FauxPolitik

Friday, April 18, 2003

Boycotts, Left and Right:Volokh has taken a different slant on boycotting versus condemning disagreeable opinion: ethics. He says:
But I think there's an important ethical distinction between simply responding to speech -- even if it may foreseeably hurt the speaker's pocketbook -- and trying to organize a boycott that's aimed at punishing the speaker, or at deterring speakers from saying such things in the future.
I'm not sure he's correct. Is it the case that the boycott of, say, the Dixie Chicks is motivated by a desire to "[deter them] from saying such things in the future"? I would guess that most people who withheld their money from the Dixie Chicks don't particularly care what Natalie Maines says in the future. The point is to exercise a type of economic speech -- voting with their wallets, as it were. Is that "punishment" of the speaker? I don't think so. Nothing is taken away from the speaker, no right withheld. The speaker is free to continue saying what he or she wishes, but with the understanding that he or she does so to the detriment of his or her "customer base." It's an inexact parallel, to say the least, but wouldn't you, Eugene, stop patronizing your dry cleaner if the owner greeted your patronage with a salutation of "Hey, asshole"?

Like I said, inexact; but Volokh's example, I think, really goes wide of the mark. He posits a case of employment:

Here's a simple hypothetical: Imagine that a company employs someone who's a noted Republican activist. The company's sole owner fires the activist, saying the following: "By employing this person, I'm supporting him financially; in fact, part of the money that I'm paying him ends up being used for his activism, so I'm supporting his actual speech and any action stemming therefrom, and I am, however incrementally, associating myself with it. Which, of course, I would not want to do. I will therefore fire this person." Whether or not this behavior is legal (and I think it should be), I think most of us would rightly condemn it as intolerant and therefore improper. Yes, if the employer retains this employee, he may be indirectly supporting a cause with which he disagrees; and perhaps by firing the employee, he may in some small measure weaken that cause. But tolerating people means that sometimes we should do even those things that indirectly help causes we dislike -- pay a salary to supporters of those causes, decline to ostracize them, even in some situations (for instance, if we're a private university that's dedicated to academic freedom) provide an equal forum for them as we do for other groups.
But employment is a contract, even if one supports (as Eugene says he does, and I do) the right of an employer to fire for any reason. An employer who has hired me to do a job has an economic incentive to keep me working, and an economic disincentive to fire talented people with whom the employer might disagree on unrelated matters. (Remember the college student working for a Texas media consultant who was said to be secretly mailing insider information to the Gore campaign? She turned out to be an active Democrat, if I recall, in which case it would be not only ethical to fire for political reasons, it would be a disservice to one's client not to.) At any rate, I have no contract with the Dixie Chicks to buy their records. I might do, if I like the tunes. I might even if I like the tunes but hate what they say/stand for/advertise for/etc. (If I didn't buy the music of artists who disagree with me politically, I'd only be able to listen to Zappa.) Nonetheless, if an artist says something irresponsible ("kill the Jews," for example) it is entirely ethical for me to withhold my money, and to send a note to the nice people at the record company telling them why my $12 is still in my wallet, and to tell my friends what I did and why. Now, if the record company wants to fire the artist because they're beginning to look like a financial risk, that's a business decision.

Another example to help distinguish, shifting from speech to the related matter of association: Let's say that a restaurant that won't serve black people. I think a private business can refuse service to anyone they choose without legal sanction, so their right to do business is not at iassue. But is it ethical for the white people in the area to make it perfectly clear to that establishment that they will not bring their money there because of such a policy? Absolutely. Now we move into deeper waters: This was, effectively, the motivation behind various boycotts of South African products in the 1980s. One direct effect of the economic pressure was that less money came into the South African economy. In the long term, one could argue, this led to the disestablishment of apartheid. In the short term, though, many people, including the oppressed black population we were ostensibly trying to aid, suffered first in an economic tightening. Were the sanctions still ethical? That is the interesting question, and the one worth debating.

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