Why I rarely boycott things

If you’ve spent much time on Twitter and Facebook, you’ve probably detected a pattern. Heck, maybe you’ve been involved in it. It goes something like this:

* Some company (or one of their executives) does something objectionable. This thing can range from supporting a politician with views that don’t align with their own to donating to causes that don’t support progress to saying something in an interview.
* People call for a boycott of that company or product
* Occasionally the person or company involved will apologize
* What then?

Sometimes these boycotts are effective. But unless there’s a truly compelling reason, I can’t take part–not with a good conscience, at least. For one, I would have to know the political and social views of every single company and executive whose products I use. Looking around right now, that’s a lot: Apple, Google, Samsung, HP, NaNoWriMo, my headphones, my USB drive… And I’m not even writing this from home, where even more companies and products would stand out.

Then you get even more into the nitty gritty. I bought those headphones (and my extra phone batteries, and who knows what else) on Amazon. I don’t remember where I bought the laptop I’m typing this on, but it was surely online somewhere. My phone carrier is Verizon. I bought my laptop bag from the NaNoWriMo store, but another company likely made the physical bag. The individual parts for my devices were made by different companies, many of them overseas, possibly with worker exploitation and child labor. The apps on my devices were made by various companies, from the big ones (Google, Amazon, Starbucks, Fitbit, my bank…) to small companies and even individual developers (some of the games I’ve downloaded, for instance).

In order to boycott with a good conscience, I would have to analyze the political and social views for every single company that makes the things I use. Analzying all these views is a job in itself, one I don’t have the time or inclination for. Boycotting one maker would make me feel anxious for not knowing the views of all the companies whose products I use, not to mention some companies and executives are tight-lipped on these topics. Taking a “guilty until proven innocent” approach doesn’t work either; after all, some companies never speak out on current issues, even if their executives personally have an opinion. Life is short; I can’t just wait for it.

One answer, of course, is to boycott only when it’s practical. This is something I noticed when former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich had (personally, not on behalf of Firefox or Mozilla) donated in support of Proposition 8 in California. This tidbit got out a few years later, causing some people in my circles to stop using Firefox for this reason alone. But a lot of nontechnical folks don’t know he also created Javascript, a language that is used on almost every website (including this one). Good luck with boycotting that. The problem with this approach is that boycotts weren’t meant to be practical. One great example of this is the bus boycotts in Alabama in 1956. It definitely wasn’t practical for the boycotters to stop riding the buses; many of them walked miles to and from work (not to mention other places) for a year as a result. This is why the conservative attempts to boycott Hamilton after the election haven’t made a difference; it’s easy not to buy tickets when they’re sold out months in advance.

Here’s another question: what happens if the company or maker apologizes for their actions? It’s easy to miss the apology; after all, much of contemporary media concentrates on the breaking big stories instead of updates. Does the apology make everything okay again? Is it okay to go back to using that company’s products again if an honest apology is issued? What if an apology is issued and then five years pass with no further incidents? Is it okay to judge forever based on that one stain?

I don’t have good answers to any of these questions; if I did, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But I can’t stop you from boycotting whatever you want, so one more thing:

If you do continue to boycott companies based on their views or actions, I urge you: please don’t take your anger and frustration out on the people at the bottom of the corporate ladder. They just work there, and sometimes they don’t have other options. It’s easy to say they do; after all, they could quit and find another job, or find another publisher for their works. These actions take time and resources that could be directed elsewhere. Your actions would be better directed elsewhere too.

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