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Presented December 11, 2016, by Ellen Taylor
Listen to a recording of "To Buy Or Not To
23:00 minutes - 21.1 MB - To Buy Or Not To Buy .mp3 file.
With apologies to Shakespeare.
To buy or not to buy, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
Socially responsible investing makes the radical assumption that we are responsible for the quality of life through our financial practices. Our purchases and our investments have meaning. The meaning we make through our economic lives can be a powerful force for good in the world. That good comes from the willingness to assume responsibility for the companies from whom we buy and in whom we invest.
It occurred to me after I submitted the title of this talk for the newsletter that To Buy or Not to Buy, That is the Question in mid-December might imply a discussion of holiday commercialism. That's not what this talk is about. It's about the efficacy and ethics of boycotting as a means of social or political activism. This is actually a different kind of talk for me. I typically choose a topic that I feel relatively confident about - one that I have a solid opinion on, or at least know something about. But this topic is an ethical dilemma that I'm still wrestling with. I chose it hoping that between putting it on paper and hearing your talkback, I would either come to a conclusion and develop a solid opinion, or come to accept that this is a Unitarian question - you know, the kind of question that sparks discussion but has no clear answer.
When I think about early incidents that helped shape my sense of activism, three come to mind. One is attending the rally in Washington Park after Martin Luther King was shot, though honestly, all I remember about it is arguing with my mother about what socks I was going to wear. Another is that both of my parents, my brother, and I all wore POW/MIA bracelets in the early 70's. The third is Mom refusing to buy Snack-Pac pudding cups because of the politics of the Hunt brothers. Even though I didn't fully understand the details at the time (I was probably about 4th grade), it stuck with me enough that to this day, I have never knowingly purchased a Hunts product. And though this specific personal boycott is an inherited habit, I have adopted the practice of avoiding products made by companies whose owners' political spending and/or business practices contradict my philosophies.
We humans express our opinions and beliefs in many ways, sometimes deliberately, sometimes passively. We spend time with people and money on products we like. We donate time and money to causes we believe in, such as today's offering for the water protectors in North Dakota. We avoid people and products we don't like and occasionally go so far as to protest against them. Protest or opposition can take many different forms. Depending on the specific issues and desired outcomes, we may march with signs or stage sit-ins; we may write letters, make phone calls, or sign petitions. We may go on strike, impose sanctions, or demand divestment. Or, we may boycott.
The idea of boycotting has been around for a long time. Lysistrata, which tells the story of a boycott of sorts is 2500 years old. But the term "boycott" originated in 19th century Ireland when activists organized a campaign to ostracize English land agent Charles C Boycott. When he threatened eviction of tenant farmers during a campaign for fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale, local activists encouraged Mr Boycott's employees to withdraw their labor, and local shopkeepers to refuse him service. They were successful enough that the British government had to send a group of Orangemen, a regiment of 29th Royal Hussars, and over 1000 men of the Royal Irish Constabulary to harvest the crops and protect the harvesters. This cost the British government over 10,000 pounds for about 500 pounds' worth of crops. Mr Boycott left Ireland soon after that and returned to England.
Two of the best-known boycotts in modern history are the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s, which lasted a full year and resulted in integration of the city's bus system; and the farm workers boycott of the 1960s, led by Caesar Chavez, which resulted in better wages and treatment for farm workers and protective legislation.
Not all boycotts have been so successful. When I think of ineffectual boycott efforts, I think of the recent almost-comical Twitter campaign to boycott the Broadway musical Hamilton, which is sold out for at least a year. It's pretty easy to refuse to buy tickets for a show that you can't buy tickets for. Another ridiculous boycott of sorts followed our invasion of Iraq in 2003. When France declined to support our war, there was a movement to boycott anything French, including that word, so some American restaurants started calling their french fries "freedom fries." Boy, we really showed them! When asked to comment, a French embassy spokesperson replied, "We are dealing with very serious issues, and are not focusing on the name Americans give to their potatoes."
These kinds of boycotts require significant numbers of participants to achieve results. Another kind of boycott is a more personal statement. I don't think my mother's refusal to buy Hunts products was designed to effect change. She didn't ask anyone else not to use Hunts products. She didn't tell me not to buy Hunts products, and together we don't buy enough ketchup in a decade for anyone to notice what brands we buy. The message I took from her personal boycott was that we don't knowingly fill coffers which may then be used for something that contradicts our values.
Many of us here pay attention to where we shop and what products we buy. We look for fair trade labels or pay attention to parent company investments and tax records. My Master Card is through Working Assets, and for each purchase, Working Assets sends a donation to progressive causes. So every time I use my credit card, I'm contributing to causes I believe in. Every year about this time, I look for the Human Rights Campaign's shopping guide that rates businesses on their LGBTQ friendliness. I want to shop with companies that treat LGBTQ employees fairly and avoid those that don't. I'm guessing many of us have businesses we avoid for various reasons, not because we think it will change anything, but because it makes us feel better. I don't want to give Hobby Lobby my business, but I know they won't miss it. I'm not artsy-craftsy at all, so don't have much reason to shop there anyway, making my refusal to shop there kinda like a Trump supporter's refusal to buy a ticket to Hamilton.
And that brings me to part of my dilemma. Just saying that a behavior of mine is similar to a behavior that I've derided as right-wing and reactionary gives me pause. When I heard that right-wingers wanted to boycott Target because of its response to the North Carolina bathroom bill, I thought that was silly. But it's really no different from my avoidance of Hobby Lobby. Sure, the reasons may differ in the detail, but in both cases, we are using the same means to express our opposition.
My second-guessing of this economic means of protest started with a reverse kind of boycott, when the story of the day was bakery owners refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. I thought that was outrageous. Since when do wedding vendors provide service only to couples they approve of? Can catholic bakers refuse to make cakes for second weddings? Can photographers say to some brides, "I don't think you should marry that guy; he's a jerk, so I'm not going to take your pictures"?
If you're not willing to serve the public, you probably shouldn't be in business, I thought, and I was glad to hear that people were boycotting businesses that refused service to same sex couples. But then I put myself in their shoes. Would I take wedding pictures of a couple wearing Klan robes? Would I decorate a cake with swastikas for a neo-Nazi couple? I'm not sure I could do that. Maybe that's why I'm not a photographer or a baker. (Well, that and the fact that I have no interest in or talent for either of those endeavors.)
This controversy made me think about the rights of the consumer and the rights of the vendor and the interaction of the two. If I heard of someone refusing to shop in a store because the owner was gay or black or Muslim, I'd think that was small-minded. So my avoidance of businesses owned by fundamentalists or white supremacists or tax evaders must also be small-minded.
To add to my dilemma, there were opposite responses to the North Carolina bathroom bill, both of which I liked. Several performers and sports organizations canceled events in the state, saying they did not wish to bring any revenue to a state that passed such a discriminatory law. I thought that was great. And then I heard Cyndi Lauper's statement on why she was not canceling her concert in North Carolina. She talked about standing with the LGBTQ residents of the state and how those who were marginalized needed support now more than ever and she could not abandon them. I thought that was great, too.
For the first time, I thought about how boycotts might actually hurt the people they're meant to help. If everyone who is a transgender ally boycotts the state of North Carolina, that leaves no allies in North Carolina. And that can only make life more difficult for those already facing this discrimination. And if such a boycott were effective in significantly reducing income to the state, surely the marginalized segment of the population would be affected at least as much as the majority, and probably more so, because that's how things tend to work for the marginalized. And so the efforts, however well-intentioned, end up being counter-productive at best and actually harmful at worst.
According to columnist Sarah Kendzior, when activist Shaun King called for a boycott of Cleveland after the city failed to charge the police officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, many Cleveland residents asked how that would help. There was a similar reaction in St Louis when people called for a boycott there after the Ferguson grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson. Activists called for a boycott of malls on the Black Friday following the decision, but according to Kendzior, this didn't affect the malls near Ferguson because those malls had already closed. She says the boycott ended up being more a reminder of how little there was to lose than an effective political tactic. This made me think about the importance of having a clearly defined goal for a boycott. Economic pressure in and of itself may be more harmful than helpful for the marginalized. Then again, the North Carolina governor who supported the bathroom bill lost his bid for reelection, and that could be partially due to that economic pressure, in which case there was some positive result.
In Arizona, it was immigrant issues that led to boycotts there. But when the industry most affected by a boycott is tourism, the people most affected are service industry workers, many of whom are minorities and immigrants. And I doubt if the Sultan of Brunai suffers from the boycott of his hotel in Beverly Hills as much as the hotel housekeepers who lose work do.
Coincidentally, this aspect of boycotts appeared in my facebook newsfeed a few days ago. I know some of you saw it too. A friend of ours posted a request for people to think carefully about boycotting. Her husband works in retail, and she pointed out that when business is slow, the hourly employees are sent home early or scheduled for fewer hours. These mostly low-wage workers suffer the greatest economic impact. They lose hours and, therefore, income. The salaried employees then have to take up whatever slack there is, working longer hours for no more money. The corporate owners, who are generally the actual target of such a boycott, feel little if any effect.
See my dilemma? I see boycotting as a principled response. It makes perfect sense to me to refuse financial support for a company whose business practices are unethical or whose owners use their position to discriminate or evade taxes. But it makes no sense to protest those companies and owners by making life more difficult for their employees.
What it boils down to, I guess, is carefully thinking through the best case scenario and the worst case scenario, then making an informed decision. And that requires developing criteria for what is best and what is worst. And that requires a moral framework within which to formulate criteria and make the decision. For Unitarian Universalists, that framework includes affirming inherent worth and dignity; justice, equity, and compassion; and the right of conscience.
The UUA has supported quite a few boycotts over the years. The 1969 General Assembly passed a resolution to support farm workers by joining the boycott of American table grapes. The 1972 General Assembly passed a resolution asking congregations to boycott most brands of iceberg lettuce as well as A&P and Safeway stores, which apparently didn't stock the one acceptable lettuce label. The 1986 GA again supported a table grape boycott, and the 2005 GA urged congregations to boycott Gallo wines. This year, the UUA has supported a boycott of Wendy's, the only fast-food chain that has not signed onto the Fair Food Program.
But the UUA has also decided against some boycotts. I mentioned a boycott of Arizona because of immigration issues earlier. In 2010, the UUA board recommended cancellation of contracts to hold the 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix. There was strong support for this boycott from many ministers and congregations. But others urged the UUA to reach out to hispanic groups in Arizona to see what they thought would be most helpful. Those groups said please come. So the 2012 GA did take place in Phoenix and it was the first GA for Justice. UUs descended upon Phoenix to stand in solidarity with immigrant and hispanic groups. They picketed for immigrant rights and protested against discrimination to make it clear they were there for justice and that the world was watching.
That wasn't the first time there'd been a suggestion to change the location of General Assembly. After California's Proposition 8 was heavily funded by Mormons, UUs suggested boycotting Salt Lake City. But the 2009 GA went on there as planned. William Sinkford, then-president of UUA, thought it was important to maintain connection. He said, "I'm a strong believer that you can only work for change when you are in relationship."
Which brings me to another part of my dilemma. We will never find common ground if we turn our backs on people whose opinions and values differ from ours. We cannot come to any kind of compromise with people we won't talk to. We won't make anything better by only paying attention to our differences.
I don't know that holding GA in Phoenix led to any positive change in Arizona's immigration issues. But I do think that ASKING people what would help them before making a decision about how to help acknowledges worth and dignity. It's easy for those of us who are straight, cisgender, white, and middle-class to act FOR others, but it is more respectful to act WITH others. So with large-scale boycotts designed to help a particular demographic, maybe the most ethical thing we can do is to have a relationship with that demographic before implementing any boycott.
As for the personal boycott, I have to say it has become almost a knee-jerk reaction for me. I hear something I don't like about a company and I stop shopping there. I do that because it makes me feel better. But does it do anything else? Is it worth it? On one hand, I don't spend enough money anywhere for anyone to miss my business. On the other hand, I guess it means that losing my business won't hurt many minimum wage workers. On the other hand, making myself feel better doesn't really seem like a very good reason. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with making myself feel better if it doesn't hurt anyone else. On the other hand, I agree with William Sinkford that change won't happen without relationship, and boycotting doesn't exactly build relationships. On the other hand, we all have reasons for shopping in certain places and for not shopping in certain places, so what difference does it make if my reasons have to do with social or political conscience rather than quality or customer service? I don't have enough hands for this dilemma!
So I go back to the meditation words from the UUMA. The committee for socially responsible investing points out that purchasing is "the simplest way to act in a socially responsible manner. Paying attention to what [we] buy and from whom is an every day way to live our values." So maybe part of the answer for me is doing what I can to provide balance. If I suddenly become craftsy and want to shop at Hobby Lobby, I'll make all purchases with my credit card so at least Planned Parenthood ends up with a percentage.
I think the conclusion I've come to so far is that maybe it's less a matter of IF 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows or to take arms, and more a matter of WHEN to do which.
With an apologetic nod again to Shakespeare and to the author of the serenity prayer.
God grant me the serenity to buy when boycotting will not help, the courage not to buy when boycotting will help, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.