Andrew Stark is a professor of business ethics at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic and other publications.
A top editor resigns after publishing the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” which seems to downplay the killing of Black people. A football player undermines his chances of employment because he takes a knee during the national anthem in an act of protest. An editor and writer resigns from a newspaper, claiming it fosters an “illiberal environment.” A writer resigns from a magazine, claiming it suppresses Black female staff. Major companies threaten to boycott Facebook unless it implements effective prohibitions against hate speech, while right-wing organizations threaten to abscond for upstart rival Parler if it does.
All around us, consumers, employers and employees are using whatever clout they have in the marketplace – boycotts, firings, resignations – to express themselves politically. When they serve views we share, it’s natural to cheer; when they promote ideas we oppose, it’s only human to chafe. But is there any way we can emerge from our own corners and endorse some common rules of the road? Rules that distinguish legitimate from illegitimate politically directed boycotts, firings and resignations, regardless of the power of the individuals concerned, the positions they are advancing, or the poison with which they express themselves? We now have enough recent cases, amassed together in a short time, that an answer has begun to emerge. And it has to do with timing.
We can divide recent cases into two categories, consumer boycotts and employee firings or resignations. Think first of two recent boycott cases: Facebook and Goya Foods. Since Facebook has haltingly begun reforming its hate speech policies, many advertisers have either held off implementing a boycott threat or said that they would resume their relationship with the social-media behemoth after a “pause.” Since Goya chief executive Bob Unanue has defiantly refused to retract the praise of U.S. President Donald Trump that sparked it, the boycott continues at full steam. You might agree or disagree, but it’s well within a consumer’s rights to use their dollars in these ways.
Now think of two other cases: FedEx’s recent threat to boycott the Washington football team unless it changed its racially demeaning name, and the fans who have boycotted Sarah Silverman because she once did a comedy sketch in blackface. Fred Smith, the founder, chairman and CEO of FedEx, who is also a co-owner of the Washington football team, apparently tried for years to persuade the team’s controlling owner, Dan Snyder, to find a new name, and yet the company continued sending him millions of advertising dollars long after it became clear he would not.
Finally, just last month, FedEx sent a private letter to Mr. Snyder indicating that it would sever their business relationship, and he capitulated. According to an insider, who paraphrased it for the The Washington Post, the letter stated that FedEx, having been “founded on a ‘people-first philosophy'” that “embrace[s] … diversity and inclusion,” is “obligated to its stockholders, team members and customers to ensure that its corporate values [are] shared by its business partners.”
Fine. But if such a philosophy goes back to the founding of FedEx, and if it has always been obligated to ensure that its corporate values are shared by its business partners, why did it take so much time to act? Sure, better late than never. But FedEx is now punishing the team for behaviour in which it, at this late stage, has for too long been complicit as well. And so a tincture of hypocrisy stains its boycott threat, when an expression of humility or shared responsibility would have been more appropriate.
Meanwhile, unlike FedEx, which failed to boycott the team for years after it was clear its owner would not be moved, Ms. Silverman’s fans continued their boycott for years after she apologized and declared her remorse. “I don’t stand by the blackface sketch,” the comedian has said. “I’m horrified by it, and I can’t erase it. I can only be changed by it and move on.” Of those who persist in boycotting her, Ms. Silverman plaintively observes: “Everyone is, like, throwing the first stone … It’s really, ‘Look how righteous I am, and now I’m going to press refresh all day long to see how many likes I get in my righteousness.’”
Ms. Silverman has a point. We are all flawed human beings. Punishing the repentant Ms. Silverman for the kind of insensitive mistake that many of us, in one way or another, have committed over the course of our lives comes with a whiff of hypocrisy. Humility, and an awareness of our widely shared responsibility for the current racial climate, would be more appropriate. As Ms. Silverman ruefully notes.
All of these boycott cases involve progressive causes: against hate speech, Trumpism, the demeaning of Native Americans, the disrespecting of Black Americans. Yet despite their political similarity, some seem morally more acceptable than others. The reason is timing. A boycott threat should recede soon after the desired political change has occurred, not long afterward. And a boycott should be implemented soon after the desired political change clearly won’t occur, not long afterward. Otherwise, any moral taint begins to spread from the boycotted to the boycotters.
Timing is also morally key when employees are fired for political reasons, but in a different way. An employer has some leeway to discourage employees from political behaviour it deems incompatible with their jobs, including a parting of the ways if that behaviour becomes unacceptable. But if an employer wields its economic muscle to stifle their political expression after they have left, it overreaches. An employer should not, for example, make it difficult for former employees to find a new employer; think of a football league blocking a politically controversial player from landing a job, or endorsement contracts, once his team lets him go.
Or think of a magazine that requires employees departing a racially toxic work environment to sign non-disclosure agreements if they want any severance. Such a practice effectively bars “Black people,” as the writer Nicole Taylor puts it, from “sharing their stories of feeling sidelined, ignored, and racially discriminated against.” Once an employer has terminated the employee, their relationship should well and truly be severed – hence “severance.” Using its economic behaviour to manipulate her political conduct afterward through “retribution and blacklisting,” in Ms. Taylor’s words, becomes a form of overreaching, of hubris.
Now think of employees who internally criticize their organization’s political conduct, as Facebook employees recently have, threatening to resign – and even carrying out that threat – if it doesn’t change. That can be an honourable thing to do. But employees speaking out is one thing; using their economic behaviour as employees to manipulate their organization’s politically related conduct is another.
For example, employees should not, for political reasons, make it difficult for the employer to retain other employees. Refusing to continue working with a colleague who did something politically objectionable – especially if he or she has sincerely apologized for it – is not always easy to justify. Neither is publicly leaking internal criticism to embarrass other employees into stifling their political expression. Such tactics, too, involve a form of overreaching, of hubris.
In the current maelstrom, it’s hard to locate common moral ground. But perhaps we can agree that, when it comes to using our economic behaviour to advance our political views, we should be wary about hypocrisy and hubris. Individuals call their own conduct into question if they continue a boycott long after the target has redressed its objectionable political behaviour. So do those who abide a long period of objectionable political behaviour before launching a boycott.
Likewise, an employer crosses a line when, for political purposes, it uses its capacity to harm employees’ economic welfare after they leave. So too do employees who, for political purposes, use their capacity to harm their employer’s economic welfare before they leave. When it comes to advancing one’s political views through one’s market clout – whether as consumer, employer or employee – timing is everything. At least, in the present moment, it might be one moral criterion on which we can find consensus.
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