If you’ve been following the news, you know that Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce, of the high-end Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabanna (“D&G”), ignited a firestorm in the gay community when the two men — both gay — came out in favor of the traditional family, and spoke in harsh terms about the artificiality of designer babies for gay men. Elton John, who has two of those designer babies, was outraged, and demanded a boycott. I can’t find the link now, but the Twitter hashtag for boycotting rocketed in popularity, so that it almost ranked up there with BDS boycott hashtags aimed at destroying Israel.
All of which got me thinking, not about traditional marriage and designer babies, but about boycotts in the internet age. In the old days, a boycott was a slow-moving, grassroots effort that developed over enough time for the two parties — the business and the consumers — to think through their positions and to make changes. Even in old-time blogging days, just a few years ago, it might take a called-for boycott as many as two days to take root. In our social media day, though, boycotts take root practically within minutes as hashtags flash across Twitter and Facebook posts multiply exponentially.
This reminds me strongly of the technological changes that have affected lawyers. I started practicing law when law firms were first using facsimiles as a way to communicate with opposing counsel. (Firms used to charge their clients $1 per fax page back in the day.) Even as fax use rose, though, the old ways of snail mail and phone calls were still common.
Snail mail was slow. You’d pen your argument to or demand on opposing counsel, stick it in the mail, and forget about it for a couple of days while you thought about other things or perhaps thought about and refined your approach to the case at issue. Then, you’d get a snail mail back from opposing counsel and begin the “think and write” process all over again. This measured pace helped a great deal to keep tempers in check. It’s hard to hold a head of steam for the two to four days it takes to conduct a single snail mail exchange. Tempers could flare, but it was usually a slow, low, steady burn.
Phone calls, although more immediate than snail mail, had the virtue of innate civility attached to them. As we know from the internet, it’s easier to harangue someone when you’re anonymous than when you’re having a face-to-face call with someone who just greeted you by saying “Hi, Bob, how are you?” Unless opposing counsel was an unmitigated jerk, the norms of polite human interaction kept opposing attorneys from going too far off the rails.
These measured exchanges started changing with faxes. Instead of waiting 24 or 48 hours for missives to reach the other counsel, communications took minutes to send. The only thing slowing the exchanges down was the fact that most lawyers were still dictating or handwriting their letters. Tapes or handwritten drafts required secretarial transcription, editing, revisions, getting in line at the single office fax machine (which always jammed when you needed it most), etc. Instead of two letters being exchanged in four days, you’d have two letters being exchanged in one day. I witnessed the fact that this increased speed also increased the venom in exchanges between opposing counsel.
And now there’s email. Oy! Lawyers sitting at their own computers will pound out a half-dozen intemperate exchanges in a single day with opposing counsel. Contrary to what one might hope, this maddened pace doesn’t de-fuse the relationship by bringing instead clarity before hard feelings can fester. Instead, it encourages ill-feeling by keeping the attorneys at a constant boil as they throw emails back and forth without ever having the forced civility of a face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction with their opposing party.
And so it goes with boycotts. They are increasingly intemperate and ill-informed. I speak from experience. Some years ago, and I honestly don’t remember in which context (and don’t wish to remind myself by looking it up), I insisted that everyone should write letters to certain companies that advertised with something or other. My cause was just but, as I learned, I didn’t control the fire I started. For some reason, despite my blog’s usual low-profile, that post got picked up. I eventually received a very civil letter from one of those companies begging me to stop the letter-writing campaign because the company had already done what the campaign sought. I did a post trying to halt the campaign but, sadly, my “let’s all stop now” post lacked the traction of my “how dare they” post.
I really felt bad about what happened — and I was just a teeny player at a blog, rather than a celebrity or a much-read forum. In today’s world, thanks to social media, businesses are buffeted by wildfire boycotts and letter-writing campaigns. Elton John gets mad at his former buddies, demands an instant boycott of their company, and within less than 24 hours, that company’s financial security (which means the job security for all its employees) may be at terrible risk.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that I no longer insist upon boycotts or letter writing campaigns (unless it’s a targeted letter or phone call to a Congress person in the lead-up to a specific vote). I will state the facts I know about an issue, as well as my opinion about those facts. I may say that I never shop at “X” store because those facts make me unhappy, and it makes me uncomfortable to send my business there. (For example, I don’t buy at Urban Outfitters, which, in addition to selling political views with which I disagree, is invariably vulgar.) What I don’t do, though, is try to start social media campaigns aimed at destroying someone or something the instant I first hear about something bad the company apparently has done or a position its executives or founders hold. Companies and their employees ought to be able to think about their ideas without the tremendous economic pressure of a flash social media boycott.
For example, I learned today something that first came to light in August 2014: Starbucks has no presence in Israel, although it’s well-represented in the rest of the Middle East. Interestingly, these two facts have resulted in two entirely opposite memes — the first, that Starbucks is an anti-semitic, anti-Zionist company, and the second that Starbucks is secretly funneling money to the Israeli government in lieu of a presence in Israel. Starbucks claims that both are untrue. It’s never funneled money to Israel and it left Israel a long time ago because it had too many operational problems there unrelated to politics. That’s Starbuck’s story and it’s sticking to it.
Am I going to boycott Starbucks? No. But to be honest, I’m not going to shop there either. Aside from preferring companies that do business with Israel, even if it can sometimes be problematic, I find Starbucks over-priced. I also especially hate having it preach at me. It started the preaching with cups that had slogans from Lefties and it’s now trying a “conversation about race” campaign. Frankly, if I’m in a Starbucks, it’s because I desperately want a cup of overpriced hot chocolate, not a conversation with a pierce-nosed, black-lipsticked barista about white privilege or a cup that preaches Progressive salvation. (At least In ‘n Out is subtle, with its very low profile allusions to the Bible. Those don’t bother me because (a) I have no problem with the Bible and (b) the allusions are so low profile that only people who know about the Bible n the first place would notice them.)
Okay. I’ve just offered you my opinion about business practices for both Starbucks and In ‘n Out. I haven’t called for boycotts or a letter writing campaigns. I’ve simply offered you data that you can take at face value, or expand upon, or research further, or ignore, or whatever else you want to do…. You’re the consumer. Armed with more information (which is usually readily available on the internet), you can make your own choices.