A Local State of Mind

Local FoodLocal food became a thing so long ago at this point that we now have a thriving network of CSAs, a word to describe people who only eat local food (localvore), and a growing movement towards supporting small, local farms over massive agribusinesses. We also have the more subtle economic local movement encouraging us to shop at local businesses and support our local economies.

Yet, we also have some assumptions inherent in both of these movements that aren’t quite true, assumptions that maybe need a little more thought to parse out the truth. I prefer to eat local food, and I prefer to purchase from local businesses, but my understanding of these things has grown over time, and I don’t do it for the same reasons I used to.

For me, the first thing I realized about local anything is that, despite the fervor of some advocates, “local” does not equal “good.” On the whole (but not always) it is better to purchase things that have traveled less, since on the whole (but not always) those things can have lower carbon emissions. As someone who things climate change is the single largest problem humanity is facing/has created, that means I am drawn to local food and products.

But, I said can have lower emissions, not do. The actual carbon emissions of something depend radically on the practices of those who made it. That tomato from Argentina might actually have lower carbon emissions than the tomato you bought at a local farmer’s market, if the Argentine producers made a lot of tomatoes, shipped them mainly by train, and didn’t have to till very much (all things that reduce the average total emissions associated with a piece of produce). Likewise the carbon emissions of a small farmer may vary depending on whether they have to till the soil more often (releasing carbon), use more fertilizer (on rocky New England soil), and drive a (comparatively) small number of tomatoes to market in a (comparatively) fuel-inefficient truck over hilly roads.

This same problem applies, in varying ways, to some apparent benefits of local purchasing. For example, I like the idea of keeping the money I spend in my local economy, thus supporting my neighbors and community and fostering more egalitarian distribution of wealth. But, even though I might be buying from a locally owned store, that store might turn around and invest their profits in a portfolio that includes Wal-Mart stock and, to some extent, helps drive other local sellers out of business. Or that local business may have gotten a loan from, say, Bank of America, and paying down that loan may be funneling wealth out of the community.

There are more examples of this problem, but the point I am trying to stress here is that, while I support purchasing local food and goods and do so myself whenever possible, choosing a local option does not automatically mean you are doing what you think you are. You still have to check.

What buying local will do for you is make the task of checking up on things much more manageable. Every item we buy has a chain of impacts associated with it, a series of feedbacks that impact things far beyond the obvious. The longer that chain of impact, the more likely that there are unintended consequences somewhere along the way. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a fad for colorful feathers in ladies’ hats decimated the population of hundreds of species of birds. The people buying those hats couldn’t check the provenance of the feathers, but their contribution to the overall demand was devastating.

So, when I buy local, I treat that as the beginning of my choice, not the end. I don’t buy the local tomato assuming that it has lower carbon emissions than the Argentine tomato; I buy the local tomato because in many cases I can find out. I can go to my local farm and buy a tomato from their farm stand and know how it was produced. If there’s something in that practice that I don’t like, I can look for somewhere better.

If I buy the Argentine tomato, the process is opaque: all I see is that a tomato is there, and generally where it came from. I don’t know whether someone drained a peat marsh or burned a plot of rainforest to plant that tomato. I don’t know if it spent most of its time on a container ship. I don’t know if it was sent to Louisiana and shipped north in a tractor-trailer. And I probably can’t know those things.

So I buy local, not because I assume it’s better, but because among my local options, I can choose who to support. I can decide what I care about, and use my purchasing to have at least a little bit of impact. I buy local because when I am buying things from far away, it isn’t money I am trading for that convenience: it is knowledge.

Activism and Evidence

To advocate for anything requires a certain amount of determination, tenacity, and passion. One must be willing to fight for an idea against some other current of belief. Sometimes the beliefs one must fight are deeply entrenched, so activists must expect to hear dissent and, to some extent, expect to reject that dissent. To do so is a necessary strength that maintains a steady course through the winds of change.

Yet there are different sorts of ideas we fight for, with different relationships to evidence.

Take the idea that non-heterosexual or non-exclusive romantic partners are inherently immoral. In examples like LGBTQ rights, the conflict is between two social beliefs: one side arguing that their religious proscriptions should apply to all of society, and the other arguing that everyone should have the freedom to live as they are without discrimination. In such cases advocates have support from the underlying American ideals, and there is no conflicting evidence. Opponents have tried to manufacture that evidence without success, so the conflict remains a social one, and one that LGBTQ advocates are rapidly winning.

In a second category of idea, the evidence for one position is clear, but there are social and economic reasons for pretending otherwise. Climate change falls into this category, and activists can fight to mitigate global warming with a clear conscience. After all, the scientific consensus supports that position. But because the opposition includes powerful businessmen and an entire wing of one major political party, advocates for climate change need to be able to quickly evaluate and dismiss opposing arguments. This isn’t too difficult, because for anyone with scientific literacy and an inquiring mind, the evidence mounted by opponents is clearly cherry-picked, muddled, or fraudulent.

ToxicVaccines_viaJenniferPYet there is also a third, thornier category of idea: that wherein an activist position runs counter to the majority of scientific evidence. For example, there is a vocal minority that fights against vaccines, ignoring the fact that vaccines have been repeatedly proven safe and effective. That minority invents claims at the drop of a hat, seizes on the slightest mention of something the public can recognize as “bad” (like mercury or formaldehyde), and relies on anecdotes and lone retracted papers to counter the overwhelming conclusion supported by literally all the other scientific data.

I find this last category of activist endeavor endlessly fascinating, and I also deeply want to know what it is that leads them to reject the majority of evidence and embrace a position so deeply contrary to the ideal of social change.

I have begun to suspect that what I am seeing is not activism perverted so much as activism taken to an illogical extreme. Advocates for anything need a certain amount of ideological armor to navigate the slings and arrows of outrageous claims, and yet in this last case the fetters of logic have been cast away and the activists themselves have become purveyors of the outrageous. They are become impervious, not just to motivated dissenters, but to whole bodies of objective dissenting evidence.

So too activists must be able recognize and publicize harm that occurs as a result of the opposing view. In the cases of LGBTQ rights and climate change, there are real personal harms that occur from the opposing position. Gay couples are suffering discrimination, and poor coastal countries are suffering unprecedented flooding. Effective activists find these things, drag them into the light, and make society take notice.

In the case of anti-vaccine advocates, though, they rely on made-up harms: the sort of harm one illogically infers rather than the sort of harm with a direct relationship. They make not just unsupported but disproven claims, such as suggesting that vaccines cause autism (they absolutely don’t) or that young immune systems can’t “handle” vaccines (vaccines are less of an immune challenge than almost anything else a child encounters).

Finally, activists need to be able to find and mobilize people who agree with them, and to discredit people who fight against them. When done with the reliable evidence or generally accepted parts of the social contract, such as in the cases of climate change and LGBTQ rights, this is a good and necessary part of creating social change. When done with anecdotes, innuendo, and lies, though, it becomes little more than an ideological cancer. A community of activists can be a center of social innovation, where challenge drives us all to be better, or a hyperbolic chamber of amplified nonsense, where no challenge is ever allowed.

I think, in the end, all advocates and activists walk the knife edge of societal belief, trying to drag that belief farther to one side or the other. This is an absolutely necessary role in society, which might otherwise stay mired in the inertia of bad ideas and the motivated reasoning of the powerful. When activists do this well, they are a check and a balance both on the stagnation of social beliefs. They are nimble, creative, and skeptical of the opposition, but they are also open to new evidence and they embody the ideal of social change.

When activists do this badly, though, they are as brittle and unyielding as the bad ideas and motivated reasoning they so often fight against. The fervor of activism is a part of the solution and a part of the problem both.

I think that strong scientific evidence is the tether holding us on that edge, looking over, and surveying the places we might fall or climb. It lets us reach the edge and innovate, but we must always be cautions to keep close hold of the tether. And, should we find ourselves advocating a position that goes against the majority of scientific evidence, we ought to ask ourselves some very hard questions. If the anti-vaccine advocates are any indication, activists who rush to an extreme relying on bad evidence may fall a long way from the truth, and many never find their way home.

Knights of the Silver Bullet

via Flickr user BradI want to confess something: despite my deep concern for social and environmental justice, I sometimes have serious doubts about the way many of us approach those issues. I, too, feel overwhelmed by the enormity of pervasive problems—climate change, racism, sexism, economic and social inequality… these seem too big to change. At times I feel the most we can do is hold a small beachhead against an ever-advancing flood. And I see some people defending each of their solutions as THE solution, and I yearn to find one myself.

And believe me, it is exhilarating and empowering and energizing to know that you have found THE solution! It is a deeply religious experience to tilt at windmills and slay dragons, to face a world of challenges that you can solve, and to evangelize for your solution with absolute faith in it’s efficacy.

But you can do all that and still be wrong.

In the face of futility and personal impotence, it’s easy to be drawn to ideas that promise one comprehensive answer. And it’s easy to gloss over the places where those ideas don’t quite line up with reality. In a recent piece in Jezebel, Melissa Chadburn describes her experience working in a nonprofit where fostering resilience was seen as THE solution to a myriad of issues.

“The story the campaign told was a story of lost resilience,” Melissa writes. “The narrative they preached was how to get it back. This is a common theme in community work. Over the years the term ‘resilience’ has been applied more and more frequently to people in distressed communities to mean their capacity to bounce back from dysfunction or breakdown. Increasing community resilience becomes a solution to chronic barriers such as poverty, trauma, and class inequity.”

And yet, it seemed few people at this nonprofit had stopped to questions the assumptions involved. Not only did they presume resilience was THE answer, they also presumed that “changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems.” It’s a nice thought—that if you just work hard enough, you can overcome systemic problems. But it’s not true. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you never have access to resources. As Melissa observed, “it’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around.”

I like the concept of resilience. I think it is important. I think it is critical. But I also know there is a point beyond which it doesn’t apply, because resilience is about systems more than parts, and the farther you get from the whole, the less useful it becomes. When individuals are suffering in abject poverty, the problem is that the system does not protect those persons, not that the persons need to be more resilient.

Resilience is just one example. There are dozens of silver bullets we cling to. You can vote, live, and buy your way to a better world. Changing yourself is changing the world! Except that it isn’t really. And what about recycling? Well, sometimes it reduces waste, and sometimes it is energy inefficient. What about shopping local? Well, sometimes it improves a local economy and sometimes it increases fuel usage when things are moved around in smaller batches. What about wind and solar power? Well, it offsets use of terrible energy sources like coal, but it also can’t meet demand. What about the idea that you can change the world by changing how you shop? Well, you can in a small way, but most of the important purchasing to change is done by companies and organizations, not individuals.

But we need these ideas, don’t we? If we acknowledge the limits of our solutions, don’t we also have to acknowledge that none of them will fix these problems? Aren’t we stuck in a maze of dead ends and despair?

The quick fixes, despite their improbability, are enticing and seductive. I understand why we cling to them even when the facts disagree. I understand why we stretch them beyond their usefulness and apply them even when we shouldn’t. I am tempted to do so myself, if only to erase that hopelessness that sometimes creeps in. But when we do that, our energy is spent uselessly.

We need to be better than that. The truth is that there is no silver bullet. There is no one solution. But instead of despairing over that, maybe, if we try, we can see the vast possibilities it implies. Maybe we can embrace the idea that all our work matters, that all of us doing the pieces we do well is the same as fixing the whole. Instead of carrying the weight of the world alone and clinging to the idea that our one solution will fix it, maybe, if we try, we can carry it together.

Changing Minds, Part 3: the Sentiment of Society

When I worked in wilderness therapy, changing minds was a regular part of the job. It was up to us, the guides, to help struggling teenagers reexamine their lives and make new choices. Sometimes that meant challenging their biases. It always meant challenging their assumptions. I valued that part of the work the most: the part where I got to see someone open their mind to a new way of looking at the world. But that was only the first step—in order for them to maintain their new habits, they had to return to an environment that would nurture their change and support them in making healthier choices. And that was something I had no control over.

Within our communities, and within our society, there is an inevitable inertia to our views. It starts, as I discussed in part one of this series, with our own entrenched ideas. Even if we change one another’s minds using the tools I outlined in part two, there remains a certain amount of inertia in the society around us. We who change our minds on controversies will be swimming upstream, fighting against the tide of the zeitgeist for a long while before the ship of public opinion finally turns.


Advocates for social change sometimes suggest that changing individual minds is equivalent to changing the mind of society. We rarely say so explicitly, but too often we rely on some vague social alchemy to translate the beliefs of persons into the beliefs of the people.

Of course it is not so simple—the entrenched ideas of society do not require our consent. They do not even require the consent of a majority of people; a majority of the powerful will do. And even when the believers are a minority, the entrenched ideas may continue grinding onward for a long while unless they are actively stopped.

In the course of researching for my Masters thesis, I puzzled out what I believed to be the five major components of an entrenched societal idea. In brief they are legitimacy, pervasiveness, inertia, organizational manifestations, and broad unconscious acceptance. To change the mind of a society, I believe we who advocate the change must address each of these components and ensure not only that we undermine the old idea, but that we build these qualities into the thing we advocate.

I believe climate change is a instructive example. Human-caused climate change is well-supported by scientific evidence, repeatedly evidenced in our climate and ecosystems, and yet confoundingly controversial in the public realm. We should have started responding to climate change two decades ago, but instead we seem locked in societal indecision over whether it really exists.

To consider how the idea of climate change interacts with the entrenched idea that humans can do what they wish to natural systems without fear of consequences, let’s look at each of the components I mentioned above.

Legitimacy is the acceptability of an idea in the public sphere. While the science has come down heavily proving human-caused climate change, those who have the most to lose have fought hard to maintain legitimacy for climate science denialism. When anything is a “controversy” in the public perception, what that really means is that there are two opposed viewpoints that are both considered legitimate. Racism, by contrast, is widely practiced but it is not acceptable to be publicly racist—it is an illegitimate idea.

Pervasiveness is how an idea crosses geographic, cultural, political, and other societal boundaries. The people who deny climate change, unfortunately, come from many segments of society, which helps maintain climate denial’s legitimacy as a belief. When an idea becomes restricted to a single group, the rest of society can often move on. When it remains pervasive, though, it remains entrenched. Racism, despite being illegitimate in public, is still pervasive.

I must observe here that, whatever the benefits of Al Gore’s climate advocacy, the partisan divide that resulted from it has been disastrous. By linking response to climate change with a pre-existing societal boundary, we have all but deadlocked the issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say the single most important thing to do in the world of climate activism is to find ways to engage Republicans in support of change. Until awareness of climate change becomes pervasive, it will be tough to make headway against climate denialism.

Inertia refers to how people interact with the entrenched idea; if they are pushed by society into one position or another by default, that idea has societal inertia. Climate change actually has fairly weak inertia at this point because the positions for and against it are to some extent equally weighted in the public mind. This is a bad thing for climate activists, though, because it maintains the controversy. In this respect, educating people on the science is critical because it makes it harder to accept the assumptions of climate denialism.

Organizational Manifestations are those structures already in place that rely on one idea or another and influence the behavior of society’s members. Inertia affects people’s individual views, but organization manifestations affect their actions.

Climate advocacy is vastly behind the curve on this, because although there are thousands of people working on clean energy sources, the majority of infrastructure is built with the presumption that fossil fuel energy is an acceptable large-scale energy source. Entire industries are built around exploiting fossil fuels, and governments are continuing to subsidize them. Changing these structures is unavoidably painful for a lot of people who will have to switch careers or abandon their investments, and the economic behavior of our entire society has to move away from relying on cheap energy if we are to achieve real change. In this sense, the organizational manifestations of climate denialism are creating massive behavioral inertia.

Broad Unconscious Acceptance is the final quality of an entrenched idea and describes how those people who hold an idea view it themselves. Here we can see a great deal of progress around the issue of climate change. As recently as the 1980s and early 1990s, it was easy to accept the status quo without thinking about it—gas was cheap, energy was cheap, and the climate science was uncertain. Now we’ve reached the point of controversy, so people on both sides of the debate cannot ignore the presence of an opposing view. That said, they still may not question their own view.

In Summary

Climate denialism became entrenched decades ago through naiveté, and changing the mind of society is a slow process. Although climate change advocates have made some headway in legitimizing climate change and eliminating broad unconscious acceptance, the organizational manifestations and pervasiveness of climate denial remain an issue, and the inertia of the ideas is fairly balanced. To reach a point where society will respond to climate change and stop worsening the problem we need headway in all five components—we need climate denialism to become illegitimate, be restricted to a few groups of people, and be eliminated from our social structures like businesses and governments.

Through these five qualities of entrenched ideas we see the ebb and flow of societal beliefs, and we can begin to seek change on a level beyond that of the individual. The evidence may be clear on an issue, as it is on climate change, but that isn’t enough to change the mind of society. Nor is changing individual minds alone enough to create that change. We have those things, and still the “controversy” legitimizes the ideas that climate is not changing, or that if it is, humans aren’t causing it, or that if we are, it may not be a bad thing, or that if it is, we can only accept solutions the maintain the status quo.

In the previous two parts, I suggested concrete ways to change minds. I have changed my own mind, and I can suggest ways to go about that. I have helped others change their minds, and there is science to suggest ways we can do that effectively.

To change the zeitgeist, however, is to turn a much more unwieldy and capricious beast. My best understanding at present is that we must try to ensure that our work impacts the qualities I listed above. I cannot say precisely the best way to go about it, but I suspect the answer is all ways, and then some, and with all the energy you can muster.

Changing Minds, Part 2: Influencing Others

Via Adrian SnoodOne consequence of holding strong views is the desire to change the views of others, especially when faced with equally strong opposing views. I try to pick these moments carefully, but it is all too easy for me to be drawn into a Facebook debate or an impassioned argument on the issues I care about. I find these moments instructive, and they have inspired in me a deep curiosity about how we form, hold, and change our beliefs.

After all, not all views are equal—some are supported by data and evidence, some are refuted by data and evidence, some suffer from contradictory evidence, and some remain untested. And yet, there seems to be little relationship between the objective support for and idea and the strength of beliefs about it. As I mentioned in the first part of this discussion, we often hold ideas that are part and parcel of our worldview or self-worth immune from criticism. Changing our own minds on these issues is difficult enough, so how can we expect to change the minds of others?

Last December, a study was published in the journal Science detailing support for the contact hypothesis—the idea that people may change entrenched ideas if faced with people who are directly affected by those ideas. In this case, the study seemed to show that LGBTQ canvassers in California had lasting impacts on people’s opinions about Gay Marriage. Unfortunately, the lead author seems to have fabricated all the follow-up data, rendering the results useless, and the second author asked Science to retract the study. If true, this would have been the first real data showing dramatic change in controversial views.

The current body of scientific literature on changing minds is, sadly, pessimistic. People generally are not open to alternative views, and the more entrenched their own position, the less willing they are to consider a change. Repeated studies have shown that the more an idea challenges their fundamental views, the more people are willing to reject it. People are even willing to use information they know is wrong as support for their preconceived ideas. And as if that weren’t enough, correcting an entrenched idea with undeniable evidence often leads to the Backfire Effect, wherein people strengthen their incorrect beliefs in response to the challenge.

This doesn’t bode well for change. Exigent controversies such as climate change threaten the fundamental ecosystems of our planet, but data and evidence don’t seem to change people’s opinions. The pursuit of social change in the face of intractable viewpoints seems, to some extent, futile.

But I don’t believe that can be true. It’s not that people do change their minds—I have done so myself on a number of controversial issues; rather, it is that people do not change their minds for the reasons we think they do. Whatever value I place on data and evidence, those are not the things that are most convincing for most people, and those are not the things that stick in our memories.

If we want to change minds, we need to meet entrenched ideas where they live, in the murky realm of worldviews, self-worth, and fundamental values. And, despite the overall pessimism of the literature, there are some strategies that do have an effect. They are not silver bullets, but they are the best we have for now.

Some Evidence-Based Strategies for Changing Minds:

-Provide an alternate narrative. If you undercut a belief that has implications for sense of self or worldview, the person may be more likely to accept it if you help them construct a new narrative that includes the corrected information.

-Make people laugh. People are more open to change and ideas that contradict their own if the mood is light and friendly instead of confrontational.

-Make people feel good about themselves. By shoring up their sense of self-worth, you provide additional capacity for them to change their views. This is especially useful when people have invested their self-worth into the belief in question.

-Include the information in a story, fictional or otherwise. Information that is built into stories is stickier than information that is free-floating, regardless of truth. Misinformation can be spread this way as well, so be careful.

-Use evidence to reinforce beliefs, not to challenge them. Evidentiary challenges work with beliefs that are not low-stakes, but only serve to make someone mistrust the source when the belief in question is tied up in their worldview or self-worth.

The items above are all based on the scientific literature as I understand it. I must also add one more critical strategy for any advocate: doubt yourself. For my part, at least, there are few things as off-putting as someone who ignores your side of the discussion and just keeps repeating their own as if you hadn’t spoken. Being willing to reconsider your own views is a key part of the give and take of a frank discussion. If you want to change someone’s mind, then, make sure you are listening to their contributions; otherwise, they will certainly have no incentive to listen to you.

Read part 3: the Sentiment of Society

The Value of a Boycott

We are regularly told that our power as citizens lies with our choices as consumers. Often we are identified as consumers first and citizens second. It is thus no surprise that boycotts tap into our cultural programming and trigger our associations with power. What we buy, we are told, controls what will be. The “demand” side of “supply and demand” is the shaper of our society. I’m sure we’ve all heard the quote, “buy the change you want to see in the world.” Or something like that.

Via R Barraez D'LuccaCertainly boycotts have sometimes been a major tool for achieving social change. In the 1980s in South Africa, black citizens boycotted white-owned businesses in the provinces and towns around Johannesburg and forced major concessions from the Apartheid regime. In the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama, a boycott by black citizens led to the de-segregation of public transportation and made an indelible mark on American society.

There is also no denying that boycotts poorly framed and executed can lead to no change whatsoever. When a boycott is the wrong tool for the job, the actual effect can be negative—to require huge amounts of effort on the part of the participants, draining their time and energy, while having no real effect on the corporation or the regime being targeted. This sort of boycott is like a drum circle at a protest: it might make the participants feel good, but it does nothing tangible for the cause. At least the drummers are still part of the protest—an ineffective boycott is as good as invisible.

When I was growing up, there were calls in my church for Christians to boycott things made in China because the Chinese government was imprisoning Chinese Christians. We were given to understand that this was supposed to be a national action. Since freedom from religious persecution is a fundamental ideal in the United States, one might also be forgiven for thinking this boycott could be effective.

To sort out what helps a boycott succeed or fail, let’s compare the Christian China boycott, which I think representative of the sort of minor boycotts socially-minded people regularly call for, to the two boycotts I mentioned above, which I think representative of the most effective a boycott can be. Further, I will limit the comparison to a few critical points: leverage, simplicity, participation, and strategic goals.


In the case of the South Africa boycott, the targeted stores were owned by white businessmen, but they sold many of the goods to the black South African community. The Christmas season was approaching, and they had substantial assets tied up in their stock. The store’s white owners also had greater influence on the Apartheid government. Therefore, the boycott participants could indirectly leverage the government by leveraging the businesses.

In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, the black community made up a nearly 75% of the ridership. The bus system relied on fares to function, so publicly threatening the bus system put pressure on the city as a whole. Therefore, the boycott participants had substantial leverage.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, the majority of Chinese goods are sold to diverse manufacturers, countries, communities, and individuals. The Christian community has little influence on most of these. The Christian community therefore has reduced leverage on the Chinese government; even if every Christian in the United States avoided personal purchase of Chinese products, it would account for a very small percentage of the Chinese GDP.


In the case of the South Africa boycott, the actual practice of the boycott was simple: don’t buy anything from the white-owned stores.

In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, again, the actual task was simple: don’t ride the bus.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, the actual task of checking every product to ensure that none of its components are made in China is time-consuming and places a small but repeated burden on the participants.


In the case of the South Africa boycott, not buying anything from the local shops was a major hardship for participants. The organizers wisely agreed to a suspension of the boycott as Christmas approached to allow for negotiation with the Apartheid government. When those negotiations failed, the participants were refreshed and ready to resume the boycott. Without collaboration and careful organization, it would have been very difficult to maintain, but with strong community support they achieved nearly 100% participation.

In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, black citizens had to find other routes to work and other means of transportation. Again, without careful organizing and community support, it would have been an impossible hardship. With the leadership and support of local pastors and organizers, though, the black community achieved nearly 100% participation.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, American citizens have a variety of choices available and can easily choose to buy nothing or to buy a product from another country rather than purchasing Chinese products. In theory, participation should have been easy—but without collective organizing to motivate participation, the boycott never really got off the ground.

Strategic Goals 

In the case of the South Africa boycott, the participants had clear demands for their targets—to allow blacks access to public facilities, to withdraw troops from provinces, to end discrimination in the workplace, and to release political prisoners. Their requests were well within the target’s capability. In fact, the government made concessions to end the boycott. It is important to note that the black leadership did not call for an end to Apartheid with the boycott in question, instead focusing on “quality of life” demands. The end of Apartheid came under pressure from a wide variety of actions and strategies, of which boycotts were only one part.

In the case of Montgomery Bus boycott, the participants also had a clear message for the target—to de-segregate the busses—which was also within the target’s ability to grant. The demand was complicated by social pressures against it, but the participants achieved enough leverage to outweigh those pressures.

In the case of the Christian China boycott, the participants had a vague message without concrete benchmarks—to end persecution of Chinese Christians—which left the boycott with no defined end point. The request was complicated because what little leverage the participants exerted was on American businesses, while the main target was actually Chinese government policies.

Summing Up the Comparison

By and large, effective boycotts:

  1. Have a group of participants who have substantial leverage, such as the majority of the customers for a company or service.
  2. Have a simple and specific task for participants.
  3. Have strong community organizing to recruit high participation and support the people taking action.
  4. Have a clear message with a clear, measurable action called for from the target.

The South Africa and Montgomery Bus boycotts are both examples that met all these criteria. The Christian China boycott, by contrast, met none of them. I will add the caveat that boycotts also work best as part of a diverse portfolio of tactics, especially in cases like Montgomery and South Africa where major social change is part of the goal, but the Christian China boycott fails in that regard as well.


Too often, I think, calls for boycotts tend towards the model of the Christian China boycott rather than the South Africa or Montgomery Bus boycotts. Thousands of calls for boycotts exist, many with no clear demands for the target, most with no organizing for participants, and a great many suggesting that you boycott diverse corporations or groups of corporations and all of their holdings while putting the burden on you to figure out which products you are still allowed to buy.

We all have a finite capacity for social involvement, and it is incumbent on us not to expend that capacity uselessly. Boycotts are a popular way to feel like you are doing something, but their actual impact is variable and often nonexistent. My suggestion, then, is that if you are joining a boycott to assuage you conscience, don’t have any illusions about it. If you are joining a boycott to achieve broader social progress, though, choose wisely.

Our Daily Petitions

Via https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwvc/The right to petition is a key element of a democratic society, a fundamental tool by which we make our wishes known and require of our leaders that they listen. I think many of us retain the sense that our collective voice carries weight, as we should. In an enjoyable though perhaps apocryphal scene from the film Amazing Grace, advocates against the slave trade drag a massive scrolled petition into the halls of parliament and roll it out across the floor to emphasize their support. The politicians are suitably impressed.

Such is the ideal, at any rate; I think it somewhat tarnished now. Over the past decade the concept of a petition morphed from that ideal into little more than a social justice punch line. Internet petitions are created by the dozens, requiring almost no effort to build, market, manage, or deliver. As a user of social media with a fairly activist friend group, I see petitions in my feed at a usual rate of one per day or more.

I pay them very little attention, and I suspect they are given similarly little weight by their intended recipients. In economic terms, the petition supply now far exceeds the demand; their value has tanked.

I fear this bodes ill for the ideal of the petition, to which I wholly subscribe. I can imagine few citizens who would substantively disagree with the suggestion that our government ought to more honestly and attentively represent us. How then, when petitions may be generated and filled with little time and less thought, can we retain their value as a representation of our collective voice?

One requirement among many, I believe, is to apply petitions judiciously rather than haphazardly. Happily, the power to do so lies with we who sign them.

As most anyone who has signed an internet petition likely knows, your signature is quickly mined by other would-be petitioners, upon which a tsunami of petition requests floods your e-mail. “Ban herbicide that hurts endangered Whooping Cranes!” and “Shame on Indiana Gov. Pence for Signing Anti-LGBT Bill!” and “End part-time poverty at UPS!” are typical titles appearing in my e-mail and facebook feed. They are carefully crafted to arouse not my support, but my anger. That was when I started to get choosy. And so I started to read them closely. And that was a mistake (at least so far as retaining my faith in democracy was concerned).

It should have come as no surprise that the bottomless bounty of misinformation on the internet extends quite readily to the world of petitions. When employing a petition required mobilization of dozens or hundreds of people to speak individually to the public and collect their signatures for a particular issue, the petitioners had to have at least a basic familiarity with the topic. With the bar to the creation of a petition decreased, so too is the knowledge requirement about the subject. I can pretty reliably predict that the most irritating thing on Jon Stewart on Wednesday night will be a poorly worded petition in my inbox on Thursday morning.

While I am also irritated by things I hear about on Jon Stewart, I naively believe that one should rely on more than a single comedy skit as the source material for engaging an issue via the democratic process. One would, I hope, have done some baseline research on the topic to find out whether the issue is more complicated than it seems (spoiler: it is). One would also, I wish, have done a little checking to see if anyone is currently working on this and whether there is anything we can do to help them out (likely). One would not, if pursuing the ideal of petitioning, gotten frustrated and hammered a first draft of one’s frustration into a petition site (like The Petition Site) and then spammed your rage-gasm out to everyone on your friend lists, e-mail contacts, and twitter feeds.

But what are we to do when this flood of poorly conceived petitions appears demanding our attentions? I have a few suggestions to help you sort the chafe from the … well, mostly from the other chafe:

  1. Is it inflammatory? Delete it. I cannot imagine anyone responding anything but defensively to a letter that tells them to “stop pushing for a misguided and destructive project,” no matter how many people have signed it.
  2. Is it full of typos? Delete it. No one will take the time to read it seriously if the authors didn’t take time to read it themselves. In fact, many people respond quite badly.
  3. Did the author do their homework? If not, delete it. Finding this out will require a little research on your part, but if the petition argues one thing and the science or the facts of the case show otherwise, the petition is actually making things worse instead of better. The sources are a good indicator: if the only reference in the petition is The Daily Mail, it’s probably junk—at best.
  4. Does it have a clear target, and is the target someone who can actually make a decision about this thing? If not, delete it. Petitions addressed broadly are addressed to no one.
  5. Is this petition part of some other work? If not, delete it. Petitions can absolutely be valuable as evidence of public sentiment when there is an advocacy or stakeholder group maintaining pressure on the target, but a petition in a vacuum has no bite and not very much bark. Petitions work best when used in concert with other tools, not as the end strategy.

I have to warn you that this leaves very few petitions worth signing. But I see that as a good thing—in my view, the ideal of petitioning will only regain its value if and when we make the effort to clear out worthless knockoffs. So instead of devaluing your likes, shares, clicks, and signatures by attaching them to flashy nonsense, be choosy. Choose “delete.”