Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Power Of The Dollar

Watching CBS Evening News tonight with Katie Couric, I saw a feature about Gay Rights activists and their fight against Prop. 8. Those supporters of same sex marriage are posting "the names and businesses who gave money to help Proposition 8 pass" on the internet, and are arranging boycotts of those businesses. I think this is a brilliant move, though I am of two minds about California allowing all donations to be public knowledge. On the one hand, I firmly believe that one should be proud of what one donates to and willing to accept the consequences of that affiliation. If anyone wants to know, I would gladly rattle off the (many) organizations and charities I give to and why. At the same time, there is something akin to the "sure the government can tap my phones, because I have nothing to hide" to the whole thing. That, however, is an entirely separate issue from what Gay Rights activists are doing with that information. My parents have long believed - and practiced the belief - that in a capitalist society, one of the greater powers one has is the power of the dollar. If a person does not agree with a company, if a person has a problem with a company or business's practices or policies, the best way to create change is to not buy.

My parents have their own blacklist of sorts, ranging from people like Nestle (for the marketing of their baby formula in developing nations) to Exxon (for their response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill) to countless others. Obviously, Nestle is still around and Exxon is making more money than ever, but the principle remains. Do not contribute to the wealth of people who actively work against your ethics or interests. Those people on the so-called "blacklists" created by supporters of gay marriage rights actively worked against the rights and interests of gay rights activists; and those activists have the right - since the information is public knowledge (and especially since the Yes on Prop 8 tried to use the same list to garner donations from companies who had contributed to No on 8 campaigns by threatening to reveal them as proponents of gay marriage) - to both not contribute to those companies and people. And they should have the right to alert the rest of the community as well, so that those supportive of gay rights but not active in the movement can decide what to do with their dollars as well. And those who were anti-gay rights may find a new place to grant patronage.

And then there is the opposition, both those who appeared on the list and those supporters who are uncomfortable with the tactics:

I have several issues with the video. One, for Chris Li (or Lee; CBS isn't sure about the spelling either): you're wrong. When you say, "This sort of blacklist should only appear in communist countries, should not be found in the United States", you demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding about both what this blacklist is and what the United States stands for. If the government were perpetuating this blacklist effort, or pressuring others to blacklist those supporters of Yes on 8 (as it did during McCarthyism), you would be wholly correct; that would be behavior wholly unbecoming of a democratic republic. But this blacklist is being perpetuated by individual organizations not affiliated with the government of the United States; those groups are very much within their own Constitutional rights to call your ass out on what they see as homophobic and bigoted donations. That's how a free society operates. Those on the side that gay marriage should be legal can decide to not redistribute their wealth to those who feel otherwise.

Another point of interest is this idea of 'Free Speech'. It is really the crux of Chris Li (or Lee)'s argument, and it was the prominent idea on the signs being waved by the demonstrators in Sacramento in support of Scott Eckern. There seems to be this strange and adolescent idea that free speech should really be free, and without consequence. That one should be able to say and do anything without feeling the burdens of their actions. And that is wholly incorrect. A person can say whatever they like, within reason. But that same person must also take responsibility for what they have said; they must own it. Free speech is never truly free; what I write here could negatively impact my life, just as what I write here could (and I feel has) positively impacted my life. If someone I would want to be friends with reads something here that is controversial or that they disagree with, they are fully within their rights to limit their contact with me. So too do those people organizing this boycott have the right to not shop in those stores or hire that engineer or go to that theater. That is how the whole thing works. We have to have courage of our convictions when we begin making public statements, whether through money or through dialogue. I donate money to the ACLU. I donate money to Emily's List and Planned Parenthood and Heifer International, and countless others. That is my freedom of speech at work, every time I donate a dollar to an organization. And if I lived in California (and worked in a service industry) and a pro-lifer didn't want to buy the merchandise I was selling, that is their right and their expression of free speech. It goes both ways, and we can't expect to be only positively impacted by our actions. It is cowardly to think so, and it is remarkably self-involved to believe it - or believe that one should be immune from the consequences of one's decisions.


MediaMaven said...

Could you send me in a private message a list of charities you support (and companies you don't)? I'm really interested in giving back, and this could serve as a starting point. Thanks.

mikhailbakunin said...

My problem with the "consumer power" argument is that almost every corporation is unethical. A corporation's job is to maximize profits for its shareholders and externalize costs - which typically means pushing them off onto society.

Exxon may have been particularly irresponsible during the Valdez crisis, but doesn't every oil company act irresponsibly every day? I don't think any of them have a respectable environmental record. Some companies have big disasters that we all remember; other just pollute like it's going out of style.

Still, if you draw that argument to its logical conclusion, there are certain items - like gas - that you simply can't purchase.

I think that, in the end, there are some necessities that will force you to compromise your principles. And if you're being inconsistent about it, what's the point?

John said...

I agree with Mikhailbakunin that it's not easy to only support companies that act morally (after all, Google can't do EVERYthing) particularly when it comes to the "Big" industries like Big Oil, Big Auto and Big Pharma. At the same time, you shouldn't let the fact that they've got you over a barrel discourage you from choosing the least among various evils. If people start by supporting the least horrible company, eventually companies will realize that there may be a profitable future in ethical business practices. If you just say "f@#$ it, they're all bad" and support whoever offers you the cheapest products (usually those who exploit the most natural and human resources) you're rewarding bad behavior.

As for the video, I don't support either side's behavior. Mob intimidation tactics (like those forcing that Eckerd fellow to resign) don't show that you're in the right, just that you're scary. In a world where almost nothing is private, both proponents and opponents of Prop 8 should expect boycotts from members of the opposite side. I'm worried that we'll see harassment, assault and violence if things continue the way they do, though. After all, can you imagine how many more lynchings there would've been if these records were made public in the days of the Civil Rights movement?

In other words: Enjoy your right to free speech, but don't treat it as a right to do worse things to those who don't agree with you.

petpluto said...

MM- Sure, I'll shoot you an e-mail after I get home from work tonight.

Mikhailbakunin- The problem with Exxon is not that the oil spilled - at least not entirely. The problem is the way they abdicated responsibility for the spill and still have not paid the settlement to the people whose lives they disrupted and whose businesses and livelihoods they destroyed, along with not paying for the environmental clean up. In that sense, there ARE better oil companies to buy from. John's right - this isn't a zero sum game, and it is wholly dependent upon one's own ethical code. I don't buy from Exxon, Wal-Mart, or Nestle (and I try not to buy too much from Coke) because I fundamentally disagre with their policies and responses to their gross negative impacts, both past and present. It is true that Luke Oil, Target, Hershey's, and Pepsi are guilty of unethical behavior as well. But for me, none of them have contributed as blatantly and unapologetically to things like the destruction of the environment, the deaths of individuals, or the subjegation (and in some extreme cases, deaths) of workers as those mentioned above. And that's the game, not whether or not a company can be wholly and completely blemish free, but if they try to limit the blemishes they inflict and how they respond in order to correct or limit the extent of those blemishes.

John - You're right that information, such as donar lists, should not be used as intimidation tactics. I don't know precisesly why Eckerd resigned, and if he was pressured to by those inside and outside his local theatre, then that is indeed an issue.

MediaMaven said...

Exxon gas is usually VERY high, so I naturally don't support them.

I think companies are realizing there are benefits to being an ethical company. In the last twenty years, the idea of corporate social responsibility have really taken root, and so many companies really try to work within an ethical framework and (of course) tout this.

I like openness as a general rule, but I was uncomfortable with people's donations availible for everyone to see, and have it exploited like that. I'm with John--it's too easy for these things to be politicized, and I don't like that citizens would have to justify their private donations to their employers, for example. What happened to Eckerd was completely unfair and unnecessary. I was under the impression that he was forced to resign because of his opposition to Prop 8. If his beliefs weren't interfering with his job, then it shouldn't be an issue.