It’s happening again: Someone did something bad and now other people are threatening not to do business with them. But in this case the target for the boycott is not Starbucks or Chick-fil-a or JC Penney or Forever 21; it’s Georgia. The state, like Indiana and Arkansas before it, has passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that, like the laws passed by Indiana and Arkansas before it, is basically identical to the Federal bill signed into law over 20 years ago by a Democratic president whose wife now brands herself as a champion for gay rights.
And, like Indiana and Arkansas, Georgia is now facing threats of boycotts from the mega corporations that have proven to be natural allies to those seeking to redefine the family. Of course, one can and should note that many of the companies threatening a boycott long ago lost all moral credibility.
Consider, the NFL, that paragon of virtue. When their players beat women senseless in elevators they look the other way until a video surfaces. When retired players kill themselves due to traumatic brain injuries suffered from playing the game, they wash their hands. When the game’s stars are accused of using PEDs, they plug their ears and go “lalalalala.”
But when a state tries to establish that religious believers have the right to refuse to provide service for specific occasions (which is very different from having the right to decline service to certain classes of people), Roger Goodell and his capitalistic cronies cannot wait to seize the moral high ground to which they were so indifferent when Ray Rice was beating his fiancee’s head in on a casino elevator.
Any sensible person should look at some of the corporations lining up to boycott the state of Georgia, cock their head a little and, doing their best impression of Eddie Izzard, say “quoi?” Do not kid yourself; the threats from these brands are not a genuine display of conscience but a cynical attempt to, as the NFL’s favorite phrase has it, “protect the shield.”
That being said, there is a deeper concern behind these boycotts. There are different reasons to boycott, after all. It is entirely reasonable to boycott a business due to a specific practice they engage in as a business which one considers to be unjust. Boycotting a business (or state) because of an opinion that some in that business or state hold is quite another matter. The former reckons with the corporate entity as precisely that, a corporate entity. It evaluates their actions on the basis of their behavior as a business or other type of social body. The latter flattens all distinctions between social bodies and individual persons and, in so doing, militates against the very thing most needed in our polarized moment: the possibility of civil society.
Suppose you object to the way Amazon treats its employees. (And you should.) If you decide you will not do business with a company that treats its employees so poorly, that’s a fine and good thing. They are a business engaging in objectionable business practices. By all means, refrain from doing business with them. In our current context in which most anything can be justified by vaguely gesturing toward the size of one’s bank account, it’s entirely reasonable to boycott any number of large businesses.
To boycott over an opinion held by a small number of people involved in the company is quite another thing. It is an act that commercializes personal relationships and civil society in ways that will, eventually, lead to the destruction of both. It displays a distressing and all too typical lack of nuance in our relationship to our neighbors; a lack of nuance that reduces people to their opinions on a small set of issues and completely blurs the important lines that exist between people and the businesses they run or work for.
To take only one example, there is a small neighborhood bar and grill a mile from my house in Lincoln. They have quite publicly announced their support for same-sex marriage and a host of other issues related to the LGBT population in Lincoln. That being said, to the best of my knowledge they treat their employees well. Their food is good. They are good for our neighborhood. And so our family is happy to patronize the business, even if we have significant disagreements on some reasonably significant political questions.
This same approach holds true with most of the coffee shops within walking distance of our home as well—and our family lives in the comparatively conservative midwest. If Christians in places like San Francisco or Seattle operated according to the principles currently on the rise, they would be hard pressed to find any business they can patronize. If my neighbor who owns a coffee shop supports a social agenda different than my own that does nothing to negate the fact that they are my neighbor. Since they run good businesses that serve the neighborhood in multiple ways (providing employment and third places especially) we are happy to support them.
This, of course, is how civil society ought to function. The “purity” tests to which one subjects one’s neighbor are quite loose. They are maintained not on the basis of our shared politics but by our relationship to the person and our dependence upon them.
However, because our republic has grown toward a kind of state-sanctioned individualism in which I need nothing and no one that I cannot provide for myself or solicit the state to provide, that material need which has sustained memberships in the face of deep disagreement has largely disappeared. In the absence of real dependence upon one another, commerce has ceased to be a matter of sustaining one’s material life and the life of one’s neighborhood and has, instead, become a method for self invention (via the brands one associates with) and politicking. It has become easier for us to pick and choose our neighbors based on ideology, personal branding, and even prejudice, rather than to accept our neighbors as fellow members of a community not entirely of our choosing. Thus we have the kind of segregation that is increasingly the norm amongst both the poor and, especially, the social elites which Matthew Loftus summed up ably the other day:
If you think getting poor people off Oxy is hard, you should try getting rich people out of segregated communities. https://t.co/tx7RrBVlps
— Matthew Loftus (@matthew_loftus) March 24, 2016
The move to boycott businesses that hold to views I personally disapprove of is part of this broader social movement, but it actually pushes it to an even more distressing level. In a functioning membership, we can recognize that a person is more than the sum of their professional and commercial interests.
I can see that the person may, for instance, work at a business I dislike and yet their employment in that place is not the sum total of who they are. I am, in other words, able to recognize them as a human being rather than an disembodied entity that is, in some abstract way, set against me and everything I believe in.
It is precisely this ability to see that is under threat due to our love affair with boycotts. We no longer see the person in the uniform or the human being behind the company, we do not see our neighbors. Rather, we see individual human beings as little more than avatars for political or religious opinions. And when those opinions prove objectionable, we feel no remorse or regret about separating ourselves from the person in their entirety. We must shun them in every realm of human life, not merely in our personal friendships but in our commercial behaviors as well. (Thus there is a close link between our boycott culture and our shame culture.) Because we no longer see human beings when we look at our neighbors but only avatars for political agendas, we must separate ourselves from anyone who supports an agenda we find distasteful lest we would ourselves somehow become complicit in their support of that agenda.
If Christians will boycott Starbucks, let it be because of the way they do business, not because of the opinions their higher-ups profess. What is at stake in our ability to buy Starbucks with a clean conscience is not simply a few dollars, but our ability to look at the creatures who surround us and see not an amalgamation of opinions and commercial interests, but a human being.