“Westerners have lost touch with one of our strongest power bases: we are consumers.”
PROGRESSIVES internationally are being hit with some hard facts, from the reality of the United Kingdom’s vote to end its politico-economic links with the European Union (EU); through the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican United States presidential candidate; to Australia’s problem catching up with both nations on the human rights inherent in Marriage Equality.
It’s become impossible to participate on social media without also being hit with online petitions.
“But is it realistic?” I saw one concerned Remain voter ask her Facebook friends, of yet another public vote attempting to reverse the Brexit result.
It could be, I wanted to reply, if only you’d just sign it.
But I didn’t write that response (I just said “sign them all, in only takes a few minutes”) because we keyboard warriors and slacktivists get very sensitive about doing much more than ‘liking’ stuff.
Liking is good. It’s a show of hands sweeping through our Facebook feed, but let’s be real for a minute: Liking really achieves nothing. No-one has to show up. At best, it’s little more than virtual loyalty over morning coffee.
I was reminded this week (by another Facebook post) of the principles of the civil rights movement, and the way it continues to define change in Western nations where politicians and corporates have stymied communities and left us feeling speechless and disenfranchised.
I also reminded myself of some fundamental tenets of most democracies, proven long before the social media came along. People generally have the right of assembly, demonstration and petition – that is, we should not fear meeting, protesting with and canvassing other members of the public for common views.
From the Montgomery Bus Boycott triggered when African-America Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up for an Anglo-American passenger in 1955; to the Sudanese Civil War Sex Strike, when Samira Ahmed encouraged wives to abandon sexual relations with their husbands until the second Sudanese Civil War ended, people have been taking relatively peaceful, simple stands to enact lasting change.
It was a pamphlet distributed by community leader Jo Ann Robinson that reminded African-Americans of a mathematical reality – that they were the majority of Montgomery’s bus ticket-buying marketplace – and they reacted with courage. Bus travel was out, replaced by car-pooling and other simple efforts actioned by individuals, and by 1956 the Montgomery racial segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional.
It’s never completely simple, it’s never totally peaceful, yet withholding what a large number of people want has proven to move mountains, particularly when what they want is our money.
“International corporate and individual brands are already making such decisions easier for consumers.”
Perhaps it’s the weight of all our first-world problems, but Westerners have lost touch with one of our strongest power bases: we are consumers with an array of choices when it comes to everything from the weekly groceries, to clothing, entertainment and countless other products and services.
Nationalistic movements like Brexit, populist candidates such as Trump, and human rights outcomes linked to a nation’s economy (Malcolm Turnbull’s commitment to spend $160 million on an unnecessary plebiscite on Marriage Equality) leave themselves wide open to economic boycotts.
The internet makes it relatively easy to find where products originate and which corporates support or political candidates and movements. Some are politically savvy and hedge their bets, but most are not.
In just a few clicks, you can choose between banks, department stores, communications companies, financiers and even restaurants that support causes you’re aligned with.
In just a few well-directed emails, you can ensure other companies know why you’re making the choice to spend your money with their competition.
Although sites are cropping up that make it very easy, there’s no need for blanket bans on buying British or American products – remember, not everyone in the United Kingdom wanted to leave the EU and not everyone in America is voting for Trump.
But one of the most powerful things you can do is to ask a simple question of the management in these companies. Are you supporting Trump? Do you want to leave the EU?
They’ll be affronted, no doubt. They might not even give you a clear answer, but it’s your money, right? You get to choose where you spend it.
International corporate and individual brands are already making such decisions easier for consumers. Richard Branson came out early as a Remain supporter in the Brexit fallout on behalf of Virgin Group. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver likewise made his Remain stance crystal clear for his followers.
One of Britain’s most lucrative (and nationalistic) cultural exports of the past two decades is the Harry Potter brand, yet Harry Potter wants to stay in the EU! Author J.K. Rowling is one of the highest-profile Remain advocates in the unfolding Brexit landscape.
Silicon Valley CEOs went public earlier this year about their concerns over Donald Trump’s presidential nomination. Large US retailers, media outlets and sporting and cultural events led the way a year ago.
National Lobby Group Australian Marriage Equality has published a growing list of more than 1000 corporate entities that support changing Australia’s Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples. I’ve been using it for more than a year to make high-street choices that sit better with my equality activism.
Consumer boycotting often gets negative attention, amid suggestions that it’s ineffective, or a form of trade protectionism; whereas in actual fact, it’s already proven itself to have deep impact at the highest corporate level in Australia.
Australian telecommunications giant Telstra wavered on its public expression of its support for Marriage Equality in April this year, reportedly under pressure from Christian organisations threatening a boycott of Telstra services across Catholic organisations.
But the consumer backlash was fast and profound, and Telstra was forced to reassert its public support for legal reform of Australia’s Marriage Act.
There’s a whole world of consumer boycotting going on – check out the site that claims to be: “The most comprehensive English language list of progressive boycotts”.
There isn’t a ‘dislike’ button on the majority of social media platforms. Facebook has no plans for one. If there was, social media shareholders might lose their grip on this lucrative new wave of media – and millions in advertising revenue – when participants grow sick of their thoughts and opinions garnering the type of protests that a thumbs-down would attract.
Perhaps that leaves some hope for progressive politics? With no way to give the thumbs-down at the keyboard, the only thing left – if you’re still frustrated – is to do something.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.