This is kind of what happened with the call to boycott Sears last week.
In case you missed it, Jewish social media was blowing up over pro-Palestinian t-shirts that were offered for sale on the Sears web site. There’s no shortage of “Free Palestine” gear available online but these shirts, with the image of a raised fist and the call to “end Israeli occupation” (i.e., end Israel) struck people as especially inflammatory.
But here’s the thing: we live in a world of hosted content and third-party sellers. Let’s say that you saw something offensive on Facebook. You would complain to Facebook but you’d also know that Facebook didn’t post the content; a user posted it on Facebook. If you buy something on eBay or Etsy, you know that eBay and Etsy didn’t make or sell that item, a user did. Similarly, while sites like Amazon and Sears are themselves sellers, they are also hosts to third-party content. That’s what was happening here. Sears was host to a third-party seller. Yes, they still have some responsibility for what appears on their site, and offensive material should be brought to their attention, but perhaps storming the castle with torches shouldn’t be the first course of action. Third-party content does not necessarily represent corporate policy on Middle East politics. Perhaps we should give Sears a chance to respond before we whip out the #BoycottSears hashtag.
It gets better: Sears and Sears Canada are two separate companies but that didn’t stop people from accosting the unrelated enterprise. Even if a call to boycott is warranted, maybe take two minutes to ascertain that you’re threatening the right business.
This was not an isolated incident. We happen to be a species prone to kneejerk reactions and this kind of thing happens all the time. For example, when Starbucks pulled out of Israel in 2003, people called for a boycott, assuming that Starbucks must be pro-Arab and anti-Israel. The truth is that Starbucks’ withdrawal was strictly a business decision. Starbucks came late to a country already rife with really good coffee shops. After two years, six stores, and some issues with their Israeli business partners, they had failed to carve out a profitable niche. Who among us would continue to throw money into such a venture? But instead of thanking them for giving it a shot, a large segment of the population threatened a boycott if they didn’t agree to stay and continue losing money. (How many of the people threatening to boycott do you think were actually customers of the six Israeli Starbucks stores? Not many, I would venture.)
It’s not just Jews and Israel when it comes to kneejerk boycotts. In 2010, opponents of Arizona’s immigration laws called for a boycott of Arizona products. This included Arizona Iced Tea, which was deemed “the drink of fascists.” There’s one wrinkle: Arizona Iced Tea comes not from Arizona but from Long Island! (I’m guessing that the name “Long Island Iced Tea” was already taken.)
We all react this way given the proper trigger. Also last week, musician Courtney Love Cobain was in a Twitter war with Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, saying that Sarsour had raised $80,000 for the victim of an alleged Islamophobic attack that had been proven never to have occurred. According to Cobain, Sarsour had jumped all over a convenient hot-button cause, bringing her followers along for the ride, facts be damned. (The parallels to Reverend Al Sharpton and the Tawana Brawley case are evident.)
Not even the righteous and wise King David was immune to jumping to conclusions when given the proper triggers. When David was driven out of Jerusalem by a coup, Tziva (a treacherous slave) told him that Mephiboshes (David’s friend and a grandson of King Saul) had remained in the capital, seeing the opportunity to reclaim the throne that his family had lost to David. (Tziva knew exactly what buttons to push.) As a result of this misinformation, David used his royal authority to transfer Mephiboshes’ wealth to Tziva. (All this occurred in II Samuel 16.) It later came to David’s attention that Tziva had lied but by then the king didn’t know what to think. The time to investigate the facts is before taking action half-cocked.
If something is offensive, we should by all means protest. But in our connected world, it would take literally minutes to get the facts. Like that Sears did not actually sell the shirt. Or that the same shirt is still available (as of this writing) on numerous other sites including Amazon, eBay and Kmart (the latter of which, like Sears, happens to be owned by Sears Holdings Corporation). How would people have reacted had they known that Sears Israel (a) exists and (b) employs 200 people in Israel? (I’ll say it: Thank you, Sears!)
So yes, if Sears (or whoever) doesn’t respond to normal complaints and requests, it would not be inappropriate to turn up the heat. The possibility of a boycott should certainly be in one’s quiver. But maybe – just maybe – it shouldn’t be the thing we reach for first. That should be the keyboard. Check out Google, Wikipedia, Snopes and/or a few reputable news sites. Don’t go off half-cocked based on a friend’s Facebook post, no matter how well-meaning. If we act first and ask questions later, our mindsets will be locked in by our actions. At that point, like King David, we won’t know what to think even after we get the facts.