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The decline of the boycott movement

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TORONTO — The common usage of the word boycott owes its origin to one Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, the land agent for Lord Erne’s estates in County Mayo, Ireland.

Embroiled in a conflict over the size of rent reductions during the poor harvest year of 1880, Boycott responded to tenant recalcitrance with an eviction plan. Immediately, he became the object of an organized shunning campaign. It was quintessential social and economic ostracism. He couldn’t even get his mail delivered.

In our times, boycotts have tended to take on a moral glow, not to mention a self-congratulatory one. Some of us might well remember our participation in the late 1960s campaign against California grapes, undertaken in support of Cesar Chavez’s union organizing efforts. Whatever value it may have contributed to the cause, it certainly made us feel good about ourselves. Even a tad superior.

Since then, boycotts have become a relatively common tool in support of political and social goals. By seeking to punish those whose actions or views are deemed objectionable, the boycotters aim to both effect retribution and change behaviour.

Take a couple of American examples. Last year, Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy discovered that contributing to the campaign against legalization of same-sex marriage exposed his business to an attempted boycott. And when Arizona rescinded Martin Luther King Day in 1987, it was brought to heel by a tourism boycott.

But if boycotts often project a morally superior vibe, blacklists tend to make people queasier. Substantively speaking, it’s hard to see why. After all, both the intent and the effect are the same — economic and social power deployed against those whose views or actions are deemed to be unacceptable.

Perhaps the wariness about blacklists has to do with the popular culture’s memory of the most notorious example since the Second World War — what’s generally described as the "witch-hunt" in the American film industry during the early years of the Cold War. Countless books, articles, movies and television shows have painted a bleak picture of what happened, and the saga of the Hollywood 10 often takes centre stage.

For those not familiar with the story, the Hollywood 10 is the popular term used to identify a group of screen writers and directors who got into trouble by refusing to co-operate with a congressional committee investigating Communist influence in the film industry. For this, they were cited for contempt, charged and found guilty, and subjected to fines and one-year jail sentences. They were also blacklisted by the industry.

In initiating the blacklist, the industry was attempting to head off what it saw as a gathering public opinion storm. The Hollywood 10 would no longer be employed. In other words, it was a boycott.

And they certainly suffered. Some survived professionally by relocating to Europe. Others, like Dalton Trumbo, prolifically wrote screenplays — at significantly reduced rates — under various pseudonyms. And although the blacklist eventually crumbled, some never regained their previous status.

Over the years, most of the popular renderings have cast the Hollywood 10 in heroic terms, men of conscience who were persecuted for having vaguely progressive opinions. But the fact of the matter is that they were, or had been, secret members of the American Communist party at a time when it was joined at the hip with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Of course, the argument can and has been vigorously made that this association in no way justified depriving the 10 of their livelihood. After all, the American Communist party wasn’t a legally proscribed entity and they were entitled to hold and pursue their political beliefs.

Mind you, the same could be said of the aforementioned Dan Cathy. In contributing to the campaign to preserve the traditional legal definition of marriage, he was entirely within his rights. But had the attempted boycott been successful, his business could have been destroyed.

As for moral opprobrium, is opposing same-sex marriage really a greater ethical violation than promoting Stalin’s interest? If so, President Barack Obama himself was guilty — and thus a worthy boycott target — until very recently!

At the end of the day, it would seem that we’re left with human nature at its most predictably prosaic. We get enthused about boycotts that tickle our political fancy, while deploring those that don’t. Just let’s not kid ourselves that it’s anything else.


Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

—Troy Media



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