Boycotts have a heavy history. In December of 1955, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. A year later, the laws that segregated buses in Alabama were declared unconstitutional. In 1933, the Nazi party organized a national boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany. It was one of the early actions taken by the Nazis against Jewish people in Germany. Boycotts send a message of intolerance, be it for a right and worthy cause, or a wrong and dark one.
To boycott is to stop using a product or service, not because of dissatisfaction with the product or service itself, but as a means of punishment or protest. Boycotting sends a message that you will not tolerate the acts, words or practices of the entity you are boycotting. Sometimes it’s a single comment made by the entity that triggers boycotting; other times it’s the revelation of a practice or policy. Boycotts can be powerful vehicles for social change, but they can also be ineffective or worse yet, detrimental. They are an expression of intolerance with potentially complex consequences.
One afternoon this past summer, I was walking down a New York City street on my way to meet a friend when I saw a chalk drawing on the sidewalk, right in front of a community center with a health club. The chalk drawing said something to the effect of being a “gym with values” and offering a discount if you switch to their gym. One block later, I noticed another gym/health club. Huh? Was the first health club referring to the gym on the next block?
After doing a little research, I found out that some members of the second gym had been seeking to cancel their memberships due to a recent story in the news involving a principal shareholder in the parent company of that gym. I have no idea whether they switched to the gym with the chalk writings on its sidewalk.
This led me to wonder about what goes into our decisions to stop using products or services, when these decisions aren’t based on dissatisfaction with the products or services themselves: consumer boycotts. Personally, I can’t remember ever boycotting any product, service or establishment based on something I read in the news. Perhaps the brands I use aren’t saying anything or engaging in anything I find offensive, but more likely, I tend to separate the art form the artist, the product from the producer and so on simply because it becomes a slippery slope not to.
For example, I recently had dinner at a nice restaurant I had been looking forward to trying, only to find out minutes after being seated that the celebrity chef associated with that restaurant had been accused (not tried or convicted) of sexual misconduct. My friend told me about it as we were being seated when I commented on how I expected it to be more packed for a Saturday night. Neither of us felt we should leave and go somewhere else because honestly, where does it end? At some level in likely most organizations, someone who profits indirectly or directly from my business is doing something I don’t agree with, or is accused of doing something someone doesn’t agree with. For me, the decision whether or not to avoid or even boycott an organization depends on the severity of the offense and the degree to which other people whose jobs are affected by such boycotts are unfairly paying the price for my stance.
Back to the chalk writing on the sidewalk: what prompted me to write about this was the uneasy feeling I got when I saw it. Just walking down the street minding my own business, I felt an unfair judgment in the air. Do the employees of the other gym not have values because they work there? Are members of that gym being accused of not having values if they don’t drop their membership or switch? There is more at play here than whether we find something offensive or unacceptable. There is judgment against people who may hold a different view. Boycotts send a message that certain actions will not be tolerated, but they can also lead to negative consequences both direct and indirect. Let’s stay clear on who we are pointing the finger at, and why exactly. People have different beliefs and different values, and indirectly accusing an organization (and to some extent it’s employees and customers) of not having values is highly judgmental, especially for a community center that advocates tolerance for all.
For many people (myself included), a gym is a place where we can let out some stress, workout and decompress. As one popular gym’s slogan says: No Judgments. Let’s do our best to align our consumer choices with our views, without pointing fingers at others who may have a different view.
1. Have you ever boycotted a product, service or establishment?
2. If you haven’t, would you?
3. Do you disagree with the notion of boycotting in general?
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