Saturday, May 01, 2010

Boycotting Arizona?

Amanda Marcotte discusses the possibility in an extremely thoughtful post. Now, as y'all know, I'm very skeptical of boycotts. But so is Marcotte, and she lays out her generic skepticism in ways that really resonate with my own suspicions:
I’m usually against “boycotts”, mostly because they aren’t really boycotts. Most calls to boycott that I encounter have no objective in mind except to give the boycotter cause to feel morally superior. Most so-called boycotts are utterly useless in exerting pressure, and the targets are neither harmed nor seem to give a shit. For instance, the calls to boycott the Superbowl because of the Tim Tebow ad. What was that supposed to accomplish? CBS wasn’t quaking in their shoes. Most boycotts have no goals, no leadership, no real effect. When I asked people who were claiming to boycott Roman Polanski’s movies to punish him for raping a 13-year-old, I asked them if they really thought that Polanski was going to feel that and then....well do what, exactly? He can’t unrape her. He’s probably not going to stop fleeing from the authorities. The answer was usually, “Well, I just can’t allow myself to give money to him,” which is basically a moral argument about picking up a taint from engaging someone who did something wrong. Not that I’m criticizing that per se. I think there’s value in some kinds of moral repulsion, which is why most of us don’t want to kick around with rapists and murderers. But avoiding something because it repulses you isn’t a boycott.

Boycotts have to be targeted, specific, and wide-reaching to work. The Montgomery bus boycott is the reason people like the idea of boycotts, but you have to look at why it was effective. First of all, a specific goal for the action was outlined, which was ending the segregation policy on city buses in Montgomery. The organizers realized that to have a broad impact, they didn’t need broad action. Specificity wasn’t sacrificed to make a general statement. Second of all, the boycott created consequences for those with the power to change things. Surprisingly few calls for boycotts do this. Third, there was leadership and organization. The message of the boycott was very clear to those feeling the effects of it.

So yeah, I think that is mostly right. Many of my problems with the BDS movement against Israel track these problems: a huge swath of it does seem premised on the signaling of moral outrage more than in creating concrete consequences (I think I more leery of this sort of behavior than Marcotte is -- place me on the Nussbaum side of the Nussbaum/Kahan debate over whether disgust is a useful emotion for pressing progressive social change). The goals of the movement are neither unified nor generally specific -- I've heard the goals characterized as everything from forcing the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state and its replacement by a single state (reasonably specific, but also morally bad), to boycotting until a negotiated settlement is reached (vague, and also not entirely in Israel's hands), to boycotting until Israel ceases violating international law (still vaguer, as international law is ambiguous, indefinite, and doesn't have any truly widely accepted adjudicators with the authority to make pronouncements), to boycotting until Israel becomes a "responsible global citizen" (vaguest of all).

So is Arizona different? Marcotte lays out the case.
This is why I think a broad boycott of Arizona has the potential to work. First of all, it’s specific. (Repeal this law immediately.) It links the consequences to the law, and the consequences have the potential to be strongly felt, as Rachel explains in the video. It’s widespread, with people from all walks of life and all angles providing leadership on this issue. And it’s organized behind a lot of leadership. You have celebrities speaking out, politicians joining the boycott, pundits encouraging it, even sports writers! It has legs, in other words. Plus, it’s very clear that this has nothing to do with hating on Arizona or some errant issues that are attached to it. Just as the bus boycotters weren’t saying that buses were bad, boycotters here are making it clear they love Arizona, but they will have nothing to do with it until they change their ways.

Not bad, but I'm still dubious. There are a couple of issues that still pull at me. Most notably, I'm not convinced at the ability of the boycott to maintain such a narrow target profile. The state just passed two more racially suspect ordinances, one prohibiting accented teachers from teaching English (my suspicion is that a Georgia drawl won't be targeted), the other barring ethnic studies programs. Are reversing these part of the boycott? What if we get one repealed, but not the other two? The problem is on both ends: maintaining cohesion, but also the ability to "call off the dogs" when Arizona does what it's putatively being asked to do.

Similarly, Arizona legislators met late last night and modified the immigration bill significantly, both clarifying that the police could only inquire into the immigration status of someone lawfully detained (so not someone asking a cop for directions), and also deleting "solely" from the provision purportedly restricting the use of race as grounds for immigration suspicion. Is that sufficient to make the law acceptable? Is that sufficient to get the boycott called off? Are these questions equivalent to each other? Presumably a boycott is not considered a justified response to any policy disagreement, but only the most outrageous deviations from moral conduct. A serious problem I have with boycotts is that once they get rolling, unless they are extremely disciplined with regards to the aims and organization, it becomes very tempting to try and use them as a brute force club to try and mold the target into the wielder's ideal utopia -- a far cry from the surgical, targeted use originally contemplated.

Moreover, one of the reasons boycotts tend to be high-risk strategies is that until they reach some critical mass, they almost always are counterproductive. Amanda is right as far as she goes that the boycott movement isn't motivated by hatred of Arizona. But that doesn't mean it won't be perceived that way. The Arizona legislation comes at the intersection of two heavily victim-oriented ideologies: White protestant American conservatism, which tends to see itself as perpetually besieged by smug outsider liberal elitists, and anti-immigration sentiment, which of course sees the entire nation as under attack by a wave of hostile immigration. Given the availability of those two mentalities, it is quite likely that the first response of Arizonans to a boycott will be to close ranks against the "assault". Of course, given enough momentum, a boycott could simply slam past that resistance, in which case it works anyway. But it is a calculated risk at best. And I think the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was intensely local and whose target was far narrower than an entire state, consequently had a far more reachable tipping point than the boycott Arizona folks.

So I do think that Amanda makes some solid points that make the Arizona case a closer call than most other boycott movements. But ultimately, I'm still very dubious, and prefer greatly that we allow the burgeoning legal challenges to take their course before resorting to the very blunt, high-risk, and difficult to control boycott process.


joe said...

And who says a boycott has to be so narrowly tailored? It's not like it's the government mucking around with protected classes.

You're assuming boycott targets just treat these situations like they're negotiating a contract with their critics for the end of the boycott. Maybe that is the case when Coca-Cola crunches some numbers, looks at it's bottom line and calls up a big human rights groups to ask how many sweat shops it will have to close to end this. But in politics? P'shaw. Vague or ununified goals can make sense. Take a look at Obama's insistence on repairing the U.S.'s reputation abroad. It's not predicated on any specific return on the investment of his effort. It's just acknowledging that certain words and actions have negative consequences, so they should be curtailed as a matter of policy. I'd certainly call a boycott a negative consequence.

And it's not an all or nothing thing, as you seem to suggest. Chances are, a boycott will be stronger the more outrageous the target's conduct seems, and will lose steam the more it comes across as (for lack of a better term) a "responsible global citizen."

All that said, I still don't think they're very effective in general. In Arizona's case, I suspect the more Sean Penn or whoever calls liberals to take their summer vacations somewhere else, the more the Tea Party will hold it's White People Conventions-- I mean rallies-- in the state in support of Real American Heroes like Sheriff Joe.

David Schraub said...

Vague goals can make sense in politics, but that doesn't mean they are useful in political boycotts, for reasons discussed in the post. Boycotts are a separate political tool -- it's completely non-responsive to cite non-boycott instances of where a vague goal is fine to justify in the context of a boycott movement.

joe said...

You seem to be setting an arbitrary definition for what a boycott can be, then when some proposed action doesn't meet your definition it must be a misuse of the tool that can never (again by your definition) "work."

My point is (for example) a boycott can raise awareness that a state or other actor is pissing someone off, and if it's big enough it can help convey a deep sense of unpopularity (which is less true in the case of Arizona because we're finding that most people are xenophobic/manipulable enough to support this kind of law) and a sense that its policies are having costly blowback effect, which in turn leads to Obama-types saying "well, to repair our reputations we should consider doing X, Y, and Z differently." Certainly it's a stronger statement than passing around a petition or backing a non-binding resolution, because it's a way of putting your money where your mouth is.

I won't deny these are often a way of feeling morally superior, and are more effective at that than anything else. But that's just the social animal in our human nature. In that respect it's like blogging, or joining some protest march with a bunch of like-minded friends. Or even like well-to-do people volunteering at a soup kitchen (they could after all, probably focus their efforts on making even more money, and then donate that to a charitable organization to achieve peak altruistic efficiency).

David Schraub said...

I have no idea what you're talking about. I don't propose a definition of a boycott -- I didn't realize anybody was disputing whether the Arizona boycott is, in fact, a boycott. Nor is repeating the theoretical goals of a boycott (communicating displeasure, imposing costs) responsive to the arguments I and Amanda make as to why, specifically, unfocused boycott campaigns are poor candidates for achieving positive goals in a morally responsive way.

joe said...

Um, when you get into "they aren’t really boycotts" territory you are quibbling over the definition of the term. But putting that aside, I don't see the persuasiveness of this "a boycott can only be successful when these preconditions are met and mercury is in retrograde" (paraprhased) line of reasoning.

I think I also laid out the line of causation by which an "unfocused" boycott can make itself felt. You're trying to gloss over the fact that some people do respond and attempt to reform in the face of vocal criticism, even that criticism is not in the form of some official ten-part plan, and since money talks, withholding it can be pretty darn vocal. Let's say tomorrow there arose a widespread "boycott American Imperialism" campaign... Now, you can scratch your head and puzzle out who leads this movement and how to engage with them and what precisely their organization defines as imperialism, but I would bet dollars to donuts that if the U.S. declared it was totally pulling out of Afghanistan effective next month, a lot fewer people would decide to go to the trouble of boycotting. (This isn't to say the U.S. would do that; just that our leaders would be cognizant of the potential impact.)

And let's not forget in all this that the boycotter often doesn't lose out on that much, depending on the boycott's target. For example, switching soda brands just isn't that big of an opportunity cost for most people. The effort and expense of buying only meat that meets some high-flying "natural humane ecologically responsible organic free range" standard (especially one that's not just a marketing gimmick) would be considerably higher. And, depending on the individual, boycotting a city's public transportation could be quite onerous.

Unknown said...
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Matthew C said...

As I read these arguments, David is expecting the appeal to "morally responsive" action to do a lot of work.

I think joe makes a good point when he notes that support for a boycott will fall off as more people decide that Arizona has modified its laws to be racially just. The whole idea of moral responsiveness that David is pushing seems to entail something like the following: there are some "moral facts" that determine when or why a boycott might be appropriate, and should those facts change without the boycotters reacting appropriately, then they have committed some serious breach of political morality. But why shouldn't the collective negotiations of the boycotters, their movement leaders, their general sense of momentum, be as good a judge of the "moral facts" as... well what is the alternative anyway? When David thinks Arizona has corrected its behavior? When Arizona has "really" corrected its behavior? Trying to depict a boycott as a moral bludgeon depends on the idea of a finer (more surgical, in David's parlance) instrument of moral judgment being employed, and also of collective action being made subservient to it. But why does surgical morality matter more than collective morality anyway (since we know David is not a moral realist)? The whole argument is premised on the idea that morality as it is discussed and analyzed by philosophically-minded bloggers matters more than morality as it emerges out of collective political struggles.

And so the fact that some boycotters might dislike three laws instead of one, or that some might be content with some amendments doesn't seem like much of an answer to the question: "should we boycott for a repeal of law X." In fact, he's saying that the boycott strategy is bad because some people will actually be acting on an entirely different strategy. So "Y is wrong because when some people do Y some subset of those people will take the opportunity to do Z, which is wrong." Hardly a good case against Y, but even if its true, it still hinges on the point discussed above, which is that David thinks there are some moral standards of boycott-deservingness apart from the evaluations of actual boycotters, and that needs to be the primary standard here.

Lastly, the whole assumption that boycotts only get to be used to correct extreme moral deviations seems odd to me. I think a boycott is a perfectly valid expression of the power that a group of people have between them, and I'm not sure what makes it more extreme than passing a referendum or staging a protest. And I'm also not sure why it only needs to correct extreme 'moral' disputes. I think the fact that a goodly number of people have a political vision in mind - one that excludes racially discriminatory laws - and want to pursue it is just a good reason to stage a boycott as the discovery that David Schraub or Martha Nussbaum or Judge Sotomayor would agree with their moral compunctions.

David Schraub said...

Matthew's response seems to be that boycotts justify themselves -- that is, anytime "collective morality" creates the conditions where a boycott emerges, ipso facto, the boycott is justified because the very fact of the boycott indicates that the collective believes that the situation is grave enough to warrant a boycott (and, conversely, the boycott fades whenever the collective can no longer sustain the moral outrage to maintain it, this justifying the end of the boycott).

I think Matthew's point elides a key facet of what a boycott represents, and why I think it ought be reserved for special occasions: that a boycott represents the use of coercive external force to try and get a local sovereign to change its behavior for reasons other than the that sovereign (in this case, the people of Arizona) believes the policy change is right. There are times when that's justifiable, but it represents a circumvention of democratic norms, and this should be approached carefully.

I think it is important to acculturate norms which counsel strongly in favor of deferring to local democratic preferences. Boycotts are just a nicer form of blockades, which are a nicer form of invasions -- it is a bad thing (as we -- and I -- have found) when the populace too freely decides that trying to slam through a policy change is justified anytime they believe they can bring enough force to bear on the matter, and that the only arbiter of whether such moves are just is whether the groups pressing for boycotts/blockades/invasions can, in fact, create a viable movement which can effectuate the boycott/blockade/invasion.

I also think he's too loose in saying "oh, you're problem is with Z, not Y", when I did, in fact, give reasons why Y is likely to lead to Z. But that's a separate issue.

joe said...

I'd say a boycott is a way nicer invasion to the extent that a strongly-worded letter to the editor is a way nicer extortion scheme. At least under any conventional theory of negative liberties, the difference couldn't be sharper. In their exercise of purchasing power, the boycotters are just using a facet of freedom of association. It's very democratic in that they're voting with their feet. True it's not necessarily local democracy, but contrast that with the invaders, who are using coercive force -- resistance to demands here is potentially fatal as opposed to merely inconvenient.

Or, more simply, there's a widely recognized right to not be invaded. Less so with boycotts. Not to get all objectivist about this or anything.

Matthew C said...

I'm not saying trying to deduce a justification from collective morality in a positive sense, I'm just questioning (1) what exactly you think boycotts need to be morally responsive to; (2) why that standard is presumed to be better than the political negotiations of a group. I raise the issue because I think that, behind all the rhetoric about moral responsiveness, you just have an objection to collective political action because its messier than you think politics ought to be (in the sense that it is politics, and not academic debate).

I think invoking sovereignty as the trump card in favor of Arizona is dubious, and I especially don't like the idea that doing so makes the anti-boycott position better from the standpoint of democracy. Frankly, I think the idea of strict territorial sovereignty is totally anti-democratic, since it denies participation in decision-making to people who are stakeholders in those decisions, and reinforces the idea that territorial units have something like an inalienable right to police their borders and the constitution of their citizenship. That kind of thinking is largely what motivates the Arizona law to begin with. The boycott solution does not involve appealing to a state for intervention, does involve internal negotiation of ethical and political ends by the group in question, and does give people with an interest in pushing for a more just set of laws the ability to do so. All of this strikes me as more democratic than saying that Arizonans have a special right to be racist as long as they exercise that right in Arizona. I think the appeal to sovereignty is ultimately another way of taking an ambiguous and contested political situation, where lots of people feel an ethical compunction to resist an unjust law, and elide that ambiguity by granting one group of people exactly the kind of power whose abuse animates the law in question.

Finally, I'm not sure why the coercion involved in an appeal to sovereignty is any more democratic than the coercion involved in a withdrawal of economic support. If I have to choose between cultivating democratic norms that defer to entrenching the power of formal political structures and cultivating democratic norms that encourage collective action across boundaries by freely associating people, I'd throw in for the latter.

David Schraub said...

Joe: A boycott has a secondary persuasive effect, in that the target might wonder why folks so vigorously oppose their position and thus reevaluate it, but it's primary effect is to try and bring enough economic power to bear on the target so they are forced to change whether they are persuaded to or not. In this, it is more similar to other forms of mass action which attempt to leave the target's economy in shambles, more so than those whose power comes purely from their ability to persuade.

Matt: First, the democratic presumption is a rebuttable one, so appealing to the specific racist features of the Arizona law which may make it worth overcoming doesn't show that boycotts shouldn't be treated as special, it just shows that Arizona is among the special cases.

Second, I think your preference for "stakeholder" versus "territorial" democracy is extraordinarily vaguely formed and runs in major democracy deficit problems. You don't really say who counts as a "stakeholder" in your equation, but if I (the potential boycotter) am a "stakeholder" in the issue simply because I'm aggrieved that Arizona is behaving in a racist fashion, the definition of stakeholder is far too thin to really sustain a democratic community. I think that insofar as intervention is justified (and I certainly think it is on other axes -- particularly legal ones), it's justified because Arizonans made a decision that can't be countenanced within the rules which govern the American constitutional community, and that's sufficient to override their preferences. Pretending like we're not doing such an override at all (in any meaningful respect) seems motivated by little more than a desire that every political value be lined up on our side. They're not.

Finally, part of your dismissal of my concerns seems to be that I think communal action is "too messy", which is implied to mean that the room where the decisions are made isn't austere enough or something. But the problem runs deeper than that: group polarization and spirals of silence are real problems in the sort of communal action you promote, and you don't really address why we shouldn't be concerned about them. "Standard" politics (in an adversarial legislature or in an adversarial court system) many have many faults, but it does do a superior job checking these dynamics.

joe said...

David, I must admit you are taking a more consequentialist stance than I would have expected. True there is an economic effect, but so what? Why is there a positive duty to patronize a business or group of businesses, instead of the option?