Boycott? What boycott?
Yesterday was Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day in the United States and thousands of extra customers thronged the company’s fast-food outlets, causing traffic jams outside. If you do not live in the States and have never heard of the “eat mor chikin” chain you may be astonished that this was the number one story on the Google News US edition and a top-trending item on Twitter yesterday. Top news sites have headlined the company’s record-setting day. What’s going on?
If it was about Americans’ love affair with hot chicken sandwiches, you would be rightly scratching your head. But it’s not; it is a response to threats to boycott the stores and keep them out of new locations following an interview on a hot button topic with its president, Dan Cathy.
At this stage of the US election cycle there are only three things that could spark such an uproar: tax cuts, healthcare laws and same-sex marriage. Guess which one caused the latest conflagration. Right. And it didn’t take much, just an implicit acknowledgement by Mr Cathy, in response to a question from a religious publication, of his well-known view that the Christian faith precludes approval of conferring the status of marriage on homosexual relationships. But opinion leaders on either side of that crucial debate are at hair-trigger readiness to fire their salvos into the public square. In this case, as in others, it is the counter-fire that seems to have won the day.
There are many lessons to be learned from this incident, but the one that strikes home for this writer concerns the efficacy of boycotts. Here’s why.
At the same time as the gay brigade had Chick-fil-A’s head on the chopping block I had just entrenched my dependence on a company whose boss supports the same-sex “marriage” cause. Three weeks ago I bought Amazon’s Kindle Touch; last week the company’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, announced he was giving US$2.5 million to defend Washington state’s gay marriage law in a November referendum. First thought was to find something wrong with my nice new digital reader so I could take it back and get a refund.
The question is, what good would that do? Aside from moral imponderables and a passing sense of satisfaction, none at all. I could write Mr Bezos a letter and, at best, some underling might send a polite reply saying his was a personal stand, not company policy, and anyway Mr Bezos was spending 20 times as much on making a giant grandfather clock that will last forever. I could start a movement on Facebook to boycott Amazon that might garner some support, but I am not Mike Huckabee (the politician and Fox News host behind the Chick-fil-A counter-insurgency) and support is bound to fall well short of half a million, which would be the minimum for critical mass, given the dominant position of the online retailer.
Is consistency possible?
Then there are issues of consistency. I buy the odd book (hard copy) through Amazon, a practice I could conceivably abandon, but MercatorNet and various friends have published e-books there -- MercatorNet’s is on same-sex marriage, and we want to sell it. Our website links book reviews to Amazon for a (paltry) commission. Even given support from the rest of our small organisation, it would be inconvenient to opt out. If you have a Chick-fil-A around the corner and like the food it would be a jolly nuisance to have to drive a few blocks to get some equally tasty meal.
Nor is Amazon the only thing I would have to opt out of. Microsoft, whose products I use every day, also advocates same-sex marriage. It boasts of being the first Fortune 500 company to provide same-sex domestic partnership benefits and supports the Washington gay law. Recently Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer and co-founder Bill Gates each gave $100,000 for the referendum campaign. Add to that the fact that Melinda Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (built on the profits made from people like me) are pouring half a billion dollars into contraceptive imperialism in the developing world, and there is a case for dumping Microsoft in favour of Apple. If only Apple weren’t in bed with the gay marriage movement too…
In fact, when the National Organisation for Marriage called for a global boycott of Starbucks in January because of the coffee chain’s corporate pro-gay marriage policy, Microsoft and Apple joined forces to demand that NOM “boycott us”. The two digital giants confessed themselves envious of Starbucks whose stock had risen in the wake of the boycott call and whose social capital also seemed to be running high, with hundreds of thousands of people signing online “Thank you” cards -- in the way that people are doing for Chick-fil-A right now.
Google would also be in line for a divorce if I were to be morally consistent about this issue. The internet octopus has recently launched a “Legalise Love” campaign focusing on countries like Singapore, where certain homosexual activities are illegal, and Poland, which has no legal recognition of same-sex couples. Boycotting Google would mean deciding on alternatives for internet searches (many per day), gmail, my web browser, YouTube, Google reader/docs etc, even my smartphone -- alternatives that would not be in the same moral basket, if that’s even possible.
My sympathies are with the National Organisation for Marriage, but as a Huffington Post blogger noted apropos the Starbucks boycott, the organisation might be reduced to painting on cave walls and sending smoke signals to communicate with their supporters if it were rigorously consistent.
And all these complications arise without even looking beyond the same-sex marriage issue. What’s my bank up to -- devising unethical financial products? My powerco -- supporting condoms for teenagers? My telecom -- marketing porn? I am not saying they are, but it’s possible. Life can get very complicated if you pay attention to all these things.
"Don't be evil"
But we have to pay attention. The first principle of the natural moral law is to do good and avoid evil -- a principle that Google itself has incorporated in its informal motto, “Don’t be evil”. You can make money without cheating and exploiting people, they reckon.
However, moralists allow that there are circumstances in which it is difficult not to co-operate in evil. The guidelines for this are, briefly:
* My own aim in the circumstances must be to do good (and not just use someone else to do the dirty work). This also involves trying to insure that others do good as well; thus, we should at least consider whether Microsoft, Apple, Google and company can be encouraged to do better. (In the course of writing this article I filled in an MS questionnaire which allowed me to leave a message giving the thumbs down to their gay marriage policy.)
* Our co-operation must only be indirect, so that any evil we might assist would not be intended (according to the principle of double effect). For example, the political party I vote for is likely to legalise surrogate motherhood, but its policies are generally less harmful to the family and human life than those of the other main contender in an election.
* There has to be a just cause: the good I am pursuing has to be proportionate to the evil of co-operation. I pay taxes to support my country, even though the government involves us in a war I consider unjust.
* The good I desire as a result of co-operation must not be obtained as a consequence of the evil effect. This means that relieving my family’s financial distress and paying for a child’s brain surgery is not a good enough excuse for robbing a bank.
* I have to avoid giving scandal. Thus, I refrain from criticising the gay marriage policy of my preferred party so that I may have more influence in it, but this morally confuses others.
Applying these rules to myself and MercatorNet leads me to the following conclusions:
We are pursuing something good, the promotion of human dignity, and trying to get others, including the companies mentioned in this article, to understand and embrace our vision of that good --specifically with regard to marriage.
Our co-operation in the campaign to promote same-sex marriage by using the services of companies that support the campaign is unintended and indirect.
The cause is just and important enough to warrant using means of communication that are dominated by people holding opposite views on sex, marriage and human dignity. The alternative is cave painting and smoke signals, more or less.
The good we hope to do will certainly not come about as a result of the objectionable social campaigns of the media we use.
And no-one could honestly be scandalised by our co-operation with Amazon, Apple and company when our differences with them over specific moral issues are explicit and obvious.
It is important to recognise that the technical services these companies provide, like Chick-fil-A sandwiches, are in themselves morally indifferent; and that they may also embrace social causes that are, from our point of view, morally good. Boycotting them would seem not only impractical but wildly disproportionate to the amount of good it would do.
We have to ask, too, why these companies and their charismatic founders are embracing anti-social causes? Let’s be charitable and conclude that it’s not just because of the money but because they sincerely think that they are socially beneficial. Part of the solution, surely, must be for employees and business associates to find ways of giving a more positive view of traditional moral values. What really changes hearts and minds is friendship.
Bill Gates, whose philanthropy extends well beyond population control, knows that as well as anyone. He persuaded Warren Buffett to give away a large lump of his fortune because they were good friends. What if he were best friends with Dan Cathy? Would Microsoft be supporting gay marriage? Not likely.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
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