Religion & Liberty Online

To boycott or not to boycott Disney, that is the question

(Image credit: Associated Press)

The answer, however, depends on what role Disney and its products play in your life.

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Disney, world famous entertainment and media conglomerate, is now at the center of controversy—in all kinds of ways.

The state of Florida recently enacted the Parental Rights in Education bill, which has proven to be orders of magnitude more controversial than its name implies. It is commonly derided by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It contains several parts, one of which mandates that schools notify parents “if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.” The most controversial part of the bill states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Much of the discussion of the bill in the media has brought far more heat than light. Mary Ellen Klas, in an excellent piece appearing in the Miami Herald, has written a comprehensive account of the bill itself as well as many arguments made by those both supporting and opposing the bill. It was also recently a topic of discussion on the podcast Acton Unwind.

The bill was the catalyst for employee walkouts at Disney by some employees who felt Disney did not do enough to oppose the bill, which they believed detrimental to the rights of persons who identify as gender or sexual minorities.

In response, Disney held an “all-hands” meeting with employees to address these concerns. Footage from this meeting was then obtained and released on Twitter by Manhattan Institute fellow Chris Rufo. Andrew Mark Miller of Fox Business has helpfully compiled some of the most controversial footage, which “appear to show multiple Disney officials pushing a progressive LGBT agenda” to employees as well as its audiences.

This corporate comedy of errors is reminiscent of that around Disney’s 2020 live-action remake of its animated film Mulan. Disney was widely criticized by human rights activists when the film’s star, Yifei Liu, took the side of Hong Kong police over pro-democracy protesters. It was also later revealed that portions of the film had been shot in Xinjiang, the region in which there is an ongoing and horrific series of human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Chinese communist government against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities. The controversy over Mulan led to widespread calls for a boycott of Disney by human rights activists.

The controversy over Disney’s actions and response to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill have led to similar calls for boycotts from both America’s political left and right. Some on the left have called for boycotts of the state of Florida, including businesses in Florida such as Disney, hoping to place enough economic pressure to prompt a repeal of the bill. Some on the right have called for boycotts of Disney itself, hoping to prompt Disney to abandon its commitments to a progressive LGBTQ agenda.

The record of such boycotts affecting the sort of change both the left and right hope for, in the way they wish to affect it, is not at all encouraging.

From 1997 to 2005, Disney was the target of a similar boycott campaign by America’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which was joined by many other evangelical groups, including Focus on the Family. In the resolution ending the boycott in 2005, the Southern Baptist Convention maintained it had “communicated effectively our displeasure,” while Disney claimed it never changed any of its policies or practices in response to the boycott.

Was the Disney boycott a failure? Yes and no.

It was a failure insofar as it did not lead to any change of policy by the leverage of “economic pressure.” It was, however, a success insofar as it raised awareness of Disney’s stance on issues of gender and sexuality.

As Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern Kellogg, has observed: “The typical boycott doesn’t have much impact on sales revenue.… The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes.”

The power of boycotts, in other words, is cultural and not economic, but culture is not as distant from economics as we might suppose.

In his frequently cited and equally frequently misunderstood New York Times Magazine article The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits, the Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman argues that the purpose of business is to make the greatest profit possible “while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” Both law and custom play a vital role in the economic order.

These past few years have been a revelation regarding Disney’s underlying understanding of human anthropology and the value the corporation places on the dignity of the human person. This makes the political privileges they have lobbied for and received in the forms of ever increasing copyright extensions and the unique legal jurisdiction in which Disney World operates subject to greater scrutiny as the crony capitalism it embodies.

The American writer Annie Dillard once remarked, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Disney’s cultural sway will remain only as long as we spend our time in front of our screens, as long as we deem what’s happening on those screens worthy of our attention. Custom arises from the aggregate of individuals acting according to conscience, and we can renew our social order by heeding the wisdom of Solomon, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

This article originally appeared in The Detroit News on April 13, 2022.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.