Boycotts and Jerks

A reader named Ert Dredge writes in with the following set of trenchant observations and questions:

Hiya, Dubner ‘n Levitt.

I was just listening to podcast #84 “Legacy of a Jerk,” and it brought to mind a long-standing cocktail party question of mine:  Is it reasonable to boycott what someone does for a living, if you think they’re good at it, because they’re privately a jerk?

Is it reasonable to never watch Braveheart again because of Mel Gibson‘s anti-Semitism or other issues?
…or never watch another Roman Polanski film?
…or to have not listened to Cat Stevens during the whole Salman Rushdie fatwa issue (misunderstanding?)

And, if so, does that mean that boycotting my local shoe repair guy’s business because he doesn’t clean up after his dog is reasonable.

“Reasonable” here ranges from whether a boycott is likely to have my intended effect of stopping the antisocial behavior, whether all the other people that work with my target deserve to get their professional lives caught up in their coworker’s private failings, and how one goes about attaching a financial value to someone being annoying.

One more category of person to add to this list: athletes. It is always interesting to me how, say, a Yankees fan is willing to rationalize Alex Rodriguez‘s past PED drug while decrying the same by Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz.


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  1. frankenduf says:

    i thought boycotting was a social movement, not an individual protest- it’s like asking should i go on strike if my employer refuses to bargain with me?

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  2. Denny says:

    What about famous people’s politics as a reason to boycott? They don’t even need to be jerks, just have opposing political views. I hear so many comments from people who avoid the works of actors or singers because of their politics. Many of those people even admit they were or would be fans were it not the fact the person is (usually) liberal.

    Although I find the idea absurd, it follows the same logic of boycotting somebody to behaviour which you find unacceptable. It’s not all that different to people boycotting (or indeed supporting) Chick-fil-A because of its owner’s politics. Still, as somebody who is most probably to the right of most entertainers, I think they’re a little nuts to take it so seriously.

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  3. Zach says:

    Can someone privately be a jerk whilst simultaneously using professional status as a soapbox (e.g. Chikfila, Hobby Lobby, Mel Gibson, et al)?

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  4. Joe says:

    I am always amazed by the level of confirmation bias and hipocrisy among sports fans. Fortunately it’s not about matters of great importance.

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  5. Marty says:

    I am unsure what the writer is looking for here by asking a question “Is it reasonable” to behave in a certain way. Seems like an individual who needs a lot of self-affrmation to get through a day.

    I think people do this all the time, and have for ages. Many people would not buy a Japanese car for many years because of memories of World War 2. I still will not buy a product made in Vietnam. Think of how Senator McCain and thousands of others were tortured. Real torture, not water up your nose. Not ready to go there yet.

    On a more individual basis we support or avoid people as merchants or service providers all the time based on their behavior and affiliations. Certain ethnic groups are more comfortable dealing with people of the same ethnic group. If I know an individual business owner / provider is a zealot of a cause I do not support, I avoid them. The opposite is also true. Who does NOTdo this?

    Of course it doesn’t effect MOST purchasing decisions but only the ones involving individuals / companies / countries that have risen to high enough level on your own personal “negative” or “positive” scale, depending who you are.

    I think the issue with the writers question is the word “Boycott” which Implies an organized Group activity, which is NOT what I describe above. Its a matter of “voting with your pocketbook” whether to patronize a person or business or country, or not. In Business terms though I think it is very similar to what is known as “Good Will”. The more people / customers you alienate, the lower your good will with some, but perhaps HIGHER good will with others. Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh both have a lot of good will with there own supporters, and very little with each others’ supporters.

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  6. Mike Hunter says:

    It’s reasonable to boycott whom ever you want for whatever reasons you want. I don’t bring my son to chick-a-fil because of some of the owners comments. Not that I liked their food anyway. By choosing not to frequent their establishment; and eating somewhere else instead aren’t I just maximizing my personal utility?

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  7. oldtaku says:

    I certainly don’t see any problem with not shopping somewhere if the owner is a jerk. Why should I give him my money?

    In fact I’d be much more likely to do this than to boycott Mel’s movies just because he’s personally a jerk. (Luckily he mostly makes really bad movies – The Patriot, hoo boy).

    Don’t think I’d call that a real boycott though.

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  8. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Jason says:

      When I was a kid, I always wondered how we (my Jewish family) bought any car. Nothing German, no Fords (since Henry Ford was an anti-semite), etc. We mostly had Mazdas and Saabs. I always thought it was a bit silly since current shareholders of Ford and Mercedes aren’t really connected to the opinions of past leadership.

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