We live in an age when there are calls to boycott businesses and nations that indulge in practices that are deemed to be unjust or discriminatory or otherwise unsavory. The radio program Reveal produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting had two interesting reports, one on the boycotts targeting Israel and the other on the origin of the word ‘boycott’. The word comes from Capt. Charles Cunningham Boycott, an Englishman working as a landlord in Ireland enforcing high rents at a time when the country was suffering from a famine, and evicting people from their homes if they could not pay. This was in the late 19th century when that entire island was being ruled by the English and the fight for Irish independence was going on.
The enraged population rallied around the local Catholic priest John O’Malley who urged the people to shun Boycott. O’Malley wanted to find a way to fight the landlords without killing them (some landlords and rent collectors had been murdered), and he urged people to adopt the practice of completely shunning and scorning the perpetrators. People would not talk to Boycott on the street, the postman would not deliver his mail, the blacksmith would not shoe his horses, and laborers would not work to harvest his crops.
Boycott left Ireland, never to return but his name lives on as a tactic by the weak to right wrongs committed by the powerful. In retaliation, the powerful have sought to make boycotts illegal and to punish those who take part in them. When African-Americans in the US boycotted businesses that had segregationist policies, the businesses sued them, claiming that the tactic was illegal. The US Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in the case NAACP v. Claiborne that boycotts were legal. (It would have been 9-0 but Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case because he had previously been an attorney for the NAACP.)
The latest effort to make boycotts illegal is by the Israel lobby that is trying to get laws passed at the state and federal level that would punish anyone who supports the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement that seeks to pressure Israel into ending its apartheid-like practices in the Occupied Territories it controls.