Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

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.


mandamum said...

This is interesting to me, as one no longer drinking Starbucks. I think some of the concern comes from a feeling that if I/we purchase something, we give more money, and therefor more clout, to a company pushing ideals in direct opposition to ours. I would distinguish between a company run by someone who champions ideals contrary to mine, and a company run by someone who not only champions those ideals but ALSO uses the company and its funds to push them. In the first instance, we may be able to live side-by-side without much friction. In the second, at some point it's partly my contribution that's going to these causes I don't want to support. And if there are other options, even if slightly less tasty, maybe I can make a bit of a difference by not giving my money to the company which will use its profits to fight against me and mine.

I guess if your "company" is your person, and the ideas in your head and the product of your pen, then it might be a similar situation, but generally I'd see a difference between Starbucks and Orson Scott Card. With my available info, that's the difference I see between Starbucks (where the company is aggressively pushing an agenda) and Bezos/Amazon (where Bezos gave the largest single donation in support of marriage redefinition in WA, but Amazon as a company didn't - to my knowledge - get involved).

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

Maybe being willing to go "scorched earth" on things like Komen and Ender's Game is why those who would suppress ideas contrary to their own tend to get their way?

Darwin said...

I'd probably have to develop a clearer set of thinking on this if pressed, but to the extent that I could describe it in principled terms I'd say the main factors I look at are to what extent the thing I object to is the purpose of the organization, and how important the other things are to me.

So, for instance, the Komen relationship with Planned Parenthood is honestly not worth much money to either -- however I think Komen itself has very little value and buying products branded with the pink ribbon has virtually none, so I make a point of never buying Komen branded products or donating to them.

With Starbucks, I think their primary purpose is coffee, and that the amount of support they give to gay marriage is pretty negligible compared to the scale of the company. (To the extent that I suspect that it makes no difference to the gay marriage movement whether Starbucks or Green Mountain or Illy gains more market share.) I do place a fair amount of value on coffee (I don't think Starbucks is great, but it's of a predictable level of quality, so I buy it when I'm on the road and don't know local venues, but I never buy it at home or in the store.)

Timidis Vocem said...

I would be on the other side of the spectrum on opinion concerning this, in some regards. As a man who is romantically drawn to other men, I do sometimes boycott what I would consider bigoted companies. That said, as a writer, I find that the word "bigot" gets thrown around to easily. Much like the word "epic" actually. We live in a culture that waters down it's language to such an extant as to leave us no verbal or written way to express the scope and scale of the truly fantastic and truly awful. To me, I don't really use the word "bigot" to describe anyone or any company unless it takes steps or holds and shares views that could lead to my harm, directly or indirectly.

I will not be boycotting Bertoli (or, at least, not because of their ads). I did boycott Chik Fil A. Not for it's owners opinions of me, but because of their donation history. Specifically, donating to the people who help push places like Uganda into putting heinous laws into place that directly harm people like me. Why wouldn't I deny them more funding for such things? It would be like asking why a black man doesn't take his car to get it maintenanced at an auto shop run by skin heads. The owner of that establishment has made himself my enemy and, thus, I will take actions to make life difficult for he and his endeavors the way he would surely make life difficult for me and people like me.

It's just survival. Nothing personal.