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Boy, oh, boycott

A couple of recent blog notes (well, this and this) on the movement for an organized boycott of the Ender’s Game film remind me that I have never written for this Tohu Bohu about the boycott as a political tool. In short, the idea of organizing to target somebody’s livelihood because of their political beliefs makes me very, very uneasy.

I’m not going to talk about this specific instance, so let’s take a hypothetical case: a person (we’ll call this person Chris Hypothetical) has a non-political business (let’s call it Hypothetical Medical Supply ’n’ Grill) that YHB would, in the ordinary run of things, pay for goods or services or both. I become aware that Chris Hypothetical is a major funder of BSPAC, a political action committee formed to advocate for the passage of Bad Stuff through the local legislature. In this hypothetical case, I am opposed to Bad Stuff, right? Anyway, let’s hypothesize that some organization—the Anti-Bad Stuff League—who are organizing a boycott of the HMS’n’G. OK? All nice and vague. I’m against the boycott.

Now, it’s true that a portion of the money I pay to the HMS’n’G winds up going through Mr. Hypothetical’s pockets into the BSPAC, and that it thus contributes to the likelihood of Bad Stuff passing. That’s all true, and it makes me to a certain extent responsible for the Bad Stuff. And the Bad Stuff can be real—it might include sapping funding from my kid’s school, or from my own employer such that I could be laid off, for instance. And that’s unpleasant to know, that I am helping to fund my own unemployment. So yes, that will affect how I feel about the HMS’n’G, and I may look around for another place to get my tasty smoked meat and gauze, sure. That’s true if I decide I can’t stand the jerky guy at the counter, too. But an organized boycott could bankrupt the man, close the doors of the place. Could ruin her. And I just am not willing to think of myself as living in a society where we ruin each other for our political beliefs—not even when he is working to ruin me and my family.

Mostly, though, it’s that boycotts smell to me like blacklists. If it’s OK to deprive Ms. Hypothetical of her livelihood for active support of BSPAC, then it was OK to deprive Dalton Trumbo and Lillian Hellman of their livelihoods for their support of the Communist Party. And it’s obvious enough to be self-evident that that sort of thing is scarcely going to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted—pressure on people to conform to the general mainstream is going to come up much more often than pressure to enforce any progressive catechism.

When could I support a boycott? Let’s take a different situation: instead of the HMS’n’G profits going to Chris Hypothetical and then to BSPAC, let’s hypothesize that HMS’n’G is itself engaging in business practices I abhor. It refuses to serve its tasty chicken sandwiches to minority customers, or it won’t sell those finger-pricker diabetes kit refills to HIV-positive people, or it fires any worker who gets pregnant. Then I very well might refuse to do business with them, and I might also support an organized boycott to shut down HMS’n’G altogether. I won’t buy their French Fries if they are selling defective blood pressure gauges to Medicaid patients. I will support an organized boycott, and I will tell my friends to support it, too. I would buy my steaks and suture thread somewhere else, even if the expense is greater and the quality is lesser. And if the doors close? Fine. Even better, of course, if they change their policies and stay open, and I can shop there again.

The difference, to me, is that I will support a boycott of a business because of their business practices, things that the business does as the business I would otherwise pay my hard-earned to. I won’t support a boycott of a business because the profit goes to advocate policies that I consider damaging and harmful. I may individually choose to go elsewhere, considering the various advantages and drawbacks and so on and so forth, but I won’t support an organized boycott.

Now, having said that, I can’t properly claim that there is a hard-and-fast line. I could come up with a different hypothetical scenario that falls in the middle, and I totally reserve the right to make decisions based on cases. In any of those cases, though, I start from the point of view that boycotts because of where the profits go make me very, very uneasy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Interesting thoughts, and I'm still thinking about them. But I disagree with one piece of it: the analogy with blacklists. A blacklist is the opposite direction of political power; it's the government or a big powerful organization using its power to ruin someone. Whereas a boycott is a way for less-powerful individuals to collectively put economic pressure on a more-powerful person or organization. There are gray areas here too; it's not always that clear-cut. But my feeling is that that's usually the main point of a boycott.

Boycotts in my experience aren't "I'm telling people not to patronize you because I disagree with your beliefs" but "I'm telling people not to patronize you until you change these specific actions".

So while I may personally choose to not buy Gallo wine (and I do so choose), the organized boycott was started because they were mistreating their pickers and refusing to negotiate with the union. And when they signed a contract with the UFW, the boycott ended.

...and then a lot of people who had been boycotting them went out and bought bottles of Gallo wine.

When Mt. Olive signed a contract with FLOC, social-justice types in the Triangle went and bought pickles, too.

[*] I say "my family" rather than "I" with respect to the Gallo boycott because it ended well before I was of legal drinking age.

My main experience of boycotts recently has been hearing about organized efforts to avoid the products of entertainment figures with Bad Beliefs—Mr. Card, of course, and the Dixie Chicks and Sean Penn. Oh, and avoiding products because they advertise with Bad Folks like Rolling Stone magazine or Rush Limbaugh. And Girl Scout Cookies, of course. And Chik-Fil-A. And then there's the economic boycott of Florida and other 'stand-yer-ground' states—at least they have, as Stephen asks, some coherent prospective stopping point. Oh, and then there's the Buycott app, where you can boycott almost anything.

So, Jed, my feeling is that while the boycott seems like it ought to be a collective grass-roots movement to put pressure on the more-powerful, I'm not convinced that it actually is—or is so often enough to overcome my basic uneasiness.


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