Would you boycott a family dinner because your grandfather holds some politically incorrect views about welfare recipients? Or, would you uninvite a neighboring family from attending a block party after learning that they attend an evangelical church that upholds a traditional definition of marriage? Most reasonable people would say “no,” adhering to the old adage that it’s rude to talk politics in polite company.
Unfortunately, this rule of etiquette that has governed civil society for ages seems to be quickly evaporating in the world of commerce, as highlighted by the now notorious case of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. This impolite seed should be quickly uprooted before it sprouts into a world where everything is politicized.
However, Eich is not the only person who has been under fire recently for controversial political views regarding LGBT rights. Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy faced similar protests after making statements opposing same-sex marriage in 2012. Even more recently, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made controversial comments to GQ in December 2013 on gay marriage and race relations that led to the star being temporarily suspended by the show.
At first glance, such calls to boycott may seem reasonable. After all, freedom of speech and associations are hallmarks of American society. Just as Eich, Cathy, and Robertson had the right to express their opinions on gay marriage, so too do LGBT individuals and allies have the right to express their discontent and the right to not associate with each figure’s product in the marketplace.
After all, boycotts have a rich history of prompting social change. The boycott of Woolworth’s lunch counters in the early 1960s led to the department store desegregating its services free of government action. However, there is a major distinction between these famous examples of historical boycotts and contemporary calls to protest anti-gay views.
Whereas protestors of the past objected to discriminatory policies that private entities like Woolworths enforced, today’s protesters object to the political views held by such entities’ leadership. In fact, both Eich and Cathy have assured the public that their companies will not discriminate against gays. Yet, this assurance has fallen to empty ears because the protests are fundamentally not about policy, but about thought.
Again, a reasonable case can be made for such conscious consumption at first glance. After all, a dollar spent by an LGBT individual or ally at a company whose leadership opposes gay rights is partly a dollar spent against gay rights. Yet, this view is much too simplistic since there are many employees in any given company’s chain of leadership — not to mention the customers they feed and supply chain they purchase from.
It seems unlikely, for instance, that a vast majority of employees or even customers of Chick-Fil-A are homophobic. So, what good would come of a boycott of Chick-Fil-A, especially since the company does not engage in discriminatory practices? Conscious consumerism is nearly impossible since every organization inevitably consists of people with beliefs the consumer agrees and disagrees with.
Indeed, it seems like such calls to boycott have done more bad than good by making martyrs of bigots in the public eye. The protests surrounding Chick-Fil-A prompted an “Appreciation Day” backlash where thousands of gay marriage opponents flocked to buy chicken sandwiches, resulting in “record-setting” profits for the company. A&E’s temporary suspension of Phil Roberts created such an outcry that the television channel quickly reversed course. Brendan Eich’s resignation has led to a similar outcry from conservative outlets like National Review and Fox News.
Public opinion is already quickly shifting towards greater acceptance of LGBT rights independent of these failed boycotts. One recent Reuters poll, for instance, found that a majority of Americans now support gay marriage for the first time in history. Public protests of companies whose leadership hold anti-gay beliefs will thereby only add fuel to a dying fire of homophobia.
Just as we as individuals may break bread with our racist grandfather or homophobic neighbors, so too should we not be afraid to buy products from companies whose leadership holds some politically incorrect views. At the end of the day, one issue does not encapsulate the whole of a person or an organization. If our subjective notion of political purity is the only measure by which we judge whether to associate with other individuals, we will soon find ourselves in a very lonely world.