullies say that they don’t mind it; they just want to be the ones wielding it. On that road lies the way to civil intolerance, and for the dominance of larger and more powerful groups. Judge Khong’s works by its merit, not by who he is: the clay is not the potter, the art is not the artist.

Lawrence Khong's performance is not Lawrence Khong
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