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. Bill McGonigle says:

    A boycott of one is a weak boycott because it sends a weak signal to the business owner as to why the boycott is happening, if he even notices that it is. The more jerky the business owner, the less likely he’s going to recognize the signal.

    It’s the ethics vs. morals thing again. Do what you need to do to satisfy your moral compass, but don’t expect it to do too much unless you’re coordinating action with a significant portion of the market (or are at least attempting to do so).

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  2. Ert Dredge says:

    Opening a two-year-dead discussion since I originally posed the question and only just noticed that it started a comment thread.

    tmeier is correct that “is it rational” perhaps gets more to my topic perhaps than my choice of words “is it reasonable,” but I’m interested in people’s opinions about reasonableness, too. To Marty’s question regarding what I’m looking for here, it’s a discussion. I have a lot of friends that often behave in this way, refusing to support the professional ventures of people they find publicly objectionable or abhorrent. I think it’s an interesting topic and I often have fascinating conversations about it. (164, you assumed my opinions on the question without me actually stating them.)

    “Boycott” is the correct word I intended — looking up the verb I found it’s applicable to a single person acting on their own, even though we most associate it with a large group of people undertaking a concerted action. The noun tends to be for a collective action, while the verb can be individual. I think Bill McGonigle is right, though, to say a boycott of one sends a weak signal.

    The Boy Scout situation that Jim mentions is not really the sort of situation I’m attempting to discuss. The Boy Scouts have an institutional policy that has real effects for who they will hire or (historically) admit as scouts. If you’re gay then boycotting the scouts — not buying things at their fundraisers –seems entirely reasonable. Given the size and reach of their organization, encouraging others to boycott them seems reasonable as well. The organization is big and it matter and it itself has opinions on homosexuality, not just the national leaders when they sit around the dinner table.

    A better illustration of the situation I’m thinking of is the widespread boycott of Mozilla over Brendan Eich’s personal political contributions. Ostensibly Eich’s own opinions on same-sex marriage did not affect how he ran the organization. Boycott supporters argued, variously, that (1) it was impossible for him to separate his personal opinions from how he ran the organization, or that (2) as a CEO he was the public face of the organization and his job included being an upstanding citizen which his actions did not demonstrate, or that (3) he crossed a line when he actually donated to campaigns to block same-sex marriage, actively using the profits he made from Mozilla’s business operations to influence policy.

    “Is it rational” is undoubtedly “yes” in this case, since the boycott led to his ouster in a few days.

    “Is is reasonable” seems to divide opinions more, with many saying the boycott crossed a line and others saying people who publicly hold the opinions he did should not be in senior public-facing roles.

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