Tuesday, January 29, 2019

When is a Boycott Not a Boycott?

When I go to Las Vegas, I don't stay at the Venetian.

It's a lovely hotel, don't get me wrong -- strikingly beautiful, in its way.

But Sheldon Adelson is a schmuck, and I don't want to give him my money, so I stay elsewhere.

Am I boycotting the Venetian?

I don't think so. In my mind's eye, I've never thought of myself as "boycotting the Venetian". But why not?

Some might say I am boycotting the Venetian, I just don't want to admit to myself that's what I'm doing because I don't like thinking of myself as a boycotting sort.

Perhaps. But there are some other potential distinctions. First, I don't position what I'm doing as part of any broader expressive mobilization campaign against Sheldon Adelson. I don't publicly announce "I don't stay at the Venetian" (other than the context of this post, of course), I don't link up with other "boycotters" to amplify my voice or try to convince others not to stay at the Venetian either. If boycotting feels inherently like collective action, my choice is personal and private, and I have no interest in extending it beyond that.

Second, my "boycott" -- if it is that -- is extremely lightly held. I've walked through the Venetian, taken pictures at the Venetian, shopped at the Venetian, ate at restaurants at the Venetian. There's no real coherency to it. And more than that, if (say) a friend was hosting a bachelor party in Vegas and booked us a suite at the Venetian, I'd attend without concern. It's not where I'd pick, but I wouldn't view it as violating any ethical commitments on my part. Boycotts seem to me like they have to positions of principle; at most my avoidance of the Venetian expresses a ceteris paribus distaste (one could characterize what I'm doing is drawing a line in the sand -- I'll patronize the Venetian to this extent, but no further -- but that's certainly not how I think of what I'm doing. In all honesty, I have a mild preference against staying at the Venetian, which can be overriden by any number of relatively mundane circumstances).

That raises a third issue, which is that people decide not to buy certain products or patronize certain businesses all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Surely, if I don't go to a restaurant because I think the food is gross, it'd be weird to characterize me as "boycotting the restaurant" (even though one could say that my refusal to patronize is an attempt to pressure them to improve their menu quality). And that logic doesn't seem to change if my decision is based on the owner being rude, or the spokesperson annoying me, or any number of other reasons.

"Boycott" places a collective ethical imperative on decisions that ordinarily would simply fall under the ambit of private choice. There's no problem with that, except when the term colonizes actions that the actor doesn't intend to portray in that fashion. I know people who don't buy wines from the West Bank. They wouldn't say they're boycotting Israel, or even boycotting the settlements. And they generally don't view their decision as a means of exerting "pressure" on Israel (even to end the occupation). All it is that, for whatever reason, wine from the West Bank makes them squicky, and so they don't purchase it. I think a lot of people would characterize their conduct as a "boycott", even as I'm confident they don't see their action in those terms.

My gut instinct is that there is a real distinction here and it's one we should honor. I don't think boycotts are necessarily illegitimate -- their moral propriety depends on a host of questions including their scope, criteria for inclusion, and goals -- but I also don't think they conceptually cover any individual consumer's choice to abstain from purchasing a particular product. To boycott, to me, involves a self-conscious decision to join in collective action for purpose of publicly expressing a critical view with the goal of inducing a change in behavior.

If I decide to stay at Caesars rather than the Venetian, I don't self-consciously view myself as boycotting the Venetian, I don't locate what I'm doing into any sort of collective action, I don't publicly declare it as representing a critical or political view, and I don't view myself as trying to induce Sheldon Adelson to behave better.

I just think Adelson's sort of a schmuck. And so, all else being equal, I'd rather not give him my money.

1 comment:

Erl said...

I like this distinction, but I think it gets trickier when there's an extant boycott—it's in the air, so to speak. Then the marginal willingness of low-investment consumers to buy or not buy becomes a part—I wonder how big a part?—of the boycott's power.

Take Scabby the huge inflatable rat, for example. Suppose hypothetically that I don't like to eat at restaurants with a huge inflatable rat outside. If I could walk a block to go to another restaurant I will. But I'm not a "never cross a picket line guy"; if I have big reservations or whatever I'd just go in. Am I boycotting? Not really, as per your reasonable explanation. But on the other hand, this sort of behavior is exactly what the rat folks want to induce.