Recently, while researching a Hollywood Progressive review and revisit of The Woman King—a manipulative movie mashup in which fierce warrior nuns risk their lives making the world safe for slavery—it became clear the film’s production team expected turbulence: Facing a potentially serious backlash from the script’s glib gloss—I almost said “whitewash”—of, you know, slavery, they coordinated a frontlash, pre-arranging an abundance of Hollywood-washing for both pre- and post-release. As a result, I was forced to slog through a slough of Big Tobacco-style backwash from “experts” playing nearly every conceivable absolution card.
Because misery loves company, here are a few examples (I’m paraphrasing, but honestly, only a little): “The Woman King is about women’s empowerment.” Or, “In reality, The Woman King is actually anti-slavery.” Or, “The Woman King describes a period in African history that was complex.” (I’m in love with that one: The circumstances surrounding a nearly three-hundred-year period during which an African nation—Dahomey—grew wealthy from treating humans as a cash crop—humagriculture?—were complex. Yes, indeedy.)
Here’s a summary:
“I am the holder of a well Endowed Chair in Neo-Post-Modern Colonialism at DeVry International University and Student Loan Clearing House. I have extensively studied the slave-trading history of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Though the written record is sparse, there is compelling evidence that suggests that Dahomey’s leaders and their devoted warrior nuns knew nothing of what was happening to the two-million Africans they conveyed to white agents once those Africans left Dahomey.
The available evidence suggests the Dahomean kings were duped, naively trusting the forked-tongued, white foreigners to whom they turned over those two million Black men, women, and children. I have been able to study rumors of reports of diplomatic cables between the country’s leaders and their ambassadors; these communiqués imply that the kings—both men kings and women kings—and their faithful warrior nuns believed the Europeans were providing job training and career placement.
A naturally compassionate people, the Dahomeans thought they were sending two million impoverished people out into the world to earn money that they would then send back home, just like Ireland and the Philippines. Hard to believe though it may be for a modern-day, skeptical audience, for most of Dahomey’s nearly three centuries of slave-trading, its kings and their committed warrior nuns did not know what was happening to their cherished African compatriots whom they’d consigned to evil white men.
But the minute—no, the second—they found out, they were like totally chagrined. I have uncovered many texts where they’re, like, ‘SLAVERY? OMG! Are you sure?’ And they put a stop to it right then!”
Okay, I’m obsessing. Maybe seeing this cinematic eructation has given me a mild case of PTSD. And I do admire the chutzpah. Anyone considering a career in Hollywood-washing can get a head start by studying The Woman King‘s frontlash. In the end, it’s just a movie.
Okay, I’m better now. Really what I want to write about here is not Hollywood-washing; it’s something else I found sprouting within The Woman King’s swamp of cringe-worthy apologia: outraged calls for a boycott.
To which I say nuh-uh.
Boycott: to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with a person, store, organization, etc. usually to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions.
Fun fact: Boycott comes from Captain Charles Boycott, the Irish agent of an absentee landlord against whom the tactic was organized in 1880 by Irish nationalist hero Charles Parnell and his Irish Land League. So often has Captain Boycott’s name been evoked since Mr. Parnell and his League promoted that first boycott that had Captain Boycott the foresight to trademark it, his heirs would now be absentee landlords rather than agents of same. The good and great Mr. Parnell tapped into something deep in the human spirit: The grim satisfaction of withholding, of refusing; he tapped into the same source of human energy that Gandhi called passive resistance and Thoreau called civil disobedience.
All three terms—passive resistance, civil disobedience, and boycotting—are forms of what the DSM used to call passive-aggression (and that, somewhat passive-aggressively, it no longer does). At its most basic, passive aggression is the attempt to preserve and define one’s identity. It is a deep-seated impulse: As they begin to separate from parents, nearly all toddlers’ breakthrough word is No! Passive-aggression—resistance—is how the powerless assert their agency, their sovereignty, their personhood, if only to themselves.
Had their forbearer not lacked ambition, Captain Boycott’s heirs would be the richest people on earth. There are more versions of boycotting—of resisting, of withholding—then can be listed; new iterations erupt daily from the seething, boiling Kilauea of human emotion:
- There is personal boycotting—“I can’t stand his self-entitlement”;
- commercial boycotting—“I won’t go to that store because…”;
- Food boycotting—“I won’t eat cage-raised chicken”;
- political boycotting—“I won’t vote in that election…”;
- emotional boycotting—“Apologize or I will never speak to you again”;
- religious boycotting—“I will not attend the wedding if it’s held in a …”;
- moral boycotting—“Considering their behavior, they are not welcome in this house”;
- idea boycotting—“Let’s burn these books before we ban them”;
- organized boycotting—“No one who cares about LGBTQ rights should eat at Chick-Fil-A”; and
- social media company boycotting—“I just took Facebook off my phone.”
There are also disorganized boycotts—spur of the moment Facebook and Twitter cancel campaigns; and sanity boycotting—the entire Republican party.
The potential list exceeds the world’s data-storage capacity.
Though there have been exceptions—e.g., the grape boycott of the late 1960s—I’m generally anti-boycott. I have frequently found them to be shallow, self-congratulatory substitutes for genuine activism, too often a too easy way for one who feels politically neutered to experience a warming jolt of personal empowerment, a self-satisfying sensation of zeal, before going back to one’s phone. Boycotts engender a moral glow the right sneeringly calls virtue signaling. (On the theory that every act has an equal and opposite re-act, the right’s equivalent of virtue signaling is obtuseness-signaling: Look how insensitive I can be!)
Boycotts often treat symptoms while leaving causes festering. They can be manipulative and bullying, making it difficult to distinguish between virtuous collectivity and ganging up. They can be founded on reverse-bullying, where people melodramatize their powerlessness to gain advantage. A boycott’s leaders can have suspect or hidden agendas, using people as pawns for their own ends. Boycotts can be well-meaning but poorly thought out and can have unintended, ineffective, contradictory, or self-defeating consequences. They can be based on an over-reaction to information, misinformation, misinterpretation of available information, weird conspiracies, or outright lies. (Trump supporters boycott liberals based on various combinations of all these.) They can be ineptly or irregularly organized and implemented. They can be aimed at the wrong people and can severely hurt the innocent. They can be poorly aimed products of the culture wars. They can be manipulated to distract and disrupt entire nations.
Let’s look at a virtuous boycott: The 1965 Delano (de-lay-no) Grape Strike (a strike is a type of boycott) that began in 1965 and ended in 1970. It ended with a collective bargaining agreement between what by then had become the United Farm Workers, led by Dolores Huerta and César Chávez, and major table grape growers. The agreement was a hard won—it took five years—but significant accomplishment for 10,000+ farm workers. (Though an improvement in their lives, it was pregress; there are still many miles to go before we sleep.) Bringing the table-grape growers to the table was a milestone on the path to basic farmworker dignity.
The UFW’s victory was aided by a well-organized, years-long consumer boycott of non-union table grapes. The union put up a virtual picket line that tens of thousands of consumers refused to cross; that boycott strengthened the UFW’s bargaining position. It was the UFW’s superpower.
Why was the Table Grape Boycott successful? Its virtue stems from its moral simplicity and clarity: Most people feel that it’s not acceptable to treat workers disrespectfully. It succeeded because the UFW’s asks were disarmingly modest: pay us the wage you previously agreed to, and treat us with minimum respect. It was framed as a classic David and Goliath face-off between mistreated workers and easy-to-caricature bad guys (I don’t want to minimize that; they were easy-to-caricature as bad guys because they were bad guys). In César Chavez, the UFW it had a humble, sympathetic, and charismatic spokesworker. The boycott’s goals were narrowly focused, concrete, and limited. It was well-organized, well-publicized, and well-promoted. And finally it gave individual consumers a choice that allowed us to have our cake—or grapes—and eat it to: we didn’t have to go without table grapes, we had only to choose union table grapes, and we got to feel good about ourselves while choosing. Customer demand for union table grapes prompted supermarkets to turn toward union growers, thus causing the non-union growers more financial pain than striking farmworkers had from withholding their labor, from boycotting the fields.
And it still took five years. Some of that was because of sheer, human behavioral inertia: For many reasons and in a variety of forms (most of them shameful), lowest common denominator treatment of agricultural workers has been the norm for centuries, and itinerant agricultural workers, without whom most of us couldn’t eat, have long formed the foundation of the food pyramid (and been crushed beneath it). Their very itinerancy worked against their organizing, and it took an unprecedented alliance between Filipino and the Mexican farm workers, whom the growers had tried to hire as strike breakers, to break the growers’ boycott of striking workers. The Mexican workers, when asked by Chavez what they wanted to do, voted overwhelmingly to join the Filipino’s strike. And the strike was on. The table grape boycott worked, and I was happy to be part of it, happy to add my resistance to the farmworkers’. The people united can never be defeated.
But what of less virtuous boycotts? Like say the 2008 El Coyote Café boycott?
Opened in 1931, El Coyote Café has since served Mexican comfort food to any and all Angelenos. (It is where on the night of August 8, 1969, Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski ate their last meal before being murdered by the Manson Family.)
In 2008, Californians by a 52%-48% margin passed the embarrassingly awful Proposition 8. Originally titled the "California Marriage Protection Act” and then awkwardly retitled—because that original title was a lie—the “Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry Initiative Constitutional Amendment,” Prop 8 was promoted by a coalition of conservative and fundamentalist religious groups and the usual phalanx of right wing loonies.
[Though I (dis)respectfully disagree with their logic, at least there is a logic in the anti-gay-marriage. and anti-gay. posturings of conservative and fundamentalist religious groups. But no one has ever been able to explain cogently why tidy righties feel they have a vested interest in two individuals of the same gender marrying (or, for that matter, doing anything). I ache to hear that explained in a way that doesn’t sound insane. Here’s how crazy it is: Two people who choose to marry are opting to indulge in among the most conservative and stabilizing rituals our society offers. Yet conservatives obsess over this fundamentally conservative impulse, ardently striving to deny two people access to a cornerstone of conservatism. It’s batshit crazy.]
So, the El Coyote Café boycott: The Prop 8 campaign was of course highly divisive (it was designed to be), and in the event it became known that Marjorie Christoffersen, a daughter of El Coyote’s original owners and one of the restaurant’s managers, had donated $100.00 in support of banning gay marriage.
Outraged activists called for a boycott. Christoffersen held a brunch for activists in which she apologized for causing offense. But not only did she refuse to renounce her support of Prop 8, she also refused to agree to financially support efforts to repeal it. (She attributed her position to her faith; she was a Mormon, and the Mormon Church was among the religious groups backing the campaign.) According to one organizer, the boycott was instigated partly because the restaurant had for years been a gay hangout, and the news of Christoffersen’s donation felt like a betrayal. According to one report, the boycott was responsible for slashing restaurant revenue by 30%. Christoffersen subsequently resigned from her family’s restaurant.
Attempting to force people to renounce their faiths by threatening their livelihoods is bullying. For me, the essence of being American is the freedom to have one’s own views; that’s sacred. I don’t want to bully someone into believing the way I do, and I don’t want to be bullied by anyone who disagrees with me. To be American is to support people with opposing views, not harass them, or else Patrick Henry died for nothing.
What exactly was the El Coyote Café boycott designed to change? Would it change Christoffersen;s mind? Should it? Is not what’s important how we treat people, not what they believe or that we believe they believe? Did Christoffersen’s $100.00 turn the election’s tide? Would her $100.00 donation to a repeal campaign turn that tide? Whatever a bully’s motivation, bullying is bullying. One always hopes that people who suffered from bullying would try to not bully others. Alas, that’s not how the world works.
So that was a boycott I did not support, not because I don’t support gay rights, but because the call for a boycott was based not on any reasonable expectation of change for the better but on hurt feelings.
Because people feel strongly about an issue does not make their position correct; in fact it’s usually the opposite. I don’t like cancel culture no matter from which side of the culture war it comes. It’s un-American.
Really, what I am is highly skeptical of organized boycotts, partly because they're often based on mis-information or misinterpretation of information, of which there is a lot. Once, during the student strike at San Francisco State—which took place over a five-month period bracketed by the UFW strike and grape boycott—I was listening to a panel discussing the need for a Black Studies Department. One speaker said, Black people are as capable of governing as white people. Cleopatra was Black, and she ran a country. I didn't have the opportunity to say, Sorry, but Cleopatra was not Black. Cleopatra was a descendant of Ptolemy, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. After Alexander died, his generals and his family divided his empire, and Ptolemy took Egypt. Like Alexander, Ptolemy was from Macedonia, a region of Greece, so Cleopatra was Greek. That's why there was all that inbreeding; the Macedonians declined to intermingle with the natives.
But I said none of that because all of our heads are constantly full of egregious misinformation. Whichever side of the culture war we've chosen, misinformation misinforms our ideas, our social discourse, our conclusions, and our decisions. Our heads are full of encyclopedia outtakes that weaken our reasoning and that can, and do, weaken the foundations of boycotts. So although yes, The Woman King is just a movie, it’s a movie that spreads egregious misinformation carelessly. And as misinformation spreads, it becomes accepted, uninterrogated lore that forms the foundations of boycotts. Innocent people will be hurt. Skepticism is warranted.
So it isn’t boycotts per se that I oppose; it's uninterrogated boycotts, boycotts that are organized by individuals and groups whose knowledge, judgment, understanding, emotional involvement, and bias are insufficiently vetted. (By me.) Rather than take a stranger’s word, I prefer to make my own misinformed decisions.
If I’m comfortable with the reasoning, I'm perfectly willing to boycott (or, for that matter, girlcott): I don't go to zoos because I don’t believe innocent animals should be imprisoned without due process; I don't go to Dodger games because Frank McCourt still gets a percentage from the parking lot proceeds; I don't eat borscht because I disapprove of food that is red.
Boycotts are powerful weapons that are much too freely deployed and prone to misuse. They are exercises in collective morality, and collective morality is an oxymoron; morality is subjective and individual, and attempts to impose collective morality easily segues into fascism. Boycotts are always intended to inflict pain and should be handled with great care.
Boycotts should be used sparingly and aimed with precision. Before we boycott, we should always think: Who will this hurt, and how much? Because some of those people will be innocent, and some of them will simply be those with whom we disagree. What are the potential gains, and do they justify the pain we will inflict? In my experience, the answer is rarely yes.