Debating Boycotts at Berkeley

by David French

For those NRO readers in the Berkeley area (and I know there are many of you — even now hiding your NRO iPhone app to avoid reprisals), I’ll be speaking at 12:40 at the law school on “Free Speech, Boycotts, and Chick-fil-A.” A good time will be had by all.

For those who can’t make it, here’s the basic summary of my argument: Absent extraordinary and compelling circumstances, a culture that respects and values free speech should shun boycotts. Too often our view of free speech is something like the following: “You may have the right to speak, but I also have the legal right to use my voice to try to destroy you — to make you lose your job, lose your business, and exclude you from the economic life of the community.” We saw this kind of behavior, for example, after Proposition 8 in California, when activists combed through donation records, found easy targets, and then proceeded to make life utterly miserable for dissenters from the leftist party-line — chanting “shame, shame” at customers entering their businesses and campaigning to get them fired from their jobs (among other things).   

The conservative movement is not immune to this mindset, though it generally takes boycotting a bit less far into the realm of heckling and public shaming. I’m constantly being urged to boycott this or that company (Apple because it rejected the Manhattan Declaration app; Starbucks because of its support for various pro-abortion organizations; Disney because of its pro-gay policies).

But a free-speech culture requires more than mere legal protections. In fact, a court is far less powerful than a community to ultimately protect and respect free speech. Some would say, “So what? We know right from wrong and can decide winners and losers on that basis.” But do you really know all that you need to know? For example, if you’re going to tell me I can’t get coffee from Starbucks, please tell me about the character and beliefs of the owner of the coffee shop down the street. Can I see a list of his political donations? Does he treat his wife and kids well? How about his employees? Can you assure me that while boycotting Starbucks I’m not actually creating greater harm by patronizing an even worse business? In short, boycotters tend to be ignorant of the overall virtues of the alternatives.#more#

In addition, boycotters rarely persuade. If the goal is to win people over to your point of view, most Americans rebel against heavy-handed, intolerant scolds. The practical effect of most boycotts is to reinforce the power of in-group ideology only in those communities where in-group ideology is already dominant — while alienating everyone else.

Boycotters cause unnecessary collateral damage. This (the Chick-fil-A worker abused by a leftist at a drive-thru) is a classic recent example, but there are many others. Companies like Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, and Apple are full of workers who help support their families by doing their best to provide good things to the public (waffle fries, pretentious-sounding coffee mixes, and iPhones). They are no more accountable for the actions of the corporate office than I am — as a captain in the Army Reserve — for the politically correct errors and outrages of higher military headquarters. Absent utterly compelling and highly peculiar circumstances, I’m going to focus on my role and do my best to ensure that my little corner of the Army does things the right way.

To be clear, I’m in favor of using my free speech rights to try to persuade companies that they’ve made wrong choices, but there’s a significant difference between critiques — even strong critiques — and boycotts.  

One of the enduring historical virtues of free speech is that it tends to de-escalate politics. In other words, since — win or lose — I’ll have the right to dissent and organize to win the next time, elections tend to avoid the winner-take-all mentality we see so ingloriously displayed in places like Egypt. But if the stakes of political debate escalate to the point where winners prosper and losers shut up or leave town, then we’ve lost a critical and vital element of our civic culture and will inch even further down the road of balkanization and ideological tribalism.

(Berkeley readers still need to come to the event even after reading this post — I promise to supplement the points above with jokes and witticisms.)