I’d like to take a quick poll of readers. How many of you remember a time when you didn’t eat grapes in the winter, checked to see where a product was grown or manufactured before buying it, or have even gone to the extreme of not shopping in a place because they did not label where items came from? Does that sound familiar to anybody?
When I was a kid that was my family. Supporters of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers union in California, enforcers of the nothing from South Africa rule, and latter from Chile. When your young it’s difficult to understand the subtle nuances of political behaviour. All it meant to me was that I never got to eat the Granny Smith apples I loved so much because they came from South Africa.
My Mother tried to explain it to me, about people being treated unfairly. The Mexican workers in California not being paid properly for their work picking the fruit and vegetables. The situation in South Africa of white minority rule.
I had asked her why she didn’t shop at a particular store, they had better candy and that was important to me, and had been told they didn’t label products telling which country had grown them. She said that if these people who were living like slaves or being treated badly asked for help by people not buying things, it was the least we could do. Giving up grapes in the winter was nothing compared to not being able to afford to feed your family.
I guess you could say that was the beginning of my political awareness. A mixture of liberal guilt and a desire to make the world better. In my innocence, or ignorance, I assumed that everybody’s family acted like ours did. So the first time I was over at a friends house and saw a bowl of grapes I said something about it. The silence that followed told me that I had made some sort of faux pas, but didn’t know what.
It wasn’t till I got home that my mother explained that not all people believed that boycotts, she had taught me what the word meant, were any good, or that some even thought that supporting the people who needed help was wrong. I couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to help those in trouble. She said neither could she, but there were some people in the world like that.
The years went by and the boycotts came and went. The Mexican workers in California won some rights and the impetus died, but apartheid looked like it was here to stay. New causes came up to be supported, new products to be protested. Cosmetics for animal testing, Nestles for dumping bad baby formulas on the third world, and paper products company Bunton and Reid for dumping Mercury into the English River system in Northern Ontario causing birth defects and destroying fish populations.
In the 1980’s the boycott against South Africa picked up steam with the emergence of Desmond Tutu as spiritual leader, and the latest waves of discontent boiling over in the townships where the blacks lived. In an unprecedented move at that time the Canadian government of Brian Mulroney implemented a country wide boycott of all consumer products from South Africa. He was joined in this by most of the developed world with the exceptions of the United States and Great Britain. Neither Ronald Regan or Margaret Thatcher would endorse this as a valid foreign policy claiming that it would hurt those it was designed to help. That argument was weakened by the support of both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu for the boycott.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison and had donned the mantle of leadership he toured the various countries that had supported him and the people of South Africa. Over and over again he reiterated that the boycott no matter it’s economic cost or effect, offered the people of his country hope for the future because it showed them that people cared enough to take a form of action.
It is ironic that governments would claim that boycotts by individuals are not an effective means of working for change. What is even more cynical is for them to argue that they hurts the intended beneficiaries more than it helps. Neither of these seem to be a consideration when any of them impose embargos or economic sanctions on a nation in an attempt to effect a change in leadership.
Doesn’t the complete cessation of trade result in economic depravation for the people of the country these embargos are meant to assist? It is duplicity of the highest order to deny the effectiveness of a means of protest while simultaneously employing the same means as government policy. Perhaps by deriding it’s effectiveness they hope to monopolize it’s usage.
A boycott’s impact is greatest when associated with a movement that has a wider implications then just protest against a specific product. The boycott of Montgomery’s bus service by blacks protesting their segregation was just a part of the overall push for equal rights; not buying the products of South Africa and Californian grown fruit and vegetables was just one element of a massive struggle; and there’s more to ensuring animal rights then boycotting cosmetics.
Consumer advocates like Ralph Nadar realize that a boycott is only as effective as the numbers that support it. Obviously it is useless to attempt the effort unless there is some key issue you can tie it into. There has to be something about it that cuts across economic, social and ethnic barriers. It’s like running an advertising campaign in reverse.
There has to be a sentiment that people can get behind and support. Freedom, safety, or anything that will touch their hearts. Once that is established a boycott becomes the simplest form of protest for people to be involved in. They are able to feel like they are effecting change without having to do anything. It is probably the only direct action where inaction is the means of expression.
The beauty of a boycott is its simplicity. The whole concept is easy to understand, easy to implement and the results are, if not quick, at least obvious. If, for example, people decide to boycott an event for a reason, lets say a circus because of their treatment of animals, they can immediately gauge the effectiveness of their campaign. If the event normally has an audience of over ten thousand people all of sudden has only half that amount they’re probably going to rethink the way they do business. This tells you that you were successful.
A boycott is the purest expression of democracy in action that we have today. People expressing their opinions through their choices. If a majority of people, no matter who they are, offer support, they are listened to. It is a great equalizer in that a gives people who don’t often have a voice a means to express their feelings.
In today’s world the effectiveness of a boycott can only increase. The ease with which information can be disseminated facilitates an organizers ability to create an impact. Anybody anywhere can start or continue the process of spreading the word and the purpose of a particular cause.
While some may argue that a referendum serves this same purpose, a boycott is the only means available to individuals beyond the control of governments to express their opinions. They cost nothing to implement and you don’t have to comply with any regulations except the laws of the land. Our power as consumers can not be underestimated. All of us have the ability to choose not to buy something. Nobody can take that right away from you.
On Saturday July 2nd organizers of the Calgary Stampede stampeded a herd of two hundred and two horses through the streets of the city to celebrate the upcoming event. When they got them to an under pass bridge which runs under a six land highway the noise of the traffic overhead caused the herd to panic further. This resulted in nine horses plunging to their deaths from the bridge. The Calgary Humane Society has called for a boycott of the Calgary Stampede. Please support their efforts and end this inhumane treatment of animals. Thank you. gypsyman