On Boycotts — and Why They’re Not Wrong

Peter David watched The View. The reason? He wanted to see the Bill O’Reilly/Joy Behar/Whoopi Goldberg incident:

(Video from here)

Peter mentioned that some commentators, including The View‘s Barbara Walters, have said it was inappropriate for Goldberg and Behar to get up and walk out on O’Reilly for being an inflamatory asshole: “This immediately prompted Barbara Walters (I’ve heard of her, too) to scold her companions like an angry school marm, declaring that this was exactly the sort of behavior that should not be displayed in the discussion of hot-button topics.” He continues:

You don’t like a TV show? Change the channel. You don’t like what someone is saying? Either rebutt him or, if you feel there’s no point to be served, walk away from him. What you DON’T do is try to launch a punitive retaliatory strike through commercial means (i.e., boycotts) or attempt to stop them from being heard by–oh–shutting off his microphone.

I agree with the latter part. Silencing someone by taking away their ability to speak, as O’Reilly does on his own program, is wrong.

Boycotts, however?

There is nothing wrong with a boycott. Punitive speech, and that’s what a boycott is, is still speech.

Peter David has made this argument before, when he himself was the target of a boycott due to a video game, Shadow Complex, that was a spin-off of the Orson Scott Card novel Empire. (Coverage here. Also here.) Said Peter David at the time:

I believe the answer to free speech is always more free speech. If you believe that Orson Scott Card is saying things that are wrong at the top of his lungs, then you say so at the top of yours. If he’s donating money to organizations dedicated to infringing gay rights, you donate money to organizations that support them.

A society that embraces free expression depends on an unimpeded exchange of ideas.

The disconnect comes from those people who believe that boycotts are likewise a form of free expression. They’re not. Boycotts are the opposite: They are designed to be punitive. To hurt someone financially. The message it sends is, “I dislike what you have to say and therefore am going to strike back at you in order to punish you for saying it.” It has nothing to do with attacking the things the person says; it’s about attacking the person.

I don’t buy Peter David’s argument that a boycott is necessarily wrong.

First, Peter says that it’s okay to “Change the channel,” but a boycott is wrong? That’s an inconsistent argument. A boycott is an attempt to deprive someone of money by not purchasing their product. Changing the channel in our commercial television environment deprives, in the case of Bill O’Reilly and The O’Reilly Factor as an example, FOX of money; lower ratings means lower ad rates that companies are willing to pay to advertise, because fewer viewers means fewer people purchasing the products they’re trying to flog during the commercial breaks Both are punitive actions and deprive the speaker of money, if not immediately then eventually. If a boycott is wrong because it’s punitive, then by Peter David’s logic changing the channel is likewise wrong because it is also punitive.

Second, rebutting someone isn’t always practical because people aren’t on the same level and don’t have the same reach. Bill O’Reilly has a platform that reaches millions. Orson Scott Card is read by hundreds of thousands. I have a blog that reaches hundreds. A blog post that I write that rebuts racism, fascism, or homophobia that Card spewed in a newspaper column widely read would be seen by a few hundred people at best. Nor is there any guarantee that Card would see it or, if he did see, even consider its arguments and open a dialogue and free exchange of ideas. A boycott, by not buying Card’s novels or comic book work, sends Card a message that cannot be missed in a way that my platform — my blog — would be.

Third, a boycott doesn’t deprive Card in any way of his right to speak. He can have whatever narrow-minded opinions he wants, and he can express them however he sees fit. But his opinions don’t shield him from financial consequences due to his speech. The Dixie Chicks had every right to express their feelings on George Bush; country music radio had every right not to give them airtime (which promoted their work and could lead to sales) because of that.

Finally, money is speech. The Supreme Court said so in the Citizens United decision. ;) Depriving someone of money through a boycott is also speech; no one has an absolute right to be rewarded for their speech.

Contrary to Peter David’s belief, a boycott is not necessarily a wrong thing and it is speech. Everyone has a right to speak. But the right to speak also comes with the responsibility of accepting the consequences of that speech, whether it’s Joy Behar storming off the set or Allyn boycotting the work of Orson Scott Card because he’s a homophobic, xenophobic bigot.

I’m going to watch those cute bears again.

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