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.


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?


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.


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


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


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.


Mike Hunter

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?


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.

Eric M. Jones.

Or boycotting a store because the owners are planning to vote for ______?

I always wondered how Jews could drive MBZs. Or Chinese (or Americans) could buy Nikons. From what I know about the horrors of WWII, I'm astonished that the victors didn't just eliminate the vanquished.


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.


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).


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…


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.


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.


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'.


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.


Dave M

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.

Dr. Constantinos Charalambous

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

Bill McGonigle

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).

Ert Dredge

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.