Boycotts: Ending Evil, or Going Hungry For Nothing?

It seems like every day there’s something new to boycott…

Whether it’s Rupert Murdoch…who got a pie in the face, by the way, for his tabloid style journalism…

Or it’s Nike for their exploitation of children and workers







Or Wal-Mart for workers rights abuses, discrimination against women, and contribution to suburban sprawl

In other words…there’s LOTS of stuff in the world to boycott.

Before I go into my rant, let me just say that I do support boycotting organizations that don’t treat workers fairly, utilize child labor, lend monetary or industrial support to the manufacture of military weapons, etc. There have been many successful boycotts in the past, the biggest one coming to mind is the Montgomery Bus Boycotts led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. However, I do have some words of caution when it comes to boycotting so many things:

1) This was something a pastor friend of mine and I talked about the other day: when people boycott something for what is a legitimate reason, they often wind up supporting something committing the same sin, or perhaps doing something even worse. Take Wal-Mart for example. I’ve disliked Wal-Mart for some time now, but in finding out about their poor treatment of workers, discrimination against women, and other matters, I talked to my wife about finding another place to shop.  Doing so was going to hurt our budget, since Wal-Mart was the cheapest place around and we’re pretty darn broke, but it was for a good purpose, so we went to the local Giant food store (local, privately owned grocery stores are pretty hard to come by around here outside of farmer’s markets).  We spent a little more money, but we got a lot of the same stuff we usually get.  After doing some more research, however, I did find a few political organizations who had problems with Giant too.  Apparently they can be guilty of worker mistreatment, bullying pro-union employees, etc. In my attempt to do good, I wound up doing something just as bad.

2) One of the big problems I’ve encountered with boycotting is who we really do damage to in a boycott. Let’s take the child labor example here with Nike.  When Nike fell under scrutiny for its blind eye toward these practices, they turned tail and ran from it (for the most part; Christian Science Monitor talks about it here), but was that what really needed to happen?  Should Nike have just said “Screw you guys; you’re exploiting children,” and left those manufacturers, or should they have worked to end child labor practice as a whole?  I think that, when we boycott a company, we wind up hurting the workers holding the ladder for the fat cats to climb and get richer. We’re trying to HELP the workers as part of our boycott, and instead they lose their jobs due to lack of business (or replacement by other workers when they’re fired). Boycotting needs to be aided by a plan to assist those at the bottom of the food chain in corporations so there is as little collateral damage as possible. I’ve had friends argue that “at least child labor gives a family income.” While that is true, it is at a cost I don’t want to pay for, ethically speaking, and just not buying Nikes is going to harm them just as well. Consideration for all those harmed in a boycott should be accounted for.

3) Targeting human beings as opposed to poor practice. Looking at the Rupert Murdoch boycott(well, the NewsCorp boycott), we’re targeting Murdoch for dishonest journalism practices propagating a very conservative view of politics and a false view of the world. This includes the New York Post, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal, but ALSO Hulu, The New York Rangers, The LA Lakers, HarperCollins Publishing, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and a host of other companies which may not necessarily propagate the dishonesty mentioned above, but which Murdoch owns a portion of. So here’s my issue: do we care more about NewsCorp’s poor business practices, or Murdoch’s political views? Having watched several Fox Searchlight Pictures, it hardly seems that that company is propagating Murdoch’s views (watch Little Miss Sunshine or Garden State), or that HarperCollins, a publishing company with a HUGE library spanning many, many different authors with many, many political views is propagating Murdoch’s views. It seems to me that if we’re going to be targeting bad journalism, we should hit it at its source, that being Fox News (and the NY Post and WSJ; I don’t know how their journalism is, since I really don’t read them), not trying to hit Murdoch’s wallet. It seems as though there’s enough sway in NewsCorp to speak one’s mind to convince the people at Fox News that what they’re doing ISN’T really news and that, if their practices changed, they’d do much, much better.

I guess the other problems I associate with boycotting are just personal.  I do kinda question their usefulness sometimes, depending on the opponent.  I also kind of question the amount of sacrifice we can make for such causes, whether with our wallets, our stomachs, or whatever.  It’s a high cost to account for, and I don’t want to encourage people to boycott a company without considering the cost first.  For example, the Early Church refused to offer sacrifice to the Emperor, claiming Jesus as the one true King.  This could be constituted as a sort-of  boycott, but one with a huge price: their lives.  We may not be sacrificing our lives to boycott Wal-Mart, but we do sacrifice affordable groceries.  Costs must be counted and our own morals considered when it comes to boycotts.

What do you guys think?  Are boycotts worth our time?  Are we too willy-nilly about them? What are some better ways to end corrupt business if we don’t want to boycott?


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