Why I Don't Boycott Anything
When I was 14, and a high school freshman in Carmel, I had the only political fight of my life that literally came to blows.
Daniel Talbot and I rolled on the ground, pulling each other’s hair and tearing each other’s shirts, until we were separated by a couple of older, laughing football players.
“We need to teach you geeks how to fight,” said one; “That was the suckiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
What we lacked in pugilistic skill, Daniel and I made up for in our fury. We were both near tears, less from pain than from rage. What was all our upset about? What had led two friends to this moment?
Jane Fonda, and the acclaimed 1981 movie she made with her father, On Golden Pond.
Daniel came from a staunchly conservative family. His uncle was an army officer who had served in Vietnam. They hated “Hanoi Jane,” whom they regarded as a traitor for having given comfort to the Viet Cong, and they despised her well-known left-wing politics. That fateful day at lunch, Daniel had declared that anyone who went to see the recently released On Golden Pond was a Communist and a faggot. I told Daniel that my mother had taken my brother and me to see the movie the previous Sunday, and that furthermore, mama had been a friend of Jane’s when they were both students at Vassar.
“Your mother has bad friends,” said Daniel.
“Your parents are stupid for not seeing a great movie just because they don’t like one of the actresses,” I replied, and having insulted each other’s progenitors, someone threw the first ineffective but inevitable punch shortly thereafter.
Ever since, I have despised boycotts, be they of entertainers or of multinational corporations. I eat at Chick-Fil-A, watch Mel Gibson and Woody Allen movies, still listen to Ryan Adams, and buy Nestle chocolate. I do not do it to be provocative. I do not post photos of my chicken sandwiches or posters of “Manhattan” for the sake of trolling, or otherwise annoying those who do choose to participate in boycotts. I have no desire to have a more grown-up version of the tussle Daniel and I had nearly 40 years ago.
My friends who participate in boycotts of artists or companies do so because they believe, not entirely wrongly, that “every dollar is a vote.” They want to signal disapproval, but they also want to bring about real change. They point to effective consumer campaigns that led to real progress, such as the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s or the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. Perhaps they imagine that if they don’t buy that chicken sandwich at Chick-Fil-A, the famously politically conservative company will rethink its views on gay rights. Perhaps if they refuse to watch any Woody Allen movies, studios will learn not to give money to problematic directors.
Some boycotts do work, but most don’t. Most are less about changing the culture than they are about defining oneself through one’s consumption. I am the sort of person who goes to Target, not Wal-Mart. I am the sort of person who eats Popeye’s, not Chick-Fil-A. I am the sort of person who won’t watch movies made by abusive men. This isn’t necessarily performance for others, though it can be – it’s often just about checking one’s own moral compass: I may not be able to end injustice, and they probably won’t miss my dollars or my eyeballs, but at least I can feel like I’m doing something tangible.
I don’t refuse to boycott out of a sense of powerlessness. I don’t refuse to boycott out of a sense that anti-Semitism, or rape, or poor business practices are okay. The reason I don’t participate in boycotts is because I’m convinced that boycotts deceive us into pretending that things are simpler than they are. Chick-Fil-A, for example, pays higher wages with better benefits than Popeye’s’ chicken. Mel Gibson and Woody Allen movies involve hundreds of craftspeople who also bring their artistry to bear on the finished product. I could go on – the point is, boycotts allow us to imagine that things are black and white rather than gray. Boycotts encourage us not only to attempt to impose our morality onto others, they encourage us to believe that the issues at stake are straightforward and obvious rather than maddeningly complex and wondrously opaque.
Above all, boycotts encourage us to divide the world into unhelpful binaries between the aware and the sleeping, between the empathetic and those who lack all compassion. In social media posts, one reads constant declarations along the lines of, “I wish I could still listen to Michael Jackson, but I can’t support his estate” or “I used to love Chick-Fil-A, but I force myself to go without.” Rarely does anyone add, “But this is of course a personal decision, and I don’t judge anyone who feels differently.” Rather, the implication, usually intended, is “I wish everyone else was as virtuous as I am, willing to make the same sacrifices. If you cannot make the same sacrifices, perhaps you do not see as clearly as I see, or feel as intensely as I feel.”
I was wrong to call Daniel Talbot’s family stupid for boycotting Jane Fonda movies. I apologized to him for it – about 35 years late, in a Facebook message a few years ago. Daniel apologized as well, though he remembered our fight a little differently, teasingly insisting that he had had the better of me. He is still a Republican, but I didn’t ask if he has ever seen a Jane Fonda movie.
If you feel called to boycott, I will not provoke or question you. I will not pretend, however, that I believe boycotts are either virtuous or effective. I will not begrudge you your moral certainty, and hope you won’t find my uncertainty and humility to be too tiresome for our friendship to continue.