Save boycotts for people who deserve them

Posted at 7:06 PM, Jul 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-29 21:06:10-04

Recently, acts of boycotting and shunning have been proliferating. The #MeToo movement has made sexual predators into pariahs. Groups have organized to boycott Starbucks for racial biases and push advertisers to cut ties with Laura Ingraham’s Fox show after she ridiculed a Parkland survivor. The Red Hen restaurant shunned Sarah Huckabee Sanders by denying her service, which led (inevitably) to calls for a boycott against the Red Hen.

All of these actions have similar goals: To protect the associational rights of their organizers, punish or stigmatize their targets and publicize moral causes.

The newest example of this isolating behavior involves the US Women’s national soccer team (USWNT), which briefly included on its roster Jaelene Hinkle, a professional soccer player with strong religious views who has spoken out against same-sex marriage. Some feel that Hinkle crossed a moral line when she recently revealed that she did not play for the team last year because they wore jerseys with rainbow numbers to celebrate pride month.

Earlier this month, Hinkle was added to the team’s roster for the 2018 Tournament of Nations. Following the announcement, an article in Slate condemned the US Women’s National Team for allowing Hinkle on the roster despite her reasons for declining her offer to play last year. It suggested that Hinkle should have been shunned by the USWNT and, because she was not, fans should boycott the team’s games. Allowing Hinkle on the team, according to this view, seemed an endorsement of homophobia and an insult to the many gay fans of women’s soccer.

Just a few days later, however, the team cut Hinkle, saying that their decision “was based on performance reasons.” Some observers have questioned whether her removal from the roster was, in fact, due to her outspoken opposition to gay marriage.

The morality of boycotts and shunning is complex. On one hand, they have been important tools for expressing moral outrage and for seeking justice, as they were, for example, in the Montgomery bus boycott. On the other hand, these tools can be used oppressively, like they were in the case of Hollywood blacklists of alleged Communists.

In cases like Jaelene Hinkle’s, partisans in our culture wars view the situation through one of these two lenses: Those who favor gay rights might compare it to civil rights boycotts; those worried about religious freedom might invoke the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist.

In a society diverse enough to include such warring perspectives, we should not invoke the power and moral authority of boycotts and shunning to isolate Jaelene Hinkle or to punish those who will not.

These isolating measures are appropriate moral responses to individuals and groups whose views or actions are so indecent as to deserve universal condemnation — the violent Southern racists who demanded segregation, the modern Nazis who preach hate or Harvey Weinstein and his fellow sexual predators. All these groups have morally indecent motivations, aiming to oppress their victims and presuming the inferiority or unimportance of those they seek to oppress or harm. The views and behaviors of these people fall outside what a good society can tolerate. By shunning and boycotting them, we signal that they are unfit to be part of society.

Some activists against gay rights belong in this category. But among the millions of people who reject same-sex marriage, many — likely including Jaelene Hinkle– do not aim to oppress gay people and do not presume their inferiority. Their views may do harm, and we may justly criticize and oppose them. But they do not deserve to be punished and excluded from civic life. Punishing them through the same mechanisms we use to isolate Nazis and sexual predators is wrong.

When we turn too quickly to boycotts and shunning, we undermine what little is left of civic engagement and its potential for genuine dialogue and cooperation. This path leads to mutual distrust, and to retaliations and counter-retaliations.

We have seen this tit-for-tat pattern often. When companies cut ties with the NRA after the Parkland shooting, gun-rights advocates immediately targeted these companies for a counter-boycotts. When companies boycotted Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, several states stopped doing business with them.

Those who disagree with my perspective on this issue often invoke the importance of free association. Boycotts, they say, are nothing more than consumer choice over where to spend money. Shunning is comparable to choosing our friends. Since we all should be able to spend our money as we like and associate with those we admire, we should be free to boycott and shun.

These arguments, though plausible in some contexts, do not make sense in the context of organized boycotts or shunning from jobs. If you do not admire Jaelene Hingle, surely you would have been within your rights to root against the team and refrain from spending money to support it if she had been allowed to play. However, organizing a boycott is not the same thing as individually choosing where to spend your money. Those who organize boycotts seek more than to persuade you that a team does not deserve your admiration. They aim, in part, to punish those whose views they dislike and to deter those people from voicing their views by imposing financial penalties. As for shunning, many times this form of isolation goes beyond choosing not to associate with someone on a personal level. Sure, not inviting Jaelene Hinkle to your picnic is your prerogative. But not hiring her for a job because of her beliefs is more like employment discrimination.

Boycotts and shunning can have enormous moral authority. However, relying on them to settle our most difficult disagreements undercuts their authority and makes civic engagement difficult. We should save these practices for monsters like Harvey Weinstein rather than spending them on soccer players whose religious views offend us.