Sorry it’s been so long since we’ve posted anything; we’ve been very busy with other projects. For myself, and I’m sure Scott would agree, I just can’t give up on the idea of this blog–however flawed it might be and however infrequently I might post something.

Enough preamble, let’s talk about boycotts.

Here’s a link to a piece that raises interesting questions about boycotts and violence.

The basic thought seems to be that boycotts, as tools of political persuasion, exert force (by the withdrawal of economic support) to gain adherence to some perspective. Here is the conlcusion:

Still, the question does give pause. Boycotts do occupy part of a spectrum of direct-action activities, understood as extra-legal activities designed to change someone’s behaviour. They are attempts to go beyond rational persuasion to take matters into one’s own hands, to force an outcome that one is unable or unwilling to argue for. Of course, that’s probably sometimes morally required. But it’s not to be taken lightly.

In argumentation this is what you’d call the ad baculum. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit (Here’s a post and you can read something longer here if you want). The basic idea of the ad baculum is that force isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a reason to conclude something. There’s quite a lot of literature on this, odd as that may seem. The basic struggle is how to account for the fallaciousness of the appeal to force. The standard textbook examples (unchanged through many editions) are hilarious.

I loathe to write a ton about this right now, but I would like to add one thought to the idea of ad baculums and violence (that I don’t think was raised in the piece). The boycott might be understood as a means to drawing attention to the reasons rather than an end in itself. So, perhaps people boycott product x not to bring about the end of x, but rather to call attention to the argument in question. To understand this you have to look at the audience as well as the target. So, when people boycott, perhaps they want people to ask: why are they boycotting stuff?

8 thoughts on “Boycotts”

  1. I’m tempted to say that the application of logical fallacy categories here is itself a category mistake: It’s mistakenly assuming that people/consumers/private citizens engage in (or can engage in) reasoned debate with corporations about what actions and positions the corporations should take. I think that a very good case can be made that a corporation behaves as a kind of a machine, with decision-making responding to economic stimuli—even often despite board members and executives who may personally hold different values.

    Similarly, it’s not an ad baculum when I weed my garden to determine which plants grow, even if it’s a form of violence; because gardens simply cannot give and take reasons.

  2. Thanks for your comment Matthew.

    I suppose you mean category mistake in the case of the corporation. Well, I guess in response there is corporate personhood (and I don’t mean that facetiously). A company can argue, so can a university. The people doing the arguing are boards, etc. Though perhaps it’s true that you can’t engage in reasoned debate with universities, at least (ok, that was a joke).

    As for the last point, you’d have something of the issue over the application of the name. No one would think that everyone application of force is an ad baculum. The idea people struggle with is whether such a thing makes sense (I think it does, for reasons I explain at some of the links).

  3. Great to see another post!

    Okay, just to distill some thoughts…

    I can sort of see a boycott being an application of force in argumentation between two “persons,” the provider of the thing being boycotted and the (potential) consumers of that thing. The act not buying (and thus taking away potential income) does not intrinsically involve reasoning.

    However (1), that view seems to ignore the part where the consumers make the case for the boycott. I think that part does often involve more reasoning. For each particular case, you’d probably want to look at whether or not the basis for the boycott was fallacious.

    Also (2), the view above seems to ignore the power relationship between the consumers and the provider. If a boycott is an application of force, is an election also an application of force, since the latter can decide a candidate’s livelihood and political power?

  4. Hi Sean. Nice to see you again.

    Let me start with (2) because I saw something about this on Twitter. Ted Cruz (I think) suggested as much about canceling someone: voting them out of office is canceling them. Er. Yes. Voting might be the expression of reasons–the conclusion to a long and well-deliberated argument. Or, in cases so often cited in recent days, it might be the unreasoning actions of a mob. That you can’t really tell is one of the mysteries of voting (or reasons). The complaint many make (and the complaint some suggested the authors of the Harper’s letter were making) is of the latter sort. People are basically boycotting certain others for bad reasons.

    You’re right about (1): boycotts–like the voting case–can be the products of reasons. I think the point MacDonald (the author of the piece) was making was that not buying from someone’s store might be understood to be irrelevant to their opinion on some view X. This is a crucial point–one that is often cited as the basis of the ad baculum fallacy (irrelevance). So, perhaps on your interpretation of the argument, the reasoning goes: X is wrong, A supports X with the revenue from their enterprise, let us not support A’s enterprise and thus deprive support for X. So A’s not going to have extra money now to devote to X. This is much better I think because it doesn’t suffer from the relevance issue. I still think, however, that the argument: A supports X, I think X is wrong, I’m not going to associate or do business with A (and I’m going to tell others to do the same) is a different matter. I still have trouble distinguishing it from the case where I’m going to bring some consequence upon A.

  5. Going back many years, there was a boycott of grapes organized out of concern for the mistreatment of agricultural workers. Prior efforts to persuade growers to improve their treatment of workers, or to move legislatures to pass worker protections, had proved ineffective. While it may be argued that to participate in such a boycott is to “take matters into one’s own hands, to force an outcome that one is unable… to argue for”, there is no plausible case to be made that the boycott involved any actual or implied use of force, or could have be perceived by the targeted companies and governments as at all likely to progress in that direction.

    At a basic level the linked argument, to me, comes across as “Because boycotts can be used by violent groups, and because those groups might escalate to overt violence against the target of their boycott, boycotts should be regarded as a form of violence”. If my characterization is fair, I need not explain to anybody likely to be reading this why I find it to be a flawed argument.

    Perhaps the economic argument is better constructed, but I have difficulty mustering sympathy for the author: I see no meaningful parallel between the efforts of the KKK to apply economic pressure to force “the wrong kind” of business owner out of town, and the pressure that a corporation might feel to get rid of a racist or misogynistic leader once their beliefs and behaviors become known to the public. Also, most companies can avoid “real economic damage” by dumping a Roger Ailes type from the C-Suite, even when it can be reasonably concluded that they were previously covering up the executive’s bad conduct rather than addressing it.

    A better parallel may exist between some recent, albeit rare and isolated, public responses to discrimination by a business owner. The KKK wanted to shut down businesses owned by groups that they did not like or that served members of those groups. There is a superficial similarity to a group decision, for example, to stop shopping at a cake store whose owner refused to fulfill a contract with customers he later learned to be gay. But the KKK was a coherent organization with an organized strategy, not a loosely organized public response to a local controversy. A KKK boycott carried an implied threat to any person who violated the boycott, whereas the cake shop remained at liberty to sell to any person not offended by its discriminatory business practices. The KKK had a violent history that lent credence to worries that if a boycott were initially unsuccessful it might lead toward physical violence (against property, people, or both), while a loose boycott by cake shop customers carried no such implication. The cake shop owner could have largely made things right simply by selling the cake as previously agreed, but the targets of the KKK were mostly targeted for intrinsic reasons that they could not change.

    Certainly, boycotts involve direct action designed to change the behavior of individuals, groups, organizations and even governments. But while direct action short of physical violence can be used to convey a threat, to intimidate the less powerful, and to coerce people or entities into acting in a manner that they would otherwise not choose, it strikes me as quite a stretch to thereby associate boycotts with physical violence. By the same token, KKK members at times engage in public protests, and it seems reasonable to infer that a public protest march that they would view as successful would be one that intimidated and provoked the audience; but I suspect we would hesitate to therefore brand peaceful protest as a form of violence. (History gives us examples of political leaders who have done exactly that, but as an excuse to violently suppress protest.)

  6. Hi Aaron–
    Nice to see you again here.

    I think MacDonald is saying that boycotts are a form of pressure rather than reasons. The same kind of pressure might be applied for illegitimate ends, therefore, etc.

    I would walk this back to arguments: one can offer reasons for all sorts of ends, but we don’t wonder about giving reasons. (I think we should, but this is another matter).

    The cake case is an interesting one. Question for you: does the threat of social sanction (e.g., shaming) for continuing to get my cakes at the anti-gay cake place count as force? Is the difference between this and the KKK case that it’s not organized?

  7. Boycotts can be a form of pressure, as can written or oral advocacy. Pressure can be applied for illegitimate ends, or can include an element of actual or implied threat. So that much is correct. My point of contention is that pressure that could lead to theoretical violence should not itself be deemed violent, and less so pressure that could not conceivably lead to violence based upon what could theoretically happen in other contexts.

    If there were people who felt like they would be socially shamed if they shopped at the cake shop, and thus avoided doing so for that reason, then that would be their responding to a form of pressure. It is not necessary for their to be any organized or concerted boycott for that type of social pressure to exist — just awareness that one’s friends or peers don’t approve of the business’s practices.

    I am reluctant to use the word “force” instead of “pressure” because force suggests compulsion. Social pressure may make certain actions less comfortable or uncomfortable, but you may choose to break your social circle’s norms and expectations with the most likely outcomes ranging from a raised eyebrow to having to find new friends.

    If we regard social pressure as a form of force, it becomes necessary to distinguish physical force from other forms of pressure — a spectrum ranging from pressure without any threat of physical force, to the implied threat, to the actual threat, and ultimately to the application of force. There’s a distinction to be made between feeling the pressure that, if you act in a manner that your peers don’t find socially acceptable, may result in their unfriending you on Facebook or not inviting you to parties, and the type of pressure or fear that an organization like the KKK could make somebody feel.

    There is a distinction to be made between unorganized social pressure, pressure associated with an organized ad hoc local boycott, and the type of pressure than can be asserted by an organization like the KKK. Back in its heyday the KKK was a violent organization and it used direct acts of violence to accomplish its goals. In its regional strongholds it was also able to infiltrate government from the local to the state house. Its threat of consequence could thus include not just the possibility of physical violence, but of retaliation against an individual who acted or spoke against its goals and actions, not just the possibility of physical violence, but of harming business and job prospects.

    None of this is to suggest that force or compulsion is inherently bad, or that social pressure is inherently good. Sometimes people need to be compelled to do the right thing, sometimes significant and even extreme force is necessary to stop a greater evil, and sometimes people are socially pressured into doing things that are very wrong. These days, it would be an association with the KKK that would be limiting to business, political and career prospects — not an organized response, but one that is not likely to result in any actual physical violence, and one over which I won’t personally be losing any sleep.

  8. Hi Aaron–
    I will have something up tomorrow about comfort and discomfort (Interesting stuff I think). I’m interested in the distinction between force and pressure. I would say–and really perhaps ought to clarify–that the force in “ad baculum” works just as well for pressure. One reacts to the pressure, not the reasons. Force, in the sense of violence of course, might achieve the same end. More generally, I think you’re certainly right that the method isn’t the message: we can boycott stuff for good reasons or bad; we can go to war for good reasons or bad; this doesn’t entail that the method is suspect.

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