Knee-Jerk Activism

Amy and I enjoy shooting pool together.

Doing that in Bethany means going to the corner of 185th and West Union, where there are two bars with pool tables. One of these bars has a table in need of leveling, resulting in the balls rolling in strange arcs and all congregating at one end of the table. The other, a real sports bar, has five pool tables, all in good repair. Naturally we tend to pick the latter when we've got a hankering for pool.

There is one problem with this bar, though: In the game room, where four of the five tables are located, there is an emergency exit door, marked prominently with the words "this door to remain open during business hours," that is almost always locked, and I don't just mean from the outside. It's impossible to use it at all. One night about a month ago, as I was settling the tab, I pointed this out to the bartender. He blew me off. I pressed my point, and he blew me off more rudely. I left furious, vowing never to return, a reaction that prompted Amy to remind me that this meant driving half an hour to find a decent pool table. My urge to boycott was trumped by the convenience of the location--which is probably how most boycotts end, not with success, but with boycotters finally giving in to the realities of the marketplace.

Consider the case of the Nestle boycott:

It was the late 1970s, and one of my chores was checking the mail. I would walk down the hill to the post office, empty out our box, and walk home, leafing through the envelopes in hope of finding one addressed to me, something that rarely occurred because, at 16, there just weren't that many people wanting to expend postage on me. My father was a different matter. As a United Methodist minister, he received plenty of mail, and much of it came from the Nestle Corporation.

One day, after dropping off Dad's mail at his church office, I asked him what the deal was with all the large envelopes from Nestle. "They're trying to reverse the boycott," he replied--and then had to explain what a boycott was, and what this particular one was about. In a nutshell, Nestle had been aggressively marketing infant formula in African nations as an alternative to breast-feeding. Mothers would mix the formula with contaminated water (clean tap water is still hard to come by in many African countries), or over-dilute it, and as a result, many infants were dying of water-borne illnesses and malnutrition. The boycott of Nestle products, which had been joined by the United Methodist Church, among many other mainline denominations, was aimed at changing Nestle's marketing policies. It was apparently getting Nestle's attention, enough so that they were spending huge amounts on a deluge of mailings to mainline protestant ministers begging them to reverse the boycott. And yet, to my knowledge, our family wasn't even taking part in it: we still had Nestle Quik in the cupboard. According to the Wikipedia article on the boycott, it's still in effect, 37 years after it was begun, so apparently it wasn't just our kitchen that continued to have Nestle products in it; and it has yet to effect the change it sought, though Nestle has found itself under repeated investigations by international organizations.

That's one problem with boycotts: they may help individuals feel better about themselves, but only in rare cases do they recruit enough participants to bring about real change.

Here's another problem: while many of them are founded on legitimate concerns, some grow out of knee-jerk reactions to inadequate or even false information about target companies.

Consider Procter & Gamble, the home products company that has been manufacturing soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and many other products for personal use since 1837. In 1851, the company adopted as its logo a whimsical image of the man in the moon gazing at a field of stars. For 129 years, no one questioned this logo. Then in 1980, a rumor began to circulate that the logo was a Satanist symbol, that the company was, in fact, a front for the Church of Satan, and that to buy Procter & Gamble products was to contribute to their diabolical scheme for bringing on the Apocalypse. The rumor has been repeatedly debunked, but has proven so durable that the company dropped the logo entirely in 1995--and yet it still lives, like a weird populist zombie out of the very apocalypse it supposedly foretells. Battling the rumor led not just to a rebranding, but also to a successful lawsuit against Amway for helping spread the story.

On a side note, there is a legitimate boycott of P&G in opposition to its animal testing practices. This boycott may have been at least partially successful, according to this article.

And finally, let's take a look at Starbucks, the ubiquitous purveyor of Italian-style coffee drinks. I heard yesterday that some pro-Israel activists are calling for a boycott of Starbucks because it has "withdrawn support" from the Israeli military. This struck me as extremely odd--military subsidies typically come in the form of foreign aid, not corporate gifts--so I googled "Starbucks boycott Israel," and the first article I found was from an ezine called The Jewish Daily Forward, with the title "Starbucks Doesn't Mix Coffee with Politics." The piece carefully dissects the various Israel-related boycotts against Starbucks, most of which have come from pro-Palestinian groups that have assumed the company is far more connected to Israeli politics than it actually is. In fact, Starbucks stopped operating stores in Israel in 2004, though the article does not explain the reasoning for that action. What becomes clear over the course of the article is that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has walked a nonpartisan tightrope with regard to Israeli policies, and any statements he has made on the topic have been to insist that the company is not financially supporting either side in the conflict with Gaza. The most recent disavowal came about because of an anti-Israeli boycott against Starbucks for alleged contributions to Israel. Ironically, that very disavowal has now triggered calls for a boycott for the opposite reason.

I'm not a big fan of Starbucks, and given a choice, I will always pick a local espresso shop to satisfy a coffee craving. But reading this article, which clearly went to great lengths trying to find a reason to critique the company, I found myself feeling a great deal of sympathy for Howard Schultz. Sometimes the cost of doing business is learning you just can't win: make a statement to counter a rumor, and find yourself boycotted because of the statement, rather than the rumor.

I'm no stranger to knee-jerk activism. One bad experience at an establishment can tempt me to boycott it. Hearing one bad thing about a company can have a similar effect on me. My knee-jerk response to the idea of boycotting Starbucks because it's not pro-Israel enough is to want to head down to one of the three Starbucks in my neighborhood and order a Trenta Macchiato with whipped cream--except I know I'd regret it almost as soon as I sucked it down. Knee-jerk boycotts and reverse boycotts crop up all the time, often in reaction to remarks made by a CEO about the hot-button issue of the day. I understand the temptation, but here's the reality:

Any corporation of any size is going to engage in some practices, and have some policies, that politically active individuals find offensive. Frequently consumers have no real choice in the matter: there may only be one cable company serving a neighborhood, one coffee shop within walking distance, one sports bar with decent pool tables. Boycotts do affect corporate bottom lines, the one stimulus that can be sure to bring about change, but they also can take a bite out of a consumer's budget. And sometimes they're simply reactionary, grounded in a rumor or a misunderstanding.

Which is why, when I'm tempted to boycott, I stop myself and do some research. Sometimes I sign on; more often, I just continue going about my business, drinking Starbucks if I've got no other choice, signing up for Comcast because it's the least disappointing option in town, washing my hair with a P&G shampoo because it was on sale, and shooting pool at the bar with the locked emergency exit because I don't want to have to drive into town to drop an eight ball in the corner pocket.


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