Readers of Ethics Alarms know that I think boycotting is at best economic bullying, at worst a non-violent form of terrorism, and generally unethical except in cases so rare that they are difficult to imagine. The current BP boycott is close to the worst variety, blunt and destructive mob anger akin to the reaction of the excitable citizens of Homer Simpson’s Springfield, whose solution to every crisis seems to be a riot.
BP was outrageously and perhaps criminally negligent in creating the conditions that led to the Gulf oil spill, and it is right and just that the burden of accountability and responsibility has fallen on them. And it certainly has fallen on them: as much as every citizen of the United States may want to personally kick the company while it is prone, the fact is that the dire consequences of its misconduct are already overwhelming, both long and short-term. Right now, the Gulf states are still dependent on the diligence and expertise of the company to try to limit the damage it has caused, and the company is, if only for its own survival, doing the best it can to succeed. This fact alone would make a public boycott of BP at this time senseless and counter-productive.
The boycott is also unfair. Making the company’s shareholders the sole scapegoats of the entire fiasco is wilfully ignorant of the undeniable fact that while the company recklessly dug deep-water oil wells without a proven, viable, fail-safe plan in place to address this unlikely but always possible scenario, the Federal regulators who had the responsibility to require such a plan failed their duty utterly, and unlike BP, the government has not been accepting its share of responsibility, preferring to demonize BP. The company deserves most of the anger; boycotts, if they are going to be used at all to express public outrage at a misdeed, must be aimed at a villain who deserves virtually all of it. In this case, there is no such villain. There are many.
The BP boycott is even worse than this, however. As explained in today’s story in the Chicago Tribune, boycotting BP gas stations does not harm the oil company’s profits, because BP doesn’t own the 11,000 BP-branded stations in the United States that are currently being savaged by the boycott. The boycott of BP stations doesn’t even necessarily stop the sales of BP oil, because the gasoline sold at its branded filling stations come from many sources, no matter what the sign over the station says. The boycott simply savages independent franchise owners and their families, people who had no more to do with the BP oil spill than Homer Simpson did, and a lot less to do with it than Congress, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
If sales volume drops and BP gets stuck with unpurchased gasoline, the Chicago Tribune reports, it can quickly and easily wholesale the excess to stations that sell gas without a brand name.
What an unfair, misguided, pointless, irresponsible, counter-productive, stupid boycott!
Consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen helped to launched it, and Facebook, which should re-name itself “Boycott Board”, naturally produced a boycott page with more than 600,000 supporters. Paul Fiore, executive vice president of the Service Station Dealers of America and Allied Trades, told the Tribune that BP station owners claim business is down as much as 20%. “It’s a totally misguided attempt by frustrated people,” he said. “They are not going to harm BP, I guarantee you.”
Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen actually tells the Tribune that the objective of the boycott is to hurt the company’s image, not necessarily to affect short-term profits. This is, to be restrained, very hard to believe. The image of BP is being battered daily by the live video of oil streaming into the Gulf. Every oil-covered bird, every tar covered beach, every weeping fisherman and furious local politician hurts the company’s image far more than any boycott can or could. Public Citizen thinks it worth ruining the finances of thousands of hard-working Americans to add a little more bad publicity to all that? Ridiculous. All right, no more restraint: I don’t believe it, and I don’t believe Public Citizen believes it either.
This boycott is about anger and revenge, recklessly hurting innocent people for the “crime” of being associated with a company that did something those people could not have prevented and would never have approved. That’s the philosophy of terrorism. That’s hate.
This is a terrible boycott, and its organizers, particularly Public Citizen, are harming their own image worse than they are harming BP’s.