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. James says:

    I can understand why you wouldn’t want to give someone money if you find their personality wanting, but it’s probably not an effective way to bring about a change in their personality, unless you get a lot of people who agree with you and can maintain a consistent message about why they’re not buying anything from that person (i.e. a boycott under frankenduf’s definition).

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  2. 164 says:

    Ert Dredge has the option of not doing business with anyone for any reason, even silly ones like racial hatred if he is so inclined. But who is he to pass summary judgment on people like the shoe repair guy or even Mel Gibson? Ert might just want to live his own life as he sees fit and set a good example for the rest of us to follow. Come to think of it Ert sound like a made up name… I’m not doing business with him…

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  3. James says:

    This reminds me of the dilemma I face when my local public library has its “Banned Books Week/Month” display: I would like to support freedom of the press by ostentatiously reading some of their banned books, but unfortunately I feel compelled to boycott them because such of them as I’ve been forced to read in English Lit classes were (to my personal taste) pretty uniformly dull & boring books.

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  4. Jim says:

    Is it acceptable to boycott Boy Scouts of America because their national leaders have taken a measured stand against admitting gay leaders to appease the 1/3-1/2 of their supporting organizations (conservative churches) even though sexuality itself is not a part of the scouting program, and the other 99.5% of what BSA does for character and skill development is incredible useful? This is a question I deal with, and have to answer to parents who vacillate about having their boys join our open unit despite the national policy.

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  5. tmeier says:

    A lot of comments seem to be answering, ‘is it right…’ or ‘is it appropriate…’. I thought the question was ‘is it rational…’, that is, will it have consequences which you desire, does it meet Kant’s categorical imperative.

    I’d say not really. If people only traded with those who fit their exact moral, political or aesthetic standards there would be very little trade which would not be a result most of them would desire.

    It seems to me people do this sort of thing because it makes them feel better about themselves, usually at little cost. As a mechanism for increasing self-satisfaction it’s very cost effective. Economically speaking this makes it quite interesting as it demonstrates how commonly human behaviors are not ‘rational’.

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  6. Mark says:

    While a boycott alone may have no effect on the target, it can result in dramatic changes once the circumstances change. Take apartheid in South Africa. The disinvestment campaigns in the US and some parts of Europe and the ban of South African athlete’s participation in international events had little immediate impact on the practice of apartheid. That all changed when the Soviet Union disappeared and the presence of an anti-communist bulwark in southern Africa became an anachronism. The situation changed very quickly because the implicit supporters of apartheid had no reason to continue to do so and hence the boycott supporters became the dominant force.
    So, boycotts may make sense but the boykott proponent may have to take a very long view, over 40 years in the case of South Africa.
    Boykotts in the US have had a much faster impact. The most recent one was hardly noticed in the national news. Target Corp. made a contribution to a superpac for a GOP candidate for governor in 2010. The contribution was not in alignment with their own human resource policies. There was a backlash that impacted the bottom line of the company. This is a lesson learned for publicly held corporations that have direct consumer contact. They are reluctant to make visible campaign contributions, they may still be doing it anonymously though.

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  7. Dave M says:

    A couple of thoughts:
    Some are going so far as to boycot friends or acquaintances based on politics. This hurts our society. Parents are afraid to bring politics up at school for fear of offending someone. We should not boycot a business or artist over his beliefs. I like Wagner and dislike (most) of Mel’s movies and consume accordingly. For all I know Chopin, Joplin, Conan-Doyle and Shakespeare were bigots. Is there a statute of limitations on boycot? Obviously eschewing Romeo and Juliet does hurt WS financially but boycotts aren’t solely about money.

    Boycotting the guy with the dog is only rational if he knows why you’re doing it. Ask him politely to clean up and if he does, everybody wins. If he doesn’t, don’t return. Ask him before your next purchase and if he gives you attitude put the paper down and walk away.

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  8. Dr. Constantinos Charalambous says:

    I actually have two stories of mine on boycotting jerks. Read the article that I wrote on the matter.

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