My grandmother was always dying. Asked how she was feeling, her consistent response was “ehhh.” There was hardly a conversation that didn’t include the warning, “You know, I’m not going to be around much longer.” Her impending any-minute-now death lasted from around the age of forty-seven until her actual death more than thirty years later. In the end, no one was surprised. She’d been preparing us for it for decades.
When the extraordinary becomes commonplace, it loses its impact.
We are fortunate, as Americans, to be endowed with certain inalienable rights (at least on paper), including the right to protest. And these days, there’s enough governmental skullduggery to fuel a constant, ongoing, around-the-clock exercising of that right. We could hold a march every day and a vigil every night; we could all quit our jobs and protest full time—and even still, we would fall short of adequately expressing our justified disapproval. But it’s a good thing we aren’t doing that, because at a certain point, all that protesting would stop being noteworthy—just a daily occurrence, like the afternoon rain in Zanzibar. Oh, there goes today’s march; what’s for lunch?
And so it is with another form of protest, boycotts. A boycott can be a powerful and effective tool for promoting awareness and affecting change. But powerful tools (and, for that matter, power tools) should be used judiciously. And boycotts, sad to say, are of late inching dangerously close to becoming so de rigueur as to bring about nothing but yawns.
One group doesn’t like the politics of the guy who runs a particular company. So they call for a boycott. Then people who adore his politics strike back by patronizing the company like mad. That’s what’s known as a zero-sum game. Another group learns a corporation is donating to the campaign of a candidate with whom they disagree. Boycott! That’ll show ‘em. But I ask you: Do the donations decrease by even a nickel? If you said “No, Mr. Curmudgeon, they do not,” you get a gold star for the day.
Recently, regular diners at a vegan restaurant learned that the couple that owned the restaurant had—in the privacy of their own home—returned to being meat eaters. Boycott! (And not only did they call for a boycott, there were even death threats . . . and I thought vegans were so peaceful.) The vegan restaurant is still there and still 100% vegan, but now the protesters have to find another place to eat. So everyone lost. And then there was the sports store owner who lodged his protest by boycotting Nike products. “Being a sports store without Nike,” he observed in retrospect, “is kind of like being a milk store without milk or a gas station without gas.” The store closes next month. Well played, sir.
The hot new trend of boycotting everything in sight comes from a misunderstanding of what boycotts are for, and what they do. The idea isn’t to stop patronizing any business led by people with ideologies different from yours. I mean, think how exhausting that would be, not to mention ineffective (see above). The idea is to call out actual injustice and withhold funds that would directly support harmful acts. If you boycott everyone with whom you disagree, you may soon find yourself having to do without basic staples like cloth, paper, groceries, and Grey Poupon. And, while I admire the dedication, I can’t help but notice that the people with whom you disagree also disagree with you, which means they may boycott you right back, just for spite. The whole thing takes on all the maturity of a schoolyard standoff. “Oh yeah? Says who?” “Says me! What are you gonna do about it?” “I’m gonna boycott you from here to next Tuesday.” “Oh yeah? Well you’re a dirty boycotter.” “Aw, so’s your old man.” “Yeah? Well I’m rubber, you’re glue.” “Oh yeah? Well same to you, times infinity, ya dirty boycotter.” And before you know it, you’ve wasted recess.
In truth, one might do better to make private decisions about where to spend one's money and spend accordingly, without (excuse the radical suggestion) announcing it to the world in an attempt to do the maximum amount of damage. Because however noble your umbrage, chances are you will merely alert the enemy to take opposing action in equal measure.
Maybe it’s time we just boycotted boycotts for a while.