First, get offended.
A company has done something that deeply, painfully offends you.
Second, do something about it. Namely, stop purchasing the company’s products. But also post to social media, hold protests outside the location. Get as much media attention as you can. Rally the forces of like-minded people to your side.
Third, don’t stop until they’re out of business or you get satisfaction.
For fun, let’s roll back the clock to 150 or more years ago. Step one happens, but instead of holding a protest, you arrange a duel or just outright shoot the offender.
That doesn’t seem like the right course of action. I guess we can take a moment and pat ourselves on the backs as a society for getting past that point.
On the other hand, I’m not sure where we’ve landed is the best place, either.
The old way used violence to coerce someone into doing what you want. You’re essentially saying, “do what I want, in the way that I want it, or I will physically harm you.”
In the new way, we essentially say, “do what we want, in the way that we want it, or we’re going to try to destroy your livelihood.”
It’s not the same as killing someone, but even if the mechanism is different, the coercion remains.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we don’t want to live in a society that runs its public discourse via coercion. It’s only fair that anything you apply you also have to be able to take, as well. If you’re willing to coerce someone, you must, in turn, be willing to be silenced by coercion.
I, for one, and not willing to be a party to that.
So, how do we improve this situation?
Let me start with a story: I don’t drink Starbucks much anymore. It isn’t that the quality is inconsistent from location to location or at the same place from day to day, such that I’ve had both the best coffee and the worst coffee I’ve ever had there.
On the other hand, I can’t stand what the company stands for. They’re for a lot of things I’m against, and against a lot of things I am for. When it comes down to it, I don’t think we see the world in similar terms at all.
Which means that every cup of coffee I buy makes me feel a little bit slimy. It’s as though by spending money I’m supporting things that I oppose.
There are two aspects of this situation that I’d like to draw your attention to because I feel they tell us a lot about why we want to boycott.
First, the emotional aspect. What I feel is real, and it’s reasonable. It’s (mostly) backed up by logic. I can’t, and probably shouldn’t, ignore these feelings, as they’re signs that something worth paying attention to is happening in the world.
Second, the political part. Some companies are heavily politicized. There are many reasons why this could be good or bad.
Maybe they should be praised because they have the spine to have moral beliefs, which might not always pay off for them.
Or maybe they should be condemned because they unnecessarily complicate simple economic transactions by tying all of them to a greater moral crusade.
Or maybe they should be looked up to because they have everything right.
Or maybe they should be shut down because they have everything wrong and are a danger to society.
But, even if any of those were true, they don’t matter.
Let’s imagine that you and a couple of your close friends, say 10% of the customers of a particular store or chain, decide that you are going to boycott the company on whatever moral grounds.
Some companies are profitable enough that this won’t really matter. Others have people with such strong convictions at the top, that even if it hurts the company, they won’t yield.
At this point, everybody’s worse off. The company makes less money, and the boycotts deny themselves something they liked at a price they were willing to pay for it.
Or, maybe you succeed. The company folds and changes whatever you disagreed with. Great!
But is it great?
Did the people inside the company change their moral stance? Or did that just do what was economically expedient?
Odds are on the latter.
The fundamentally weird thing about boycotts is that they’re trying to use an economic tool to solve a moral problem. Which is something akin to trying to perform brain surgery with philosophy. It’s the wrong tool for the job. And even if, somehow, you get the results you want, you can’t be sure that you’ve solved the problem you’ve set out to solve, which is the moral stance of the people running the company.
It seems to me that if your moral stance is really strong, and perhaps even the right one, then you shouldn’t feel the need to bully people in order to get what you want. I hate to call boycotting bullying, due to the good things it’s been associated with in the past, but there’s an uncomfortable amount of parallels between the two. It’s not that you can’t get what you want through boycotts, but you do have to wonder what moral ground you have to give up in order to get it.
In conclusion, I do have to make a distinction.
There’s a difference between realizing that your money might be used in a political way you don’t approve of by a company and choosing not to spend it there and taking that same realization and using it to start some sort of collective action. Follow your moral compass but understand that your moral compass isn’t everyone’s moral compass and there’s often little you can do to change people’s minds.
Again, I hate knocking boycotts. It feels wrong on some level. But I do think that I’ve established a few areas in which there might be moral hazard, which means that we should move cautiously when considering how to respond to these situations.