Boycott Ethics

Posted on 02 November 2015

When I was living in Seattle I had a friend who worked with a boycott network. He explained to me their methodology, and I was deeply impressed. Their organisation showed real thoughtfulness and ethics. What I learned from them:

Boycotts are a peaceful form of pressure to create change. If they are merely punitive, they lose their power.

If you tell a company (or country or institution…) that you will never use them again because of their behaviour, they have less of a reason to change because they have already lost you.

If you tell a group, “I am boycotting you for this reason, but if you change your behaviour, I will return.” They have more incentive to change.

Boycotts must have the potential to be closed.

The boycott network regularly checked to see if those groups upon whom a boycott was called had modified their behaviour. When they did, the network would notify their members and call the boycott off. This provided those formerly boycotted with the positive reinforcement of return customers or similar.

What is boycotted must be carefully selected.

Will a particular boycott create more harm than good? Will it cause people to suffer? Will it slow progress toward more enlightened action, rather than assisting it? Is this boycott about venting rage or carefully considered to create change?

I’m not keen on cultural boycotts of countries, because I believe the exchange of ideas is the best way to help people to change their minds. I’m also not keen on food boycotts. Starving people doesn’t seem to be an answer…it’s only a few steps away from bombing them. Boycotting access to military and police technology, I believe is acceptable. I’m also okay with putting completely intransigent companies out of business.

Painting the entirety of a group of people as evil and incapable of self-reflection or change is a form of dehumanisation and bigotry. We don’t make of the world a better place this way. It’s also a sure recipe for radicalisation. We need to be flexible, understanding, and patient, while holding steady when it comes to life-affirming and pro-social values.

Each person has to be considered individually. I am not on the side of big business and conservatism simply because I was born in the US. The same is true of other people who were born in other countries. Sometimes people in big companies are there because they are desperate to make a living, but do not support the aims or the means of their employer. These are not the people with whom you should be making enemies.

What we need to do is find ways to make it easier for people to do the right thing, and give them all the support we can when they do.

Peace and kindness,


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