Musing about boycotts (or, the challenges of effectively living your values without being overwhelmed).

This summer it seems like boycotts are on a lot of people's minds.

In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Stevie Wonder announced that he won't perform in Florida until its Stand Your Ground laws are repealed.

Author John Scalzi announced that he will no longer be a participant, panelist, or guest of honor at any convention without a harassment policy. But he also announced that he's disinclined to join in a boycott of the Ender's Game movie, despite the fact that he thinks the views of Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card (who is also a producer of the movie) on same-sex marriage and on LGBT folks more generally are "completely, totally and egregiously wrong."

There is, in the field of philosophy, an ongoing Gendered Conference Campaign asking people to decline to participate in conferences all of whose announced speakers are male.

Individual academics have also engaged in boycotts of specific journals and publishers on account of their objections to their editorial practices or to the other kinds of business in which they engage. University libraries have also announced plans to boycott publishers whose institutional licensing agreements they felt approached extortion.

There's a lot of back and forth in almost all these instances (and in the many others not mentioned here) about whether boycotts are an effective way to communicate your objection to the target of the boycott, whether they hurt others who really aren't responsible for the thing you object to, even whether organizing or engaging in a boycott is a display of intolerance.

It's a complicated tangle of things to worry about, at least if you're a person who wants to live something approaching an ethically consistent life.

If you value X, you don't want to give material support to a person or organization actively working against X. If you view Y as a great harm, you don't want to have your consumer choices reinforce a system that perpetrates or enables Y. But chains of cause and effect can be complicated, and sometimes what people or organizations are working for or against can be obscure.

Sometimes boycotts have been effective, either leading organizations to change their practices of their own volition or bringing political pressure upon them to do so. In other cases, boycotts seem to have little effect beyond giving their participants something about which to feel themselves superior.

My own personal consumer choices are pretty motley.

There are pizza franchises that will never get my business (even if they were, some day, to make a palatable product) on account of the political donations of their founder. There are big-box stores whose threshold I will not cross (and have not since … the 1980s, I think?) owing to their abusive labor practices. In my immediate neighborhood, there are two gas stations I feel passable comfortable using; the others are off the table owing to the corporate owners' involvement with environmental disasters, human rights violations, and lobbying against reasonable clean air standards in my state.

But I still use computer hardware from a company that I feel has a pretty lousy concept of corporate social responsibility, one that has gone to great lengths to avoid paying its fair share of taxes in states like California. I still buy chocolate, despite the environmental harms and labor atrocities involved in its production. (The fact that I don't buy Hershey's chocolate probably does't get me off the hook.) And there are plenty of goods I buy from any number of corporations where I have no clear idea what the production of those goods entailed, nor what sorts of actions those corporations are engaged in or are supporting with the proceeds of their business. I'm making choices in a condition of radically incomplete information, and even what I do know indicates that some of my choices are quite a bit less than optimal.

It's not obvious to me that my individual consumer choices make a whit of difference to large multinational corporations. They probably are more hassle for me than for the businesses I'm patronizing (although honestly, in a world where there are fewer places I'm comfortable buying gas, my response is to drive less whenever possible -- and that's probably a good effect).

I don't believe we're going to save the world with our consumer choices. I'm not entirely comfortable equating money with speech.

Then again, until I've entered into an agreement to secure a good or service, I don't believe anyone has a right to my money.* Thus, ethical issues seem like as good a reason as any to opt out of buying a particular product or patronizing a particular business.

If you're going to tell me it's wrong to opt out of buying tickets to see "Ender's Game," you're going to need to give me a positive argument.

Beyond that, despite how thoroughly we are cast as creatures of consumption (usually by someone who wants to sell us something), I suspect that the real action in the marketplace of ideas takes place at some remove from the exchange of currency for goods and services. Some of it is happening where people are interacting and actually exchanging ideas and opinions.

And here, the choices get a lot trickier for me than they do when I'm deciding where to get my groceries or gas.

For example, there are people with whom I interact because our kids are involved in some of the same activities. I am aware that some of these people belong to organizations whose aims I think are not good -- to organizations that see some people as less than fully human, and that put lots of money into political campaigns to restrict their rights.

If these people were businesses, I'd drive right by them. But they are parents of my kids' peers -- of their friends.

Usually we don't talk directly at all about the political divides. It's possible (although I haven't taken steps to find out) that they are opposing some of these organizations from the inside; I'm related to some people who do that, and I think they're fighting the good fight.

I'm not engaging in a fight. How I'm playing it right now is that I'm trying to be someone who interacts with these folks, someone who interacts with these kids, someone who they know to be caring, trying to be a help …

… so that by the time they connect the dots and notice that I fit in one of the groups targeted by their organization (or that people I care about with the same regard I show to them are so targeted by their organizations), they're going to have to reevaluate whether they stand behind what their organizations are doing.

This all depends on the assumption that growing to care about actual people in their lives can make a difference to the organizations and activities they support. It turns on the assumption that getting to know the "other" makes it harder to treat the issues as abstractions. It recognizes that people are complicated -- that almost all of us have contradictory views and commitments in our heads, and that most of us haven't put lots of effort into noticing this or trying to sort out which views or commitments we really endorse.

And it is helped by the fact that, so far, these folks I know haven't displayed values or views so repellent that I give up engagement with them as a lost cause. That could still happen. I'm hopeful that it won't, but I'm watchful.

But honestly, the complications of personal entanglements in a marketplace of ideas make decisions about how ethically to spend one's money look a lot more straightforward. That seems like a weird outcome.

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*Except the state (at the relevant level), since I partake of the goods the state offers, and thus have an obligation to pay my share to support those goods.

6 responses so far

  • Idealistic curmudgeon says:

    As you pointed out, one of the problems with boycotting companies is that the refusal of a few individuals (namely people who can afford to be concerned with the ethical issues associated with their purchases) to buy crappy pizza or sweatshop clothing is unlikely to enact large-scale change. As long as "we" (i.e., politicians that supposedly represent and support the majority of the voting population) keep pandering to corporate interests, no major improvements in employee treatment, workplace standards, or environmental harm will occur. A more effective tactic might be to push harder on our representatives and senators to pass laws that both regulate factors like the treatment of workers, and cut off potentially harmful loopholes (e.g, reducing hours or firing people to avoid driving up production costs). In addition, consumers would have to accept price increases as the logical outcome of not treating people like trash and any space outside of company property as a landfill; a clean conscience isn't cheap.

  • "This all depends on the assumption that growing to care about actual people in their lives can make a difference to the organizations and activities they support."

    I seem to recall that there is some evidence that this is true- Bob Altemeyer has done some research on the subject, though I don't know if his results have been replicated.

    At the very least, it's something I sincerely hope is true.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I think these sorts of decisions can be determined by maximizing a curve plotted against two axes:
    Y-axis: Convenience
    X-axis: Makes me feel good about myself

  • DJMH says:

    Generally reducing consumption helps minimize the damage, too. Plus with the money you save from not buying tons of plastic or electronic crap that will be tossed aside within the year, you can actually afford to purchase the stuff that is produced under better conditions, be that local farmer's market stuff or furniture from American craftsmakers or what have you...

  • BruceK says:

    I would say that boycotting the film I am not so comfortable with as boycotting the petrol station. For the film, this is my problem:

    I don't approve of such a sentiment, and so boycott one film,

    You don't approve of another sentiment, and so boycott some other film

    And he does the same, and she does the same, and so on.

    And the distributor wants money from all of us, so this is off limits, and that is off limits, and a load of other things are off limits, to avoid boycotts. But next thing we've all lost out, because the films become completely bland, or at any rate mindless.

  • femprof says:

    How interesting that just this week I was reading about the last year's Chick-o-Fillet disaster! I think the author of this blog post explains why choosing to boycott or not might be making a statement and might go beyond simply playing with my money:

    http://www.owldolatrous.com/?p=288

    The title of the blog entry might come across as quite shocking for some; do skip it if it bothers you, but please read the actual blog post.