Thursday, May 10, 2012

The social equivalent of "I'm cold, go put on a sweater"

Long time friend John Wirenius hosted a long discussion about the recent verbal exploits of Rush Limbaugh on his Facebook page.  One of the topics discussed was whether or not boycotting Rush was considered a restriction of his free speech rights.  And by that, I refer to the colloquial definition (a person may say anything they like, and no one may stop them) a opposed to the actual verbiage of the first amendment (that the government shall not restrict freedom of speech).  He eventually wrote one of his meticulously researched blog posts on the matter. 

I was one of the folks coming down against boycotting, but I fear one of the problems was that I have a rather specific opinion of what passes for botcotting today.  Allow me to specify:

If you don't care for a change to a product, a recipe, or even the packaging, or their choice of spokesman, you are well within your rights, and the rules of decorum, to stop buying the product, and by writing a letter, email, or angry 140-charachter tweet-missive.

If enough individuals do so, the company may choose to amend its actions.  Or it may do the math, and realize they got 35 negative letters, but sold 3 million additional boxes of Cheesy Chomps since they hired a Kardashian to be in the commercials (In honesty, they're not even sure which one they hired, save for it's not the horse-faced one), decide that the letters represent a vanishgly small minority (possibly comprised entirely of people who never have purchased their product, and never would) and discount them.

Note that I used the term individuals.

A true grass roots movement, representing the opinions of many people, all coming to their opinion independently, and joining up to make their voices heard, is the base of astounding change in the world, as well as in this country.  The boycotts of the mass transit system in Alabama is one of the most shining examples. The recent Occupy protests are another, though sadly there actions were not as efficacious. But again, it was MANY people, protesting a true injustice. What passes for a boycott today is a pale comparison. 

Nowadays they're the go-to tool of small tiny-minded groups of people who wish to overturn the opinion of the majority.  Some well-meaning busybody slaps a letterhead together, calls themselves the National Alliance for Decency in Television Entertainment, claims to have 30,000 members, and says that if Captain Happy's Fun Palace doesn't get rid of Princess Harold, they won't buy Squishy Bread anymore.  Not 30,000 letters, not even 10.  Just the PROMISE of letters. 

When thousands, millions of people, those directly affected by the issue, and those who support them, band together to combat an injustice, that's democracy in action.  When 17 people click a petition to, say, protest The Avengers for being anti-adoption, that's what used to be referred to as the "Lunatic fringe".  And if you'd like to trot out the pithy comment that they're the ones running both parties, this would be the place to do that.

I am a firm proponent of the free market, in its purest form.  Yes, we need oversight (and sadly, it seems we need more than one would hope we would) but one of its basic tenets is hard to get around - if people want a product (or can be convinced they do), it will sell.  If they don't want it, it will not.  The product or service should rise or fall on its merits, and not because Ned Flanders and his Online Christian Soldiers posted 25 comments on the company's website.


  1. "Or it may do the math, and realize they got 35 negative letters, but sold 3 million additional boxes of Cheesy Chomps since they hired a Kardashian to be in the commercials (In honesty, they're not even sure which one they hired, save for it's not the horse-faced one),"

    OK, I admit to still being lost here. Which of them is not horse-faced?

  2. I agree with this standard, pretty much Vinnie. For the reasons I stated in the blog post (thanks for the kind words!) I felt that Limbaugh qualified for a proper boycott, and got one. Even if we don't agree on the application of the principle to this instance, I share your concern for the marketplace of ideas, and am glad you wrote this post.


    1. My main issue with a boycott against Rush was that I suspected it wasn't brought by people truly offended by his statements, but by people just itching for an excuse to bring him down. And I still maintain that that number was still quite small, compared to his listenership. It had the support of the "liberal media", so it was made to appear larger and more powerful than it likely was, which is what spooked the sponsors.

      And I haven't checked, but I'm betting a few have quietly returned to the show, too.

    2. Could very well be. But a lot of the boycott supporters were not standard issue scolds--it;s the first time I've come out in favor of one, and I had to think it through first. And a failed boycott, if that's what it is, isn't in essence wrong--this one seems to me grounded in a real reaction to Limbaugh's effort to shame a class of citizens into silence. And yes, I think some who joined in were opportunistic, but many were genuinely appalled--I mean most libs just don't listen to the guy, and don't spend time on him.

      Again, glad to see this post; the pitfalls and whens of boycotts in the marketplace of ideas needs thinking about.