This piece over at The American Conservative about the fuss surrounding Guido Barilla’s statements about homosexuality and the traditional got me thinking about to what extent we should allow the opinions of company owners or management to influence our purchasing decisions. For those who didn’t catch the flap:
Guido Barilla’s … asserted that his company, now the largest supplier of pasta in both the United States and Italy, would continue to use only “traditional” families in its advertising and would “never” portray a “gay” family in its ads. His remarks led to worldwide efforts to boycott his company’s products to voice displeasure at the Barilla’s supposed bigotry.
We’ve seen this sort of drama play out before. Homosexual activists have repeatedly called for boycotts of Chick-fil-A because of the views and charitable contributions of its owners. On the flip side, a number of Christians called for people to refuse to own Starbucks stock or not buy coffee due to Starbucks’ continued support for gay marriage initiatives.
The AC article goes on to quote John Stuart Mill, making the argument that social sanctions (such as not buying someone’s product) because one does not like that person’s opinions is actually a more effective mode of repression that the kind of judicial repression we would more often think of when hearing the word:
For it is this—it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country [England] not a place of mental freedom… It is [social] stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread… But though we do not now inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us, as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven… Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree… Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion… And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed… But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”
– J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”
Arguably, Mill here is speaking in the tradition of Classical Liberalism (which is not the same as the progressivism which is what we normally call “liberalism” these days) in that I would take him to be saying that when one decides whether to buy from the baker, one should do so on the basis of how good a baker he is, not on the basis of his personal opinions.
I’m not an absolute classical liberal, but I’m enough of one to go with this most of the time. I frequently buy products from companies run by people whom I know to disagree with me on a host of issues which are important to me, but I do so because I consider myself to be buying the product, not voting on the validity of their beliefs. I can imagine a situation which might push me to refusing to buy from a company because I was convinced that their profits were being spent on something so heinous that I was unwilling to stick with this principle, but most of the time when people I agree with call for a boycott of something I ignore it.
And I too benefit from this classical liberalism. The companies that I’ve worked for over the years have often been run by people who disagree with me on various important issues, and so clearly I benefit from the fact that they’re willing to employ me because I’m good at what I do, regardless of the fact that by so doing they’re allowing an income to someone like me.
Another example of this has come to my attention lately which may perhaps add an additional facet to the question. Orson Scott Card’s classic SF novel Ender’s Game has finally been made into a movie which will be coming out this year. Although the book itself came out almost 30 years ago (now I feel old) in recent years Orson Scott Card has become somewhat known for his solid opposition to gay marriage. A group called GeeksOUT has apparently organized a boycott of the movie, on the theory that watching it would only enrich Card, whose views they consider hateful. Given that the world of SF/F fandom seems to be pretty incredibly liberal these days, there’s some question as to whether unlike most movie boycott attempts this may actually succeed in hurting the movie.
[A few vague spoilers in regards to the book to follow.]
This is kind of interesting to me at a couple levels. One is that, authors being what they are, I’ve always pretty much taken it as a given that the authors of books I like may well not agree with me on important issues, but that the important thing is whether a book rings true in its view of the world. In that area, I would tend to think that Ender’s Game would score pretty well with the folks who apparently want to boycott it. I was kind of surprised when Card came out as a conservative political essayist in that although I really liked Ender’s Game, I never could manage to like any of his other novels. My more liberal friends, on the other hand, loved them. And even in Ender’s Game, we have the sensitive kid who gets used by society because he happens to also be a really good warrior, and the idea that underneath it all the nasty insectoid aliens are just trying to understand us and be loved by us. (This is in part why I could never get into the sequels to Ender, and to be honest I wasn’t huge on the “the Buggers left him a message because they wanted to be understood” element of the epilogue.)
So not only do we have the odd specter of a bunch of cultural liberals seeking to boycott a piece of art (which is something they’re generally not down with) but it’s a book which if anything seems to have a message that would be highly appealing to liberals. Except that it was, apparently, written by the wrong author.
I’m not prepared to say that it’s wrong to boycott someone’s work (artistic or practical) because you disagree with that person’s beliefs. There are extreme cases where I’d definitely support a boycott. But to the extent which I support freedom and classical liberalism (which is a pretty great extent) I think that kind of boycott is a bad idea. If the product itself is something you object to, that’s a whole other matter. There are plenty of offensive products that it’s worthwhile to refuse to buy and to encourage people not to provide. But I’m not necessarily sure I like the idea of refusing to buy pasta or coffee because one doesn’t like the views of the people who make it. In many ways I’d prefer a society in which basically everyone shared my deeply held convictions. But given that instead we live in a highly diverse society, it seems like letting people who disagree with us make a living and get on with their lives is far superior to embarking on some sort of constant economic civil war.