Before I proceed, please notice that in the title I specified boycotts over speech, not boycotts in general. I think that boycotting companies over abuses such as child labor, unfair trade or labor practices, human rights abuses, or other actual bad acts the company may have committed is fine. I’m not talking about boycotts because of rotten things a company has done. I just want to be clear about that.
What I’m talking about (and steadfastly refuse to participate in) are boycotts over free speech. Some examples would include:
- Boycotting a company because they sponsor an opinion-based television or radio show that you happen not to like;
- Boycotting a book store because they sell books or other expressions of ideas with which you happen to disagree; or
- Boycotting a company because you know or believe that its owner or management hold certain political view that run counter to your own, irrespective of the specifics.
I condemn those sorts of boycotts as being a form of economic terrorism because they represent the use of existential threats to the target companies’ survival as business entities unless they agree to change their thinking to conform to that of the boycotters’. Because speech originates with thought, it’s a threat to destroy a company unless they start thinking the way you do.
Inasmuch as they see to stifle free speech, boycotts are also a form of modern-day fascism in which the boycotters themselves are the fascist entity trying to limit expression to that which they themselves consider acceptable speech, using existential threats against the companies as their method of force.
The Concept of Existential Threats
My condemnation of speech-based boycotts relies heavily on the concept of an existential threat, so let me explain what I mean by that.
In common usage, an existential threat refers to the risk of a catastrophe that could extinguish all life on earth (or at least all human life — cockroaches and microbes might survive). In a broader sense, however, the concept of an existential threat can also refer to any threat against the survival of a particular entity or group. For example:
- A hungry cat represents an existential threat to the life of a mouse.
- A mugger with a switchblade represents an existential threat to the life of the person being mugged.
- A madman with a rifle on a school campus represents an existential threat to the lives of the students.
- An enemy nation with superior weaponry represents an existential threat to the existence of a nation.
- A nuclear-armed nation led by a lunatic represents an existential threat to all life on earth.
And so forth.
Boycotts as Existential Threats
Inasmuch as the survival of a business and the well-being of its employees depends on a steady stream of revenue from sales of its goods or services, any threat to cut off that revenue stream represents an existential threat to a business’s survival and the well-being of its employees. Boycotts, in other words, represent existential threats to the companies being boycotted.
In addition, boycotts also affect the boycotted business’s upstream providers and downstream distribution channels; and may therefore represent existential threats to those companies, as well, depending on how big a chunk of their total revenue derives from the company being boycotted. So a boycott against a lawnmower manufacturer could also put out of business local mom-and-pop shops that primarily or exclusively sell that company’s brand of lawnmowers.
Why Boycotts over Speech are Terrorism
When a group boycotts a company because of a television or radio show they sponsor, or because they sell a particular author’s books or other intellectual expressions that the group doesn’t happen to like, what the group is saying is, “You’d better stop supporting speech that we don’t like, or else we’ll kill you.” That’s really what boycotts come down to: Threata to end the existence of the companies being boycotted. That makes it analogous to threatening the life of a person.
When the reason for such a threat is because the group doesn’t happen to like the ideas that a company supports or makes available, that boycott is philosophically indistinguishable from the acts of a terrorist group that kills people over religious ideas or other extremist ideologies. Both groups threaten the existence of the entities being attacked because of disagreements regarding thought, speech, and ideas.
The Special (and Absurd) Case of Bookstore Boycotts
Boycotts against bookstores are the most absurd and reprehensible boycotts of all.
Book stores sell books. Although there are specialized bookstores, they are the minority. The vast majority of bookstores are “general-interest” and sell books of all kinds to people of all kinds. That means that inevitably, a general-interest bookstore is going to sell something that you don’t happen to like. That’s because their business is selling books, not censoring books according to your particular definition of what is acceptable.
When you boycott a bookstore, you are demanding that they become censors and actively work to restrict what people are allowed to read. Furthermore, you are demanding that they make those decisions based on what you happen to believe is acceptable content for other people to read. That makes bookstore boycotts the most fascist boycotts of all– and those who participate in bookstore boycotts the most reprehensible of all boycotters.
Who’s Really Hurt by Boycotts?
Very few boycotts are observed by enough people for a long enough time to put a company out of business. I’m actually not aware of any off the top of my head. But a prolonged boycott might reduce a company’s revenue enough that it has to cut costs: and if that happens, it’s very likely that the first cost-cutting will come in the form of layoffs.
Businesses have many costs, and many of them are fixed costs that can’t easily be reduced. Costs associated with owning, leasing, and maintaining buildings, for example, are pretty much the same regardless of whether or not those buildings are generating revenue for the company. You can’t just make a building and its costs disappear that easily. Leases can’t easily be broken, and commercial real estate sales can take years.
Debt service on existing debt is also a fixed cost in most cases. Just because the revenue is reduced, that doesn’t mean the loan payments don’t have to be paid. Debt doesn’t disappear just because revenue does.
Employees, on the other hand, can be laid off quite easily. There are some costs to layoffs such as unemployment insurance, COBRA, and possibly severance pay; but it’s still a lot easier and cheaper to lay off employees than it is to cut other costs. Therefore, the first casualties of a prolonged boycott are much more likely to be rank-and-file employees who live hand-to-mouth than the CEO, Board of Directors, and shareholders.
Using an existential threat to end a company’s existence solely because one doesn’t like the speech that company supports (or simply makes available, in the case of a bookstore) is a terroristic threat against that company and everyone associated with it, especially its own employees. It’s also an attempt at mind control: The group sponsoring the boycott is demanding that the target think like they do, or else be destroyed. That’s terrorism by any reasonable definition of the word. It has no place in a country that supposedly reveres free thought and speech.