New front in the culture wars
Fast food outlets Burger King and McDonald's are among those that have been subject to boycott calls from the American religious right.
The success, for the short term at least, of calls for consumer boycotts of companies advertising on the Alan Jones radio program has given considerable satisfaction to many of those who hate everything that Alan Jones stands for. Almost as much, as screams of censorship or threats to free speech from Jones and others, such as Andrew Bolt, who have never wanted for well-paid public pulpits with which to disseminate their view of the world.
Down the track, however, some of those exulting may regret the tactic, if only for the ease with which the tables can be turned. Then the outrage goes the other way, and it all seems different.
The American religious right regularly organises internet pressure groups to heavy advertisers whose principals or businesses have seemed to give implicit support to ideas deemed anti-religious, pro-abortion, pro-same-sex marriage, pornography, gay rights, or controversial medical or scientific developments, such as stem cell research, vaccination programs against the human papilloma virus, and sex education. They have also promoted attacks on books and movies, and successful boycotts on those who stock or promote them.
There have been retaliatory attacks on businesses whose principals have promoted bigoted views about homosexuality, feminism, religious tolerance and pollution. Some of these have been successful too, causing screams from the religious right about threats to freedom of speech, about political correctness gone mad, and about ''economic terrorism''.
If a group with whom one agrees mounts a boycott, a result is thought to be a great victory for the voice of the people. If one disagrees, it is unfair and probably illegal coercion.
It can hardly be assumed that the many people who have advertised on the Alan Jones program agree with everything or anything he says: what they have wanted, presumably, is to be able to speak to the thousands of people who regularly listen to Jones's rants. The Australian phrase about secondary boycotts is apt, though it is doubtful that the imposition of pressure on those who are directly or indirectly supporting an unpopular view is capable of attracting the sanctions of the Trade Practices Act. All the more if the purpose is a public good, real or imagined, not an economic outcome.
It is not surprising that businesses will shrink from highly organised pressure or criticism, even if managers doubt that the pressure is representative, or that many of those threatening boycott are potential customers anyway. Those who plan such consumer campaigns are usually highly experienced in symbolism, and well capable of making a particular company a symbolic target.
Thus, in America, sponsorship of ''family values'' led to a highly publicised boycott of a fried chicken outlet. When a woman associated with ads for a Florida orange juice company attacked lesbians there were damaging nationwide boycotts of orange juice. Many a lefty activist will not, to this day, buy a grape in solidarity with underpaid Mexican grape-pickers in California. Engaging in such symbolic privation is, for some, the equivalent of driving a Prius, having a solar panel, or campaigning against plastic bags - feelgood stuff without actual sacrifice. Villains - ask Exxon Mobil or Shell - are remembered for years.
Those most susceptible to pressure are not, as Alan Jones suggests, small business people, though these can feel overwhelmed by thousands of hostile emails, even when some turn out to be signed Mickey Mouse. The most sensitive are companies with high-profile brands, such as McDonald's, or ExxonMobil, or franchised store chains in heavy competition for a consumer dollar. If made a target, they fear consumers can easily make choices to go elsewhere. Many such companies try to be good citizens by generous contributions to charitable and cultural causes, but the causes are generally bland rather than ones which divide people.
Among companies targeted by the Christian right in the US have been 7-11, American Airlines, McDonald's and Burger King, Ikea, Microsoft and Walt Disney. An extensive and accurate Wikipedia entry on the American Family Association speaks of 7-Elevens being pushed by boycotts to stop selling Playboy and Penthouse magazines, of boycotts of Pepsi-Cola for advertising on Saturday Night Live when Madonna was singing a song regarded as sacrilegious (Like a Prayer), and of businesses which advertised on the 1993 program NYPD Blue, disliked for its violence and sexual content. Ford was boycotted for advertising in gay magazines, McDonald's for having a director on the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and Hallmark for selling greeting cards celebrating same-sex marriages.
There are regular attacks on bodies such as the National Endowment for the Arts (equivalent to the Australia Council) for its tolerance of material said to undermine family values, or containing explicit sex or blasphemy.
The religious right has its main impact within the Republican Party, and has tended to appropriate a number of economic and political aims not seeming to have much association with religion as such. This includes nativism, obsession with gun control, US exceptionalism, and extreme patriotism, along with hostility to other religions, to ''humanism'', science, evolution and climate change action, love of the oil industry, low taxes and high incentives for the rich, and heavy discouragement and reduced support of the indigent poor. It cannot be said that Alan Jones would be entirely comfortable with every part of the canon, but he has ever shown willingness to borrow from its stock of slogans and idea.
Counter boycotts have worked too, even if the moral outrage these have provoked has not included any reflection on the hypocrisy of the triumphalism of their own successes. Good ends justify any means; bad ends necessarily, apparently, involve bad means.
The American experience has shown that the religious right has nothing to learn from the left about organisation, front groups, symbology or the careful selection of enemies, nor about how social media can be exploited. It may be essentially leftist groups such as Act-up, GetUp! and change.org making most use of the possibilities of social media here, but there are already ample signs that those of a different perspective on life are as capable of mounting a campaign, and as likely to have successes.
Despite the efforts of a good number of would-be leaders of a right-wing crusade, including, of course, Jones himself, and despite the existence of a number of very popular right wing or Christian blog sites, organised moral boycott pressure, at least from the right, has not so far had much appeal here.
One can expect that it soon will, if only to show how others can play in the same games. When that happens, my guess is that conservative causes will do better from it than fashionable lefty causes, whether or not they command more support in the general community. The very point of this sort of lobbying is not the claim that one represents a majority: what is being made clear, instead, is that in a general apathetic and uncaring community, the number of people who are very unhappy with a particular decision (to the point they are going to make an embarrassing fuss about it) exceeds the number who are very pleased.
As abortion debates have shown again and again, or as the disgust at Jones over the death of Julia Gillard's father has shown, that's a different question.
Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times' Editor-at-large.