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,