Friday, November 14, 2008

Moral confusion, brought to you by the opponents of Proposition 8

Josh Rosenau, our friend at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), is now seeking help in defining important words in the debate over Proposition 8 in California. There must be something in the water over there at NCSE. These are the same people who can't make a distinction between creationism and Intelligent Design.

But at least we are now seeking clarification of terms. We should probably be thankful for small things.

Rosenau has been defending the folks over at Intolerance Central (that's the Proposition 8 opposition) by trying to claim that gay blacklisting of people who financially supported Prop. 8 is perfectly acceptable since it is the same as a boycott, but that pro-Proposition 8 boycotting of businesses who opposed Prop. 8 is totally unacceptable because it is the same as blackmail.

I know. I thought the same thing. This is what moral confusion looks like.

In a comment on one of my preceding posts, Rosenau asks:
Could you, for the sake of those of us whose dictionaries have the word "miscegenation" but are oddly lacking "miscagenation," distinguish what makes a blacklist different from a list of companies to boycott? And while you're at it, throw in a definition of blackmail.
  • A boycott is an economic action directed at a business entity whereby notice is given to the entity that it risks loss of business as a result of certain activities the prospective boycotter finds distasteful. It threatens loss of business and seeks nothing more than the proper behavior of the corporate entity. A boycott is considered perfectly legal and ethical.
  • A blacklist is a list of individuals that one or more people are threatening with loss of employment or other economic harm. It seeks the harm of specific, named individuals for the purpose of revenge on the part of the blacklister. Blacklisting is legal in terms of criminal law (although the economic harm is actionable in civil court), but is considered unethical.
  • Blackmail is the extortion of money from an individual through the revelation of some damaging information unknown to others for the economic benefit of the blackmailer. Blackmail is considered both illegal and unethical.
A boycott is not blacklisting, blacklisting is not blackmail, blackmail is not a boycott. These are terms on which there is wide agreement as to their meanings and distinctions and which no one even questions except when they are trying to defend actions that are indefensible.

1 comment:

Josh Rosenau said...

Fine. These definitions seem to match nicely with the ones I offered (though there are some quibbles below). It strikes me that your original objection then was not to blacklisting (still not defined by either of us as a verb, but I suppose you don't mind verbing a noun here and there). If you actually look at the supposed blacklisting site, you find: "The following individuals or organizations (according to have donated money to the California Proposition 8 campaign which seeks to ban same sex marriages. Please do not patronize them." That falls squarely within "an economic action directed at a business entity whereby … it … los[es] … business as a result of certain activities the … boycotter finds distasteful." Your objection then is that the website used the wrong title, or something. I did make some modifications to your definition since I can find no other source which treats a boycott as a threat, rather than as an actual loss of business. See, for instance, the use of the term here: and here:

But this complicates things, since your definitions of blacklist and boycott seem to converge. It seems like a blacklist is a list of companies to boycott, according to your own definitions. Assuming you didn't decry James Dobson's boycott of McDonalds, Ford, Disney, and P&G, I have to assume you support both boycotting and blacklisting.

Of course, my definition of "blacklist" hews somewhat closer to this, from Wikipedia: "A blacklist is a list or register of persons who, for one reason or another, are being denied a particular privilege, service, mobility, access or recognition. As a verb, to blacklist can mean to deny someone work in a particular field, or to ostracize them from a certain social circle." Note that it is broader than "a list of companies to boycott," and that the supposed blacklist does not actually call for anything but a boycott. Which you acknowledge to be perfectly ethical and legal.

Wikipedia adds that "The term blacklisting is generally used in a pejorative context, as it implies that someone has been prevented from having legitimate access to something due to the whims or judgments of another." A boycott does not meet this definition, since the whim is ones own, and I am free to deny myself access to whatever I choose.

The interesting question is whether you support threatening a company or an individual with punitive action unless they give you money. Because that's what I showed happening with the Yes on 8 people, and you haven't decried that blackmail. You have simply tried to circumnavigate the blackmail in your discussion. I wonder whether this is what you meant when you wrote "These are terms … which no one even questions except when they are trying to defend actions that are indefensible."