You hear a lot about boycotts in the (online at least) skeptical community lately, particularly when a woman suggests that she’s hit her limit for –insert behavior– and will no longer be participating in some aspect of the community. People do not like to think about boycotts, and usually react badly, blaming the woman for even daring broach the topic and acting as if a boycott was a disproportionate response to whatever upset her.
We can go backwards through time for a few examples of what I’m talking about:
In a January 9 post on Greta Christina’s blog, “Two Questions for DJ Grothe,” DJ Grothe leaves a comment contrasting boycotts with “reasoned arguments” and associating them with “public punishment and public shaming.” He also says a few paragraphs later that boycotts hamper the skeptical community from flourishing. (Christina had said she would no longer attend The Amazing Meeting except as a speaker, and the crowd picked up “boycott” from there.)
In a July 5, 2011 post on Skepchick, “The Privilege Delusion,” Rebecca Watson made the remark that she would no longer be purchasing books by Richard Dawkins. She clarified later that she did not call for a boycott of Dawkins’s works after comments on that post criticized her for calling for a boycott, using words like, “the latest in a series of overreactions by everyone involved in this elevator incident,” “boycott is the exact opposite of skeptic,” “boycott Dawkins for being insensitive to you or the concerns of female atheists, seems really hypocritical,” and “boycotts seek to do harm to someone,” “please don’t boycott it’s the same as letting the bastards win,” and other things.
In Ancient History, I once got into an Internet Argument with someone about a group of women protesting a beer company that had portrayed a woman being burned at the stake on a beer label. My Internet Opponent called the protests “emotional blackmail” which was “demonizing the brewery” in an attempt to “control without a rational argument.”
So how does all this relate to more women in skepticism?
Vilifying boycotts when women suggest them–or something like them–is a silencing tactic that suggests women’s opinions aren’t worth considering, and that you prefer women tolerate what bothers them for your benefit instead of taking action against it. Boycotts by skeptics are all fine and good when it’s a television show with a sponsor that promotes creationism, or a celebrity speaking against vaccines, or a company with anti-gay policies, it seems, but when women make the decision to stop supporting institutions or people that offend them–institutions or people you may love (TAM, Richard Dawkins, beer), the entire concept of boycott becomes distasteful, irrational, divisive, or offensive itself.
What’s funny about this is that boycotts are a perfectly rational solution to a problem. What’s behind them is a simple cost-benefit analysis: What does it cost me to hear crap like this? women ask themselves. What will I gain from pulling my support? In the case of a beer company, if you are a highly offended Wiccan who dislikes seeing the execution of a comely witch in front of a bunch of men used to sell beer, it’s worth it to you to speak out against the company that made the product. Enough of you do it, and the beer company might face real financial losses if they don’t change the label. If you are a woman who dislikes the way DJ Grothe handles women’s concerns, it’s worth it to you to skip events that he oversees. If you are a woman who as been personally attacked by Richard Dawkins, you may reasonably decide that your money is better spent elsewhere than helping him maintain his wealth. And if you are such a woman with these or similar issues, you speak out to other people because, well, people like to talk and if it’s a subject that is important to you, so that makes it worth discussing.
Subjects that are important to women are worth discussing, even if they have the potential to cause an author to lose money, a conference to lose attendees, or a beer company to sell fewer bottles, because women are just as important as the men who host conferences, write books, and engage in commerce. It is as acceptable for women to speak out against these things as it is for non-prof leaders, authors, and beer brewers to speak their minds, too. Just because you love the events, authors, and beers that the women are criticizing does not mean that the women should shut up. They don’t owe you their silence to help you feel better about products you want to consume. Suggesting that women calling for boycotts is a problem reveals that you only care about women so long as they don’t get in your way. And women who think that you only care about them so long as they don’t get between you and your events, authors, and beer are not going to waste their time with you or the skeptical community in general.
What kills me about the protests of women protesting is that boycotts are a perfectly rational response to a perceived injustice. Women identify a problem, and announce a solution. The pain caused by the problem is greater than the pain caused by avoiding the source of the problem. These are straightforward calculations and easy decisions to understand. When you accuse them of behaving irrationally or abusively by calling for a boycott, you are the one being irrational and/or abusive. Also, when boycotts and protests work, and events create things like Codes of Conduct or manufacturers pull offensive products from their shelves, it makes no sense to get mad at the women for making a protest in the first place. If you are mad at anyone, you should be mad at the people who conceded to their demands. If an event you love changes to appease a bunch of women who threatened to not attend if their demands were not meant, all that means is that the event coordinators valued their point of view over yours. And if your point of view was unknown to them because you failed to organize and speak up and insist that you would boycott the event if they did not preserve the status quo, then you have only yourself to blame.
If women are going out of their way to spend extra time protesting something and organizing a boycott, it’s probably because they feel very, very strongly about it; maybe you should consider that something has really gone awry instead of trying to shame them into taking no action. Besides, boycotts are a time-honored tradition of getting shit done. (Montgomery bus boycotts, anyone?) It’s a course of action with a proven track record and evidence to support the decision–nothing opposite of skepticism about it. If women have found flaws in something that you love, you should probably spend more time listening to their point of view than lambasting them for it if you want more women to join the skeptical community. And if something that you love within the skeptical community is causing enough pain to so many people that they agree to take a group action like a boycott, it’s not the boycotters who are being divisive or hampering the skeptical movement from flourishing. You know how to finish this paragraph.