My TAC blog colleague Scott McConnell is encouraged by Presbyterian Church (USA) voting in assembly to boycott goods made in Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. Leaving aside the question of whether or not the Presbyterians did the right thing here, my response is: Meh.
According to the PCUSA’s own numbers, the church has lost 500,000 members over the last 10 years, and now stands at 2 million. The idea that a mainline Protestant denomination in steep decline could make an economic difference with a boycott like this is unsound.
Secondly, do they really believe the Presbyterians in the pews will act on this resolution? Again, I don’t want to argue about whether this was the right or wrong position for the Presbyterians to take; I’m more interested on whether or not this is anything beyond a symbolic gesture. I’m skeptical on the question of whether any attempted boycott like this, whether from conservatives or liberals, is worth anything other than headlines. If you are a Presbyterian who wishes to honor your church’s boycott resolution, where do you start? I’m serious. I wouldn’t have the faintest clue how to go about learning which products, if any, available to me in my weekly shopping rounds are made on the West Bank. And sorry, but who’s going to take the time to discern this information?
Same deal with conservative-led church boycotts of this or that thing. I would like to believe they are, or could be, effective, but I don’t believe they are. Aside from a core of activists, who exist in every church, do most ordinary folks give a rip one way or another about policies like this endorsed by church leadership? Honestly, if I were going to withhold my trade on principle from a place, a business, or what have you, I would do so without the least regard to what the policymakers in my church have to say about it. I just don’t care what they think. I could be wrong, but I believe most people think this way.
That’s why I don’t take it seriously when any church authority announces a boycott of any sort. And not just church authority, either. I can see boycotts working on an intensely local level, but I think they don’t really work because people have lost the habit of thinking collectively and intentionally when it comes to consumer decisions.
Am I wrong? Help me out here.
UPDATE: I haven’t even looked at the responses yet, and I thought: “Wait, Susan G. Komen. Of course boycotts can work.” Yes, what happened to Susan G. Komen is a powerful example. But can you think of another one?
I suspect if a boycott is to work, it has to strike its target not so much in its business model but in the social prestige of its leadership class. In other words, the executives have to be made to feel embarrassed or otherwise burdened by the controversial policy that brought about the boycott.
I can think of a CEO I know personally whose business model was potentially directly threatened by a practice his company was engaged in, but who, when I discussed the matter with him socially, was not the least bit interested in changing his company’s position. Why not? Because even though the customer base who stood to boycott his company was substantial, in his social circles, there was a lot of prestige involved in his company’s activism around this issue. I don’t believe companies are always, or even mostly, motivated by the financial bottom line. Look to the social culture of the leadership class if you want to know where a company is going to come down on a given issue.