Boycotts Are Supposed to Hurt

In North Carolina, the legislature passed an absolutely appalling discriminatory law, and the effect was that companies started rethinking upcoming business in the state and some notable creative folk, including Bruce Springsteen and Sherman Alexie, pulled out of upcoming events. This has prompted articles like this one and this one, where people are making the argument that when creative folk pull out of doing events in North Carolina, innocent people like children and business owners are punished.

My thought on this is: Yes? And? Boycotts are by their nature designed to cause economic and social distress, are they not? In order to create economic and social pressure to change whatever it is that is being protested, in this case an absolutely unjust law that among other things singles out a particular group of people for discrimination? And if in this case the boycott is of the state of North Carolina, because the state itself passed the law, then yes, causing distress to the children and businesses of North Carolina by depriving them of things that they would otherwise have if the state didn’t have that unjust law is pretty much directly on point. Children have parents who vote. Businesses are owned by people who vote and who can also pressure state legislatures.

This is what a boycott is and does. The bookstore owner in the NY Times article says “we’ve had authors’ backs when their books were challenged or their events protested. We need authors to have our backs, too.” As much as I sympathize with the bookstore owner who complains that she’s being punished for a law she personally abhors, the target of the boycott is the state, not her. The state will be happy to fill its tax coffers equally from the people who have the “right” sort of views as it is from the people who have the “wrong” ones. If the state can look and see that a boycott is having no real net effect, economically and socially, it’s not going to be particularly effective. As a tool of change, it’s a failure.

Boycotts are meant to hurt. Strikes, which are a similar action, are meant to hurt, too — and again, that’s the point. These sorts of tactics are not designed to spare the people who don’t think they’re involved (or shouldn’t be); they’re designed to remind them that they are involved, whether they like it or not, and that their participation is required, again, whether they like it or not. I’m sorry for the bookstore, and for the kids of North Carolina, but Bruce Springsteen, Sherman Alexie and anyone other creative who decides that their conscience does not allow them to go to North Carolina are not wrong.

I understand the bookseller would like their boycott to pass her by; I understand why the other writer wants authors to think of the children. Let us also make space for the argument that those authors are thinking of the children and are leveraging what they have — their notability and the desirability of their presence — to make sure some of those children are not actively discriminated against by the state. Let us also make space for the argument that they are using their influence so that they can “have the backs” of people who the state has just declared to be second-class citizens, and that at the moment, those backs have priority.

And yes, in both cases that might hurt. But again, that’s the point.