The Case Against Boycotts

As a student of International Relations one of the topics I have discussed in class more than once is social movements; people who band together and peacefully protest in order to create political or societal change. I, like most Americans, enthusiastically support everyone’s right to protest and participate in social movements. However, it seems that in some cases we may may be a little bit too enthusiastic about protesting.

In May of this year the governor of Georgia signed a controversial law that would restrict abortion rights all across the state. In response, there were many who called on film and TV creators to pull out of the state (the most popular filming destination in the US. While many advocates for women’s reproductive rights were supportive of the movement, Georgia locals claimed that it would do more harm than good. Boycotting the film industry in Georgia would lead to the loss of jobs for women who were working to create change. A group of advocates created a petition to counter the boycott. The petition says: “We now share the burden of condemnation for actions we fought from the beginning. Please know this: Georgia’s hardworking women and many men in this industry will continue to be the resistance from the inside”. Protesters for women’s rights were so quick to protest that they neglected to ask the women of Georgia what they needed. Rather than being allies, these protesters hamstrung Georgian advocates who needed their support.

This situation mirrored concerns over EU sanctions of Bangladeshi products in 2013 following the Rana Plaza factory collapse. On the surface it seems that taking action against a country with poor working conditions would be nothing but positive, but there are two sides to every story. While the collapse of Rana Plaza was a tragedy, the last thing the people of Bangladesh needed was economic sanctions at a time when their country was making so much progress. Though working conditions were poor, their country was becoming more developed as a result of industrialization and local industry. But if it suddenly became more expensive for companies to operate there, what would happen to the jobs? The answer is that the jobs would disappear and the people of Bangladesh would be worse off than they were to begin with.

On the surface it seems like protests of regressive laws on women’s reproductive rights and sanctions fighting against poor working conditions are an objective moral win. But if I have learned anything from studying politics in my college career thus far, things are rarely that simple. It is important to think about the people who you are trying to protect and ask them what they need from you. Taking part in a boycott can feel righteous, but sometimes it is just a self-serving facade. I encourage everyone to think critically before they take action in order to avoid causing more harm than good. Research the cause before you take part, interview the people that you are boycotting on behalf of and ask what they need. Protests are a tool that, when used properly, can be very effective. But when used improperly, or thoughtlessly, they can be harmful.

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  1. I recently read a small post on protesters/boycotters taking a different approach. Bus drivers, rather than stop the ability of those who rely on public transportation from getting to work/school or other events, the bus drivers refused to accept fairs, and just burned the gas of the buses for their protest. Your post immediately made me think of this. I feel as though boycotting, whether a product or company, depends entirely on context. If you are disrupting the lives of others, people will not give you the support. However, if a protest does not actively hurt others, It can be beneficial.

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