“Culture-based” cruelties are typically protected by governments which do not fully represent their citizens
ANIMALS 24-7, probably like most of our readers, is inundated day and night by cross-posted messages soliciting boycotts of nations including nearly half of the world’s human population, over animal abuse issues typically involving less than 1% of the people whose industries and exports are to be boycotted, and often unknown to most of the other 99%.
When the issues are known to the people of the nations which are to be boycotted, the abusive practices are almost always as abhorred and reviled at home as abroad, and persist chiefly because they are protected by entrenched special interests within non-elected or non-majority governments which do not fully represent their citizens.
That governments often act at odds with public opinion seems to be well understood by U.S. animal advocates when the cruelty issue involves fellow Americans––even though Americans enjoy vastly more opportunity to influence government at every level than people in most of the rest of the world.
Shooting pigeons in Oklahoma
Few abuses are more obvious or egregious, for instance, than recreationally shooting captive-reared pigeons. Showing Animals Respect & Kindness on September 22, 2014 posted undercover video of a fundraising pigeon shoot hosted by James Inhofe, the senior U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. ANIMALS 24-7 reportage about the pigeon shoot drew furious responses from around the U.S. (and the world), many of which could not be posted because the authors of the responses used excessively incendiary language. Some of the angriest responses, however, came from within Oklahoma, from Oklahomans who are, like Inhofe, Republican social conservatives.
Some non-Oklahoman respondents have made derogatory remarks about the Oklahoma electorate for having repeatedly returned Inhofe to office, despite his long bad record on issues including also horse slaughter, endangered species protection, and the effects of climate change on both wildlife and livestock. Yet not one respondent, at least so far, has recommended boycotting Oklahoma, even though Inhofe has been repeatedly re-elected by overwhelming majorities of the voters.
Bullfighting in Spain
By contrast, ANIMALS 24-7 reported 24 hours earlier about the continued efforts of the governing Popular Party to protect and perpetuate bullfighting in Spain, contrary to the expressed values and beliefs of sixty to seventy percent of the Spanish population. The Canary Islands abolished bullfighting in 1991. San Sebastian, capital of the Basque region, banned bullfighting in 2011. Catalan, the region of northeast Spain that include the cities of Barcelona and Valencia, banned arena bullfighting in 2010. Opposition to bullfighting has long been among the signature issues for the Catalan separatist movement, which threatens to split Spain in two, taking with it 19% of the Spanish gross domestic produce and 26% of the exports. More than 60% of the Catalonian population now favors independence, according to polling data published on September 22, 2012 by the Spanish national television station RT.
Despite the preponderance of evidence that much of Spain no longer supports bullfighting, if it ever did, and that the pro–bullfighting position of the Popular Party does not represent the Spanish people, one of the most prominent, accomplished, and justly respected longtime animal advocates in Oklahoma responded to the ANIMALS 24-7 coverage by recommending a boycotting of all Spanish trade and tourism.
In truth, the Popular Party controls the Spanish Parliament much as Inhofe holds power in Oklahoma, by appealing to social conservatives and traditionalists in some of the most backward and culturally isolated parts of the country, while opponents remain divided among a variety of options.
While bullfighting had economically collapsed in Catalan even before in was banned, it persists in other parts of Spain where many young men lack regular work, and where few industries produce anything that the outside world buys at retail.
Almost the same description applies to Oklahoma, a state whose economy is heavily based on extractive industries which produce raw materials rather than finished goods. While an affluent few Oklahomans participate in fundraising pigeon shoots for the likes of Inhofe, the state is also a bastion of “canned hunts” and “chase pens,” and rodeo is widely considered the state sport.
Bullfighting persists in Spain, like rodeo, pigeon shoots, “canned hunts,” and “chase pens, ” in defiance of international public opinion. This is also true of fox hunting in Britain and Ireland, the Taiji and Faroe Islands dolphin massacres, the Namibian and Atlantic Canada seal hunts, dog and cat eating in some regions of Asia, and many other forms of cruelty which claim cultural roots.
Cultural practices are notoriously invulnerable to boycott. Well-directed boycotts can bring the pressure of the many to bear to change the practices of the few, but boycotts in which a few try to pressure many are inherently doomed to failure.
Consumer boycotts succeed only if closely focused and vigorously promoted, in campaigns with a specific short-term goal and strong appeal to the customers of whatever product or service is boycotted.
The specific short-term goal must be to encourage the boycott target to change a practice. A campaign directed at simply putting the boycott target out of business, such as the boycott campaigns waged against SeaWorld for more than 25 years, is not really a boycott at all in the tactical meaning of the word, since there is nothing that the target can do to end the boycott. If SeaWorld stops exhibiting marine mammals, for instance, SeaWorld no longer exists.
Putting SeaWorld out of business may be a worthwhile goal from the activist perspective, and momentum toward achieving this goal may have developed out of the success of the award-winning 2013 film Blackfish. However, such campaigns inherently differ from campaigns seeking to change Spain, China, or corporate practices, which do not try to end their national or corporate existence.
Short-term boycotts can be quite effective, if vulnerable targets are hit accurately and hard, but unfocused and open-ended boycotts are among the least effective of activist tactics.
A targeted boycott succeeds because not buying a product or service that one otherwise would buy has an immediate and direct economic effect on the people being boycotted. Among the most famous examples was the 1955-1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr., that ended racially discriminatory seating. Few black people in Montgomery had cars then. Almost all commuted to work by bus. When they quit riding the buses, and quit paying bus fare, they focused direct economic pressure on the city-owned bus company. Securing the triumph required fighting a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court , but the lawsuit resulted from the efforts of the Montgomery city government to break the boycott.
Boycotts fail when they hit people, businesses, or whole nations who lack direct control over whatever the boycotts are trying to change.
Boycotting South Africa to try to end racial apartheid, often cited as a success, actually demonstrated ineffective boycotting for more than 25 years before a change in tactics brought positive results. Boycotting South African universities, sporting events, individual athletes, and tourism accomplished little or nothing. The banking disinvestment campaign of 1986-1989 finally identified and hit a weak link in the apartheid system.
Avon & Revlon
Boycotts of consumer products sometimes succeed, but seldom relative to the many such boycotts that are called, because the people who support the boycotts are rarely even the 5% of customers that it takes to depress sales more than the day’s weather. Hundreds of consumer product boycotts have been called over animal issues, yet only a handful have won lasting results, and none of them were recent.
Hugely influential in shaping the growth of animal advocacy during the late 20th century were brief boycotts of the Avon and Revlon cosmetics companies called in 1980 by Animal Rights International founder Henry Spira. Upon realizing the appeal of Spira’s boycott call to the young women who then (and now) were the majority of animal advocates, Avon and Revlon quickly agreed to cease product testing on animals. But Spira timed his boycotts well. The Avon and Revlon boycott campaigns were waged only months before the arrival of computerized inventory tracking enabled businesses to track sales fluctuations accurately enough to see if a declaration of boycott actually had an effect. Mastering the crude economic measures used in the pre-computer era, Spira anticipated and exploited normal market fluctuations.
Industry caught on
Eventually the cosmetics industry realized that Spira was beating them with strategic savvy, and that he had no more ability than their sales gurus to mobilize millions of consumers at a moment’s notice.
Computerized inventory tracking told marketing experts that most calls for boycott do not influence nearly enough people to affect consumer behavior more than just a few cents’ difference in the price of a product.
When the use of credit and debit cards came to replace the use of cash in retail transactions, companies also learned how to quickly see if the people who write in support of a boycott have ever been among their customers. By the end of the 20th century, most major corporations knew that the majority of declared boycotts would never hurt them. Few today even bother to respond to boycott appeals.
Fortunately for animals, the cosmetics industry also learned from the Avon and Revlon boycotts that advertising cruelty-free products boosts sales.
Spira never called another boycott. After the Avon and Revlon campaigns, Spira focused on negotiations with major corporations to win pledges for better treatment of farmed animals. Spira died in 1998, but his initiatives opened the doors that led to many of the corporate concessions announced in recent years by the Humane Society of the U.S.
Though Spira held the threat of boycott in reserve, he mostly emphasized the value to corporate images of doing better by animals.
Snow crabs, tuna, shrimp
Also well-remembered, but usually out of context, is that Earth Island Institute and HSUS in 1990 called a 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 demands, which were soon incorporated into U.S. law. Foreign tuna fishers alleged, however, that the U.S. firms had only exploited an opportunity to exclude foreign competition.
A shrimp boycott called by Earth Island Institute and HSUS to protect sea turtles brought parallel results. Congress passed legislation that favored the U.S. tuna and shrimp industries. Years of litigation and appeals to the World Trade Organization followed, eventually forcing some loosening of the regulations won by boycott.
At this writing more than 25 years have passed since the last unambiguously successful consumer product boycotts on behalf of animals were waged. A boycott of Canadian snow crabs called by HSUS in opposition to the Atlantic Canada seal hunt won some consumer support, yet had no visible effect on the seal hunt itself. The numbers of seals killed fell steeply, however, after the European Union in 2009 forbade the import of seal pelts, and again after the government of Canada in 2013 and 2014 lost appeals of the European Union regulation to the World Trade Organization.
While consumer product boycotts called on behalf of animals can be credited with occasional success in the distant past, tourism boycotts have seldom achieved anything at all. Tourism promoters realized decades ago that boycotts called by animal advocates usually have no effect on their business, because people who invest their money and time in activism are rarely the same people who invest in recreational travel.
Attempts to boycott Alaskan tourism in response to wolf culls, for example, have repeatedly failed since the 1970s. Then-governor Walter Hickel briefly suspended wolf-culling during the winter of 1992-1993, after Friends of Animals called a tourism boycott. Since then, however, Alaskan governments have all but ignored boycotts and boycott threats, except when former governor Sarah Palin courted hunter support by touting her disregard of boycotts.
Alaska kills wolves so that human hunters can shoot more moose and caribou. In particular, Alaska courts affluent out-of-state hunters who spend lavishly to fly home with a trophy animal’s head. Except in a few coastal cities frequented by cruise ships, most of Alaska sees few tourists who do not carry hunting weapons.
Boycotting the innocent
A tourism boycott, whether of Spain, China, Oklahoma, or Alaska, amounts to boycotting entire cities, states, or nations, almost always in protest against the deeds of just a very few. Boycotts of people who have not knowingly contributed to the offense bringing the boycott are not only ineffective, but usually backfire. People who are boycotted for things they have not done, do not support, and often know little about tend to become resentful. Worse, tourism boycotts directed at people of other ethnicities support the charges of cultural isolationists who contend that the outside opponents of their cruel pursuits are ignorant bigots.
The last defense of scoundrels
Boycotts fail most often when directed against practices which are portrayed as aspects of local culture, mingled with the self-identify of the perpetrators and their communities. Local defense of cruel customs tends to increase proportional to the intensity of a perceived outside threat. As Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce observed soon after the U.S. Civil War, “Patriotism is the last defense of a scoundrel.” Helping animal abusers to hide behind claims of practicing patriotism and cultural defense can ensure that abuses go on for generations after they might otherwise have faded out.
Governments put on the defensive typically institutionalize the defense. The efforts of the Spanish Popular Party to secure UNESCO World Heritage status for arena bullfighting are one example. Others include the Canadian and Japanese government campaigns to defend the fur trade, sealing, and whaling. The Canadian and Japanese agencies created in the 1980s to respond to international protest often appear to be producing more person-hours of paid employment than the animal use industries they defend.
Protests at embassies and consulates, popular as they are among activists, have never demonstrably helped to abolish any form of animal abuse before the emergence of strong home-grown opposition to the abuse.
Conversely, there are many issues, including bullfighting, where rapid progress occurred as soon as citizens of the nation or region where the abuse occurred felt empowered to raise their voices.
Cultural isolationists who defend atrocities, like the bullfighting enthusiasts of the Spanish Popular Party, prefer not having to respond to visitors’ ideas and questions, and prefer knowing that their local opponents are not getting outside help because the foreigners who might come to help them are staying away instead.
Having their communities or entire nations boycotted by animal advocates is precisely what abusers of animals in the name of culture want. What they do not want is for their activities to be exposed through the collaboration of local activists with sympathetic visitors––as occurred in Oklahoma when some of Senator James Inhofe’s own supporters called Showing Animals Respect & Kindness to help them document the pigeon shooting mayhem.
(See also SHARK catches U.S. Senator James “Global warming is a hoax” Inhofe on video hosting a pigeon-blasting fundraiser, and Spanish animal defenders reject bullfighting as ‘cultural heritage’.)
Honesty Helps says
As a child of the 60s, I did see the positive results of our boycotts and protests. Sorry Merritt, you will never convince me that they don’t work. Besides, it makes me feel better as a person to know I am not participating in the deed that needs to change. Change isn’t brought about by sitting on one’s ass. Besides one can enjoy the great outdoors while chained to road equipment.
Merritt Clifton says
The experiences of the 1960s and 1970s with boycotts and calls for boycott have little applicability to the realities of today, since that was before the advent of computerized, networked inventory tracking in the 1980s enabled boycott targets to see exactly and immediately what effect a boycott call is having.
Jamaka Petzak says
Wise words to consider — sharing to social media.
Sherry Conisbee says
I´ve been questioning the effectiveness of a boycott currently circulating against the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, a dog-eating nation, initiated in South Carolina. I recall reading about a similar boycott against Korea a few years back which reportedly caused resentment and a spike in dog meat consumption. Signing petitions is a quick and easy, feel-good action, and I will probably continue doing so but perhaps not so mindlessly, giving more thought to the cause and likely outcome of a petition or boycott, and the possibility of causing more harm than good. So thanks for this piece, well-timed to shed light on my concerns.
A few years back an animal rights group mailed out protest postcards addressed to the car manufacturers Kia and Hyundai, encouraging their CEOs to do something about the consumption of dogs in South Korea.
Even then I thought this was a terrible idea, which would result in confusion and offense on the part of the recipients. What would car manufacturers have to do with the dog meat industry? Protest letters filling their mailboxes would only indicate how clueless Western animal advocates can be. It would be like Korean animal advocates sending letters to Ford Motor Co. to tell them off for factory farming!