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Should We Boycott People We Disagree With?

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.

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DarwinCatholic

Now an Ohio Catholic!

16 Comments

  1. One possible exception would be Disney. An aspect of Disney’s self presentation is that it is producer of entertainment for children. Making gratuitous provision for the homosexual constituency on their staff or in the public is an attempt to make homosexuality and G-rated cartoons compatible elements in people’s minds.

  2. We should boycott evil. The thing is: “What’s your definition of evil?” And then, “What does that “say” about you?”

    I gotta question your motives if you think a food company is evil b/c it wants to sell to 94% of the world’s families.

    I don’t read the NYT or watch MSM TV news.

    I don’t ride in NYC taxi-cabs or eat at street food carts b/c more likely than not those people are paying into terrorism. Zazi Najibullah, a terror suspect who planned to bomb my subway line, sold coffee and donuts on William Street. And, I get free coffee at work.

    The only good bug I ever saw was dead. Seriously dead . . .

  3. FWIW, I boycott Starbucks because the guy in charge of the company said he did not want the money of those who believe the way I do; I choose to respect his preference, to a reasonable extent, and not darken the door of the 90-some percent of the locations he’s got control of, nor buy their products if it’s not a serious inconvenience to me. Trying to be polite, even if he can’t even act professional.
    (Big Foot Java is faster, less expensive, and tastes better; the Army wife down the road that bought a stand with her mom does an even better job. Both places have folks that can hold a conversation.)

  4. I do not believe that large-scale boycotts involving demonstrations and fierce denunciations in the press, are tenable in that firstly it is wrong to deprive a person or persons of the means of livelihood especially through intimidation, and secondly there is an element of THINKSTOP and hypocrisy involved in the conduct of boycotts. For example I may be using products from Saudi Arabia which suppresses Christianity, while boycotting some cosmetic company for developing products tested on animals. That said, I too would not patronize Starbucks as a matter of course, since it is my right as a customer to take my custom wherever I choose (apart from the fact that it is too expensive for me).

  5. When K Mart refused to put their pornography out of sight of children, The American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, boycott K Mart. K Mart lost its credit rating and the CEO was removed. Now, It is the New K Mart.

  6. I fear that this Barilla boycott could go as far as gay activists insisting that stores remove the offensive product from their shelves. And stores will scurry to do so.

    Money talks.

    Informally, companies are all having to promote a diversity and inclusion statement on their web site and in their marketing materials. They can’t just vote “present” out of respect for employees and customers who still believe in natural marriage.

  7. old girl wrote, “I fear that this Barilla boycott could go as far as gay activists insisting that stores remove the offensive product from their shelves…”

    Boycotts and protests have often been most successful when directed, not at the offending business itself, but at its suppliers. A boycott of furriers by animal rights activists would have had little impact; however, threatened boycotts of fashion magazines that carried their advertising were very successful indeed. The loss of revenue from the adverts was trivial in comparison to even a small drop in circulation. Their banks, too, quickly succumbed and asked them to close their accounts.

    Similarly, during the Apartheid era, the consumer boycott of Outspan oranges had only limited success. It was pressure on the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport & General Workers Union to black them, so that no union member would handle them, that saw them disappear from the shops in short order.

  8. It will be interesting to see how the movie, “Ender’s Game” does next month. The author of the book, Orson Scott Card, has been portrayed as a homophobe because he stands for traditional values. The book has been a huge success and has been around for years before the movie was made. It is only now that there is a movie that a reaction against Card has been fomented by the Left. The thing is nothing in the book, (or the movie I suspect), has anything to do with gay marriage. Kind of like pasta has nothing to do with gay marriage.

  9. “I can imagine a situation which might push me to avoid buying from a company because I believed that their profits were being spent for something so heinous…”
    How about ABORTION? Is there anyone reading this that does not believe this would qualify? Of course, the MSM only publicizes boycotts that will cause harm to companies or individuals who hold conservative views.

    It really bothers me that the Catholic school districts in this country are so involved in putting profits in the pockets of pro-abortion companies like General Mills (through its Box Tops for Education program), who FUND Planned Parenthood through their $1m a year contributions to Susan G Komen, who gives millions to PP! The companies and “non-profits” who fund abortion SHOULD BE boycotted, and pastors should be calling for that from the pulpit. The names of these companies can be gotten at http://www.komen.org, and those that give directly to PP can be found at http://www.fightpp.org. The list of these companies is shocking!

    Most of the companies who contribute to Komen are not that interested in supporting finding a cure for breast cancer (there are other charities that do that without involving killing the unborn). Rather, they suppose that aligning themselves with this “charity” will help their bottom line. I strive to see that it does the opposite!

    Some very big contributors have dropped support of Komen recently. Whether this was done because I and others contacted them and protested, or not cannot be known. But I AM certain that at least a few did so for this reason.

    Do we not have an obligation to use every moral method at our disposal to stop abortion? Buying products or services from these companies, or donating to these charities, is very much akin to contributing to the campaigns of pro-abortion politicians.

  10. It really bothers me that the Catholic school districts in this country are so involved in putting profits in the pockets of pro-abortion companies like General Mills (through its Box Tops for Education program), who FUND Planned Parenthood through their $1m a year contributions to Susan G Komen, who gives millions to PP!

    That’s a few steps too many for me- not very likely to be effective.

    Tactically, I’d suggest having all the data on how very little Komen pays to actually find a cure, and how much they pay the top few folks. That gets even emotionally squishy pro-aborts to oppose them. If someone tries to guilt you into supporting it, bring up that waste– and you can even rant a bit about how Komen is a nasty bully focused on the bottom line, suing other breast cancer groups that actually do good because they also use a pink ribbon.

  11. I tend to be very pragmatic about boycotts. Call it an extension of the just war theory, if you’d like: only pick the wars you can reasonably win. The credibility of a group diminishes when it threatens what it can’t follow through on. That’s my usual complaint with Catholic League.

    I don’t like my position. But truth be told, it’s tough to keep track of these things. Does Gillette still advertize on trashy FOX shows? I don’t know. I think they used to. If they pulled back a little, well then good, but I don’t know, and the internet is full of contradictory information, and I’m not going to watch ads on trashy shows to find out. Does FOX still have trashy shows? Last time I checked, it was all reality singing competitions.

  12. I believe that Free Will gives me the right – really the responsibility – to support in any and all ways those things that are my vore beliefs.

    So I do exactly that with my ability to influence those I am around – or in correspondence with – or with my purchases.

    There are always options for my purchases and I consider carefully both the maker and the distribution of products before I spend.

    Eason says it very well and the positions she outlines are also mine. Whether or not my tiny boycotts – some say my “pragmatic” approach affect makers or suppliers is of no importance to me.

    What is important to me is being true to my personal positions in all moral ways open to me, always.

  13. At first glance, anyway, Mill seems to be operating from the idea that the culture of freedom of ideas obligates me to financially participate in ideas I don’t agree with. If that’s the case, I call BS.

    Whether I act on a boycott depends on a few things:

    1) the extent to which the idea I disagree with is entwined in the company ethos — in the case of Starbucks, they do seem to consider it part of their mission;
    2) their attitude toward people who disagree — again, with both Starbucks and Barilla, people are only respecting and complying with their stated wishes;
    3) the amount of money potentially involved — am I spending a couple bucks once in a while, or hundreds of dollars a year? Is it likely to make any difference? I was a gold card holder at Starbucks, so possibly;
    4) Is the product essential to my life? Few of them are (I find that the more aware I am of corporate positions like this, the less materialistic I am, which can only be a good thing at this point in my life). Of the few that are, can I turn them to my own purposes? Are there alternatives?

    If it is worthwhile to me, I am nevertheless relatively quiet about it and don’t consider it binding on other people. I’m not trying to punish people who work there (another consideration) or friends who just want a pumpkin spice latte. I don’t beat myself up about what is past and cannot be undone, or what cannot be done without in the present. I do wish that more of us would not just boycott, but go start alternatives.

    What concerns me more than Starbucks is the mass retail race to the bottom to turn Thanksgiving into “Black Thursday.” Would I be wrong in saying this is the least materialistic, most family-oriented holiday we have left in America? Just at the time when we need the concepts of both rest and gratitude the most, they are under assault by the Buy More Crap Brigade. This means I’ve already been avoiding the Wal-marts and Targets like the plague for probably a year and a half. There go the major brick-and-mortar retailers. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of stuff to boycott.

  14. 2) their attitude toward people who disagree — again, with both Starbucks and Barilla, people are only respecting and complying with their stated wishes;

    I must object; Barilla did not say “I do not want homosexual money.” They said “We will not advertise using same-sex couples in our ads.”

    Additionally, Barilla answered a question when asked; for Starbucks, that was their response when challenged by an owner.

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