There’s all manner of things going on these days with the swelling support for gay marriage rights in the USA. In the best situations, people on both sides of the issue are doing their best to stand their ground on what they believe to be the ethical sides of the issue. But there seems to be, as well, a growing consensus that companies which take a particular stance on the issue should be subject to boycott, and in some cases actual governmental involvement, such as in the case of an Alderman blocking a Chic-Fil-A from receiving zoning rights. These stances are taken on both sides, and we’ve heard about Evangelical Christians boycotting, or at least trying to boycott, companies for years based on their support of gay rights. However, I think we’ve gone down the wrong road here on how we react to political stances, as well as how we have understood the proper use of the boycott.
For the purposes of discussing this topic, I’m going to put forward two hypothetical groups. The first is the Inclusives, and the second is the Exclusives. The Inclusives strive to bring in people and voices that have been excluded in the past. They want equal rights under the state for all people. The Exclusives think there are voices that do not need to be heard, and do not think that all rights apply to all people. In our particular case, the Inclusives are striving for marriage rights for gay people, and the Exclusives are insisting that these rights belong only to the union of a man and a woman.
Now, what has happened, is that many avowed Inclusives have inadvertently become Exclusives through the conflict of these two ideologies. The Inclusives want all voices to be heard, except the voices of the Exclusives. They are fighting to get their point across, and to achieve goals, but in the midst of this struggle, they have advocated boycotts and what are essentially sanctions against the Exclusives. Were these boycotts successful, these entities would cease to exist, and thus be effectively silenced by the exclusionary practices of the Inclusives.
Now, of course, the Exclusives are doing the same thing, and have been for years. However, there is nothing particularly contradictory about the Exclusives doing this. This is not a statement of support for the Exclusives, but only an observation that their position does not end up in contradiction if they maintain that there are voices which should no longer exist. The Inclusives cannot maintain this position without some level of absurdity. Thus, while we may not like it, it is fully consistent with the views of the Exclusives to attempt to silence their opponents through boycotts and the like, but not for the Inclusives to do so.
But then, there is the question of the rationality of the boycott itself. I want to distinguish between two reasons for boycotting a company. The first we will call a boycott for Teleological Reasons, and the second for Non-Teleological Reasons. The Teleological Boycott is a boycott that is enacted because there is objection to the way the company does its business. Thus the boycotts of the 1960’s regarding department stores and bus companies were Teleological Boycotts, as they aimed at the actual business practices of these companies. They did business in an unfair and biased way. The Non-Teleological Boycott objects to some element of a company that does not in fact have to do with how they do their business. The repeated attempts by Evangelical and other Christians to boycott Disney for their perceived support of gay rights, is this kind of boycott. There is no objection to how Disney does its business, making movies, running theme parks, but instead focuses on its stance on an issue.
Now, the boycott itself seems to be properly applied when it comes to Teleological Boycotts. One may boycott Wal-Mart because of how they do their business, and not run into contradiction. If one wishes that the company either ceased to do business in this manner voluntarily or not-voluntarily (through economic pressure) then this is fully consistent with the methods of the boycott. However, if one boycotts Disney or Chick-Fil-A for their stances on gay rights, one seems to run into some confusion.
For it is ostensibly because of one’s ethics that one takes a stance on an issue. The boycott over an ethical issue unrelated to the business of a company at best seems to be assuming that the ethical stances of companies, and the people who run them, are for sale. At worst, it is bordering on a tyrannical tactic. If their ethics are for sale, you simply give them an economic proposition that it will be in their best interest to change their stance. As a tyrannical tactic, however it seeks to deny people money, and ultimately their living, home, clothing, and food, if they do not agree with one’s position.
Now in the first case, if the ethics really are for sale, then they are not really ethics. They are merely economic maneuvering to take the position most likely to provide the most revenue. However, if they are sincerely held beliefs, then no economic pressure will change them.
And here’s where the practical problem comes in. For if we apply the Non-Teleological boycott to get our way, we assume that when a company agrees with our side of the debate their stance is a sincerely held ethical belief. But when they are on the other side, we view it as an economic maneuver. For if we thought that it was a sincerely held ethical belief, we would be monsters for denying people their livings for being in disagreement with us. In fact, we would be extreme Exclusionists to the point of monstrosity.
Thus it seems that the tactics of the Inclusionists, if they wish to remain Inclusionists, must reject the desire to silence their opponents. In fact, the tactics that we Inclusionists (because yes, I include myself as one who thinks that all people should have equal rights under the law, no matter what my theological views of the sacrament of marriage are) are free to use are much harder and much less tempting than those power plays that the Exclusionists use. We are free to have everyone sit down at the table and to hear the voices of those who disagree with us, and to debate them. And we are free to argue, and make our points known. But we are not free, if we wish to remain Inclusionists, to exclude anyone, especially in a democracy.
Now, this short piece does not take into consideration questions of lobbying and those kind of elements of the situation. But even taking those political elements into the discussion, we are still left with the economic or ethical motivations that either can or can’t be pressured by the attempt to silence the parties involved. Ultimately, as in all struggles, to use the weapons of those you fight is to make you into your enemy.