Question for the hivemind: Where do you draw the line in associating with a party that has done something objectionable?

I am thinking my way through a longer discussion of this general question, and I decided it would be useful to get a sense of the intuitions of people who are not me on this matter.

Say there's a person or an organization (or a corporation, which, I've heard, is a person) that has done something you find pretty objectionable.

Say that this person or organization is in a position to contribute something to a goal that you support -- perhaps providing material and/or labor to help build something you think needs to be built, or money to help support a conference you think will serve the good, or speakers to help explain science-y stuff to a general audience.

Would you associate with the party that has done something you find objectionable to the extent that you would accept that contribution of help?

What kind of conditions would you require in accepting the help? For example, would you require that the party not be able to micromanage how their donation is used, who gets to speak at the conference their money is supporting, etc.? Would you insist that they only be allowed to provide help if they also agree to face questions about what you view as their objectionable conduct?

Or, would you rather forgo the help in order not to associate at all with the party that has done something you find objectionable?

Does it matter here whether the party is an organization, some of whose members or organizational units have done something you find objectionable -- but where the help on offer is coming from other members or organizational units -- rather than a person who's done something you find objectionable offering her help?

Feel free to share your thoughts on the ways the precise nature of the "something objectionable" matter to your line-drawing here.

7 responses so far

  • Jonathan Kaplan says:

    Hi Janet - it depends! What is the objectionable activity, how objectionable is it, how (if at all) would accepting their help lend moral or material support to their objectionable goals, to what extent (if at all) could working with them influence them to change or at least rethink their objectionable policies, etc? (I recently signed on, as coauthor, to a policy recommendation that basicly said that money from some funding sources couldn't be washed of their sins, no matter how many conditions were added. I wanted to come up with absurd exceptions, but was over-ruled. That temptation on my part is probably why people generally stop asking me to contribute to these kinds of debates...)

  • Alain says:

    Hi Janet, perhaps you need to define whether the offense in question is related to your conference. If it's indeed the case, I'd put some limits exactly where it has the potential to hurt.


  • Bob Dolan says:

    To me this seems like a classic cost/benefit question with a big ole gray area. The benefit, simply, is what you're going to get out of it. Does this person/organization have something unique to offer? Can you achieve your goal without her/him/it? Is this a relationship of necessity? convenience?

    The cost could be personal (guilt from using an organization whose activities you find objectionable); or granting legitimacy to this person/organization; or worse yet, you may lead *your* followers to this organization. I've served on non-profit boards that have sought to codify in policy the types of organizations with which they won't engage in any business - but have found that it is unlikely to come up with a set of rules that satisfactorily manages the underlying concerns better than a case-by-case consideration using sound judgment.

    On the boundaries, I think that a single person's objectionable behavior should not, in general, put an affiliated organization on a blacklist. (That being said, you might specify that this person in particular shall not appear on your virtual or physical stage.) On the other hand, I think that there are certainly lines of "objectionable" where one could draw an absolute line. The question is: what level of certainty is required for the blacklist? Alleged behavior? Legal conviction? Trial by you/your organization? And what about remorse and forgiveness? Is there a difference between an unrepentant offender and someone who has acknowledged an apologized for their offense?

  • Kelly says:

    It really depends. (Useful, huh?) For example, if an individual touts themselves as an expert in medical ethics but then is caught doing extremely unethical things, whether in the field or not, I would say that clearly, touted expertise or not, having them contribute by talking to a general audience would be a bad idea.

    But, something like a corporation becomes more nebulous, because (Citizens United aside), corporations aren't people. It's possible for there to be a mix of good and bad and neutral in a corporation, and I can see it being the sort of thing where while perhaps, say, Bayer did atrocious things at one time, they're not (necessarily) now. Or that it's possible to disagree with Monsanto's goals on GM while still believing it's a good idea to have female scientists from Monsanto come and encourage teen girls to go in to science.

    So, all in all - it depends. On the person, the company, the situation, the everything.

    Not a terribly satisfying answer, I admit.

  • We have worked with some labs that have done some work that was suspect or later found to be suspect. Certain reagents that worked for them did not work in our hands and stopped working for them. Thus we keep at arms length and have quietly alerted folks in our community to the inconsistencies that are related to us. We subtly cover our own behinds but we don't publicly shame them because we don't think that fraud was committed.

  • Kriss says:

    I remember having a very similar argument as a student union officer with other members of the SU shortly after Barclays pulled out of South Africa (this was in the mid-1980s when there had been a big campaign against them for supporting apartheid through their involvement in the SA economy that had seriously affected their market share in the UK). They wanted to fund a piece of work that would have made our building more wheelchair-accessible but to have their branding all over it and over our publicity material.

    My feeling was they were still tainted and we would by association look like we'd sold out to them. Others said that as they had pulled out they should be rewarded for bowing to public pressure. I can see both sides of the argument rather more now than I could at the time. Then again our general views of all banks have changed quite a bit in the last 3-4 years.

  • Bruce says:

    Two things to add to the stew

    If you associate with them, will you become associated with them in people's minds? (and whose minds? The press, your donors, the nasty organization's, your own?) That may help point to some conditions, e.g. not having their banner at your event.

    Will their help lead to a later request for quid pro quo?

    I guess a related question is: what conditions are they likely to require, and what will your responses be? The Eden Project in Cornwall is funded by some groups one might consider anti-environmental. Each one is given a space to tell their story -- the benefits of mining, for example. It's clearly delimited, it's tiny in comparison to the whole space, and it's a 'poster session,' so it's not in your face, doesn't argue with you, etc. Seems like a fair compromise.