EDITORIALS: Why boycotts are not the answer to cruelty called "culture"
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2012:
Editorial feature: Why boycotts are not the answer to cruelty called “culture”
Animal people at this writing has received a barrage of e-mails from both irate individual activists and several international online activist networks soliciting a boycott of Spain over the torture-killings of “fire bulls” at village fiestas.
There are few less defensible public practices involving animals than the ancient and widespread custom of attaching a flammable material to the horns of a bull, setting it alight, and then further tormenting the bull as he strives to escape the fire.
Though such events are illegal in most places that pretend to civilization, they remain celebrated in some, scattered among nations on every inhabited continent. Even in those nations, “fire bull” fesivals appear to have few more defenders than participants. “Fire bull” torture is protested by animal advocates, denounced by mass media, and continues almost entirely through the intransigent sadism of local sponsors and politicians. It is precisely because “fire bull” festivals are a local aberration, albeit occurring in widely scattered places, that boycott appeals are an inappropriate and ineffective approach to stopping them. Where “fire bull” festivals have been vulnerable to outside public opinion, they ended decades ago, even centuries ago in some places.
. “Fire bull” festivals continue mostly in backward, isolated communities where shocking and outraging outsiders may bring the only media notice they ever get. Such events persist, like pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, hounding foxes and coyotes in “chase pens” from which they cannot escape, the Taiji and Faroe Islands dolphin massacres, and the Namibian and Atlantic Canada seal hunts, in defiance of international public opinion, in places with many young men who lack regular work and few industries producing anything that the outside world buys at retail. Extractive industries such as oil-drilling, mining, logging, and fishing may provide some jobs, but because the products are mostly raw materials, they are rarely accessible to consumer boycott.
. Boycotts succeed only if narrowly focused and intensely promoted, in causes with a specific short-term goal and strong appeal to the actual buyers of whatever is boycotted. Short-term boycotts can be quite effective, if well-chosen targets are hit accurately and hard, but unfocused and open-ended boycotts are among the least effective of activist tactics.
. A targeted boycott works because not purchasing a product or service that one otherwise would purchase has an immediate and direct economic effect on the people being boycotted. A classic example was the 1955-1956 boycott of the public bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr., that ended racially discriminatory seating. Very few black people in Montgomery had cars then. Almost all commuted to work by bus. When they stopped riding the buses, and stopped paying bus fare, they successfully brought direct economic pressure to bear. Waging a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court was necessary to secure the triumph, but the lawsuit resulted from the efforts of the Montgomery city government to break the boycott.
. Boycotts are contrastingly ineffective when they hit people, businesses, or whole nations who mostly have no direct control over whatever the boycotts are trying to change. Boycotts of South Africa called against racial apartheid, often cited as a success, long demonstrated ineffective boycotting. South African academic institutions, sporting events, and tourism were under boycott for more than 25 years before the disinvestment campaign of 1986-1989 finally identified and struck successfully at a weak link in the apartheid system.
. Consumer product boycotts sometimes succeed, but rarely do, because the people who support the boycotts are seldom even the 5% of customers that it takes to influence sales more than factors such as the day of the week and what the weather is on a given day. Among hundreds of consumer product boycotts called over animal issues, just a handful have won lasting results. Most influential were the brief boycotts of Avon and Revlon called in 1980 by Animal Rights International founder Henry Spira. Both Avon and Revlon quickly agreed to stop testing their products on animals. But Spira understood the importance of timing. The Avon and Revlon boycott campaigns were waged just before the introduction of computerized inventory tracking enabled manufacturers and retailers to precisely and immediately measure each sales fluctuation to see if a declaration of boycott has actually had an effect. Using the relatively clumsy economic measuring methods of the pre-online era with extraordinary skill, Spira anticipated and took advantage of normal market fluctuations.
. Later the cosmetics marketing industry figured out that Spira was beating them with strategic savvy, not the ability to mobilize millions of consumers at a moment’s notice. The marketing gurus learned from computerized inventory tracking that most boycott appeals don’t reach or influence anywhere near enough people, fast enough, to influence consumer behavior more than raising or lowering the price of a product by just a few cents.
. As the use of credit cards replaced cash transactions, companies also learned that they can quickly discover if people who write in support of a boycott ever were among their customers. These days big businesses know that most declared boycotts are never going to hurt them, so most no longer even bother to respond to boycott appeals.
. But the cosmetics industry also learned from the Avon and Revlon boycott aftermath that promoting cruelty-free products boosted sales. Spira, who died in 1998, never called another boycott, though he held the threat of boycott in reserve during negotiations with major corporations; but Spira waged many other successful campaigns by emphasizing the value to corporate images of doing better by animals.
. In the interim, Earth Island Institute and the Humane Society of the U.S. in 1990 led a successful boycott of tuna caught by methods that kill dolphins. StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea, the three largest U.S. tuna companies, quickly agreed to the boycott terms, which were then incorporated into U.S. law–but foreign tuna fishers alleged that the U.S. companies had only recognized a ploy that would freeze out their foreign competition.
. A shrimp boycott called by the same organizations to protect sea turtles brought similar results. Laws were passed that favored the U.S. tuna and shrimp industries, followed by years of litigation and appeals to the World Trade Organization that eventually forced some relaxation of the standards won by boycott.
. There was no successful consumer product boycott of note on behalf of animals in the last decade of the 20th century, and there have been none thus far in the 21st century. A boycott of snow crabs called by HSUS in opposition to the Atlantic Canada seal hunt enlisted some participation, but had no visible effect on the seal hunt, though the numbers of seals killed have steeply fallen since the European Union in 2009 forbade the import of seal pelts.
. While consumer product boycotts called on behalf of animals have had little success, none recently, threatening a tourism boycott–as many opponents of “fire bull” events now are doing–has rarely achieved anything at all. Tourism promoters learned long ago that boycotts called by animal advocates usually have no evident effect on tourism revenues. Perhaps most conspicuously, attempts to boycott Alaskan tourism in response to culling wolves have repeatedly failed for nearly 30 years, winning only one brief respite during the winter of 1992-1993. A succession of Alaskan governments since then have all but ignored boycott threats, though former governor Sarah Palin courted hunter support by touting her disregard of boycotts. Alaska kills wolves to make more moose and caribou available to human hunters–including affluent out-of-state trophy hunters who spend tens of thousands of dollars to fly home with an animal’s head. Beyond the coastal cities where tour boats stop, most of Alaska sees little of tourists who do not bring a rifle.
. A tourism boycott is a boycott of whole cities, states, or nations, usually in response to the actions of just a very few. Boycotts of people who have little or nothing to do with the grievance occasioning the boycott are not only ineffective, but usually backfire. People who are boycotted for something they do not do tend to become resentful. Even more damaging, tourism boycotts directed at people of other ethnicities play into the arguments of cultural isolationists who defend atrocity by claiming–accurately at times–that outside opponents of their activities are ignorant bigots.
. Boycotts fail most often in opposition to practices which claim some sort of cultural rationale, meaning that they have become mixed up with the self-identify of the perpetrators and their communities. Local political support for such practices tends to increase in response to the appearance of an outside threat. Observed Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce soon after the U.S. Civil War, “Patriotism is the last defense of a scoundrel.” Giving animal abusers the opportunity to hide behind the pretenses of patriotism and cultural defense can perpetuate abuses for generations after they might otherwise fade out.
. When outsiders put governments on the defensive, locally or nationally, what the governments tend to do is institutionalize the defense. At the national level, defending cruel practices against outside attack can become a well-funded, self-perpetuating bureaucracy, especially in in absence of strong internal protest. Examples include the Canadian and Japanese agencies established to protect sealing and whaling against international protest, which may create more person-hours of paid employment than actual sealing and whaling.
Education & empowerment
There is no animal issue, not even one, where externally led protests at embassies and consulates helped to abolish any form of animal abuse before there was also strong home-grown opposition to it. Conversely, there are many issues–and bullfighting is an excellent example–where quite rapid progress was made as soon as the grievance was prominently protested against by citizens of the nation or region where the abuse occured. Once thousands of Spaniards were marching against bullfighting in Barcelona and Valencia, support demonstrations in other nations helped. But such demonstrations in other nations had been held to no avail from the early 1930s to the 1990s. Then the several big international animal charities which had waged high-profile anti-bullfighting campaigns centered on empty boycott threats apparently lost interest. Rising with little evident outside help or influence, an authentic Spanish anti-bullfighting movement then closed the Barcelona and Valencia bull rings forever.
. Though the international animal charities which had formerly campaigned against bullfighting were quick to claim victory, it is to be noted that they had little visible involvement in the last several years of campaigning, and have mostly had none since in campaigns against bullfighting in other venues. Bullfighting persists in parts of Spain and Mexico chiefly through patronage by tourists who attend a corrida for the purported cultural experience, and mostly never attend another. Educating U.S. and British tourists against visiting bullfights, while encouraging visits to attractions that do not harm or exploit animals, is a strategy which supports the efforts of local activists, but now seems to be much neglected.
. Even in Catalonia, the Spanish region where bullfighting is now prohibited, local festivals continue to torture bulls, but in rural villages where “outsiders” are resented and defied even if they come from just an hour’s drive away. Because local politicians answer to local voters, local opponents of “fire bulls” and other cruel pursuits must be found and their voices amplified. This requires not tourism boycotts, but visits to the scene. Throwing money at the problem by publishing anti-“fire bull” literature in the U.S. and Britain will not stop “fire bull” festivals, but funding local people who care about animals to build strong community humane institutions might, even if the local humane societies now only espouse a generalized message of “be kind to animals,” avoiding direct confrontation with sadistic mobs and village authorities who pander to the mobs. Fearing loss of local support, dog and cat rescuers are often initially reluctant to speak out against atrocities inflicted on other species, but are emboldened when outside help increases their autonomy.
The cultural isolationists who defend atrocities would like nothing better than to never have to deal with visitors’ ideas and questions, and to know that their local opponents are not getting outside aid. To have their communities or entire nations boycotted by animal advocates is exactly what the abusers of animals in the name of culture want. To become outnumbered and outflanked in their own fiefdoms by neighbors who are encouraged and emboldened by knowing they are not alone is what the abusive elements fear most. . [Leading the campaign against “fire bulls” in Spain is Partido Animalista Contra el Maltrato Animal en España (PACMA), Calle Preciados 11, 28013 Madrid, Spain; 615-857-517 or 652 993 342; <firstname.lastname@example.org>; <www.pacma.es>.]