Friday, July 19, 2013

Arthur Answers Roger, Part 3: Boycotts

Carrying on with the series, here’s today’s question from Roger Green. Like yesterday’s, it’s also timely:

What is your basic feeling about boycotting products or services? Does it do any good? What issues would prompt you to do so? I thought of this when I read about Orson Scott Card trying to dull the impact for a likely boycott of the upcoming movie adaptation of one of his books due to his views on gay marriage. I should say that the answer for me in this specific example is moot, since the subject matter doesn't interest me.

This question is related to yesterday’s because boycotts are about the minority trying to force the majority to change their ways—to do what they think is the right thing. Whether that thing is objectively “right” is a matter of debate, of course, and largely depends on one’s ideology. However, the ones that I would consider to be “good” are those that are not trying to suppress the rights of our fellow citizens.

So, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was, by that definition, a “good” boycott. It was also hugely successful, ending segregation of the transport system, but more importantly, leading to the end of laws mandating segregation. Thank you, Rosa Parks!

I think that to be called successful, boycotts must be narrow, for a fixed term and have an identifiable point at which it’s successful (the Montgomery Bus Boycott achieved all three). Most boycotts, however, are much smaller, some are quite silly, and most are unsuccessful.

There was one extremely stupid boycott that was nevertheless effective. In the 1980s, some fundamentalist protestants in the USA became utterly convinced that the logo of Proctor & Gamble was secretly a “satanic symbol” and they began organising a boycott. In 1985—more than a century after they started using the logo—P&G discontinued it. Technically, this never got to the boycott stage because of P&G’s rapid surrender, but it was the threat of boycott that spurred the action. Technically, this was a success, then.

More recently, we saw fundamentalists deciding to boycott Starbuck’s because of the company’s support for marriage equality. That was not successful, as, in fact, their similar boycotts have not been in recent years.

These days, boycotts serve mainly as a tool to rally support and raise money from one’s supporters and, with luck, to get some media attention and publicity; they’re unlikely to change a company’s policies.

Still, my general feeling is that ALL people have the right to boycott products or services in order to protest or to attempt to change something they don’t like. That’s true whether I agree with them or not or support them or not.

Personally, I prefer to “buycott”, that is, to go out of my way to support businesses that support the issues I care about instead of boycotting the ones that oppose those issues. Sometimes, however, a boycott is the only answer for a person of conscience, and I have participated in two: I took part in the Nestlé Boycott because of the Infact scandal. However, that boycott never ended, it wasn’t narrow and there was no clear goal or way of telling if it succeed. Like most people, I gave up.

I also boycotted Domino’s Pizza because of the political activities—especially against abortion rights—by the radical catholic founder of the company. He sold it in 1998 (to Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, ironically enough). The company is now publicly listed. I stopped boycotting when the loon sold his company.

And finally, I never buy petrol from Mobil stations because when Exxon took them over, they cancelled Mobil’s “domestic partner” benefits for all new employees, and since then at shareholder meetings they have repeatedly rejected reinstating the benefits. That one isn’t an actual boycott, just a personal choice: If I know a company is run by bigots, I avoid giving my money to that company.

So, what about the Card boycott? I wouldn’t be going to the movie, anyway, so it doesn’t matter, BUT, I do support the boycott. I think Jeremy Hooper summed up my thinking when he said:
“So for me, it's not really about ‘blame.’ For me it's about the fact that I cannot, in good conscience, pay money for a cinematic vision that springs from the very same mind that calls my sexual orientation a ‘dysfunction’ for which I must ‘repent.’ … He, by his own volition, chose to put out public commentary that slurs my life, family, and very existence in ways that the unacquainted would find unimaginable (in fact I'm still not convinced the film's defenders have seen how far he has gone), so I, working from my own volitional place, will not support any more of Orson Scott Card's public enterprises. I just can't. Other people might be able to do so—I cannot.”
And that is Jeremy’s absolute right. I applaud him, and endorse the sentiment. Boycotts seldom work, but they’re always worth it for one’s own integrity.

The previous posts in this series:
Ask Arthur
Arthur answers: Māori, Gays and Expat Longing
Arthur Answers Roger, Part 1: Political Me
Arthur Answers Roger, Part 2: Political philosophy & friends

Related: Words and music


rogerogreen said...

There is a renewed effort to boycott Nestle over some outrageous comments made by its CEO about how water should be a commodity.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

I did read about that, and I tried to find out what the underlying story was: I found it to be a bit murky—nowhere near as clear-cut as the Infact boycott seemed to be at the time I took part.