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Water Off A Duck’s Back: Ethical Consumption and Outrage in the Digital Age

How everything from reading to watching television has become a conundrum of ethics.
(Photo: Rusty Clark/Flickr)

(Photo: Rusty Clark/Flickr)

How do you protest a television show that you’ve never seen? Do you refuse to watch the entire network? Do you boycott any store that sells the show’s merchandise? Do you find viewers and convince them to stop watching?

Many have asked these questions in the weeks since the star of A&E’s reality television show Duck Dynasty gave a controversial interview with GQ. Phil Robertson’s statements equating homosexuality with bestiality and denying the horror and violence of Jim Crow drew criticism from GLAAD, the NAACP, and the HRC, but left many unsure of how to respond, especially last week when the network announced the end of Robertson’s suspension and the resumption of the reality series this spring.

It’s never been easier to express our outrage: petitions can be created and promoted with only a few clicks and keystrokes, unlimited online comment sections and the accessibility of contact information for most media outlets invite endless responses, and social media allows for quick and wide distribution of every fleeting opinion. Even the White House invites the most insignificant and inane policy ideas from any citizen with an Internet connection through its “We the People” petition initiative.

Manufactured controversy is just that, and it would be easy to exhaust our outrage.

It has never been easier to state our beliefs publicly, but it’s also never been more difficult to advocate for those beliefs effectively. There’s fatigue, but also confusion from too many causes. The kind of moral reasoning muscles usually reserved for presidential politics are now exercised daily for purchasing produce: shop locally or organically, support stores that pay a living wage domestically but ignore the working conditions of their suppliers abroad or chains that offer fair-trade products but fail to provide their employees with basic benefits, or re-evaluate your entire budget to see just how many of your beliefs you can afford to express?

Our lives as consumers are endlessly confusing, impossibly complicated. Any decision can be paralyzing, even something as insignificant as whether or not to contribute your pageview to an article you want to hate read. Now that even our reading of individual articles is quantified, simply not reading seems inadequate.

Which brings us back to the television show you might not be watching. Should you boycott all of A&E, refusing to satisfy your hunger for Hitchcock with Bates Motel or your nostalgia for Law & Order with daylong marathons and re-runs? Should you extend your boycott to A&E’s co-owners, Hearst Corporation and Disney-ABC Television Group, canceling your subscriptions to Esquire and O as well as burning your copies of The Lion King and Finding Nemo? Should you stop eating at Cracker Barrel and stop shopping at Walmart because they sell Duck Dynasty merchandise?

What if you were never shopping, subscribing, or watching? It’s unreasonable to expect consumers to research every offending celebrity, show, or network until we unearth a connection through which we can express our disproval; instead, we should reserve our outrage and channel our protest into weightier, more immediate causes. Advocacy groups and pundits survive by generating controversies, including the current one over Duck Dynasty.

Like water off a duck’s back, they fuel outrage, but offer no solutions. Moral purchasing is one possible solution, and boycotts have been effective since the Irish Land War when the Land League organized tenant opposition to Lord Erne’s land agent Captain Charles Boycott. From the Montgomery bus boycott during the Civil Rights Movement to the systematic boycott and divestment campaign against South Africa during Apartheid, economic advocacy has been used to achieve real political change.

While historically these campaigns were most successful when waged against institutions, lately these protests have turned from institutions to individuals, from discriminatory or offensive actions to objectionable beliefs themselves: the upheaval of the Dixie Chicks from country charts by angry fans and aggrieved media conglomerates and the ousting of Paula Deen from primetime by nervous sponsors, and now Robertson.

Some of our greatest power as citizens comes from our role as consumers—what we watch, where we shop, which apps we choose to use on our smartphones—but exercising this power requires moral discernment, which I suspect in this instance would lead most consumers to realize their outrage could be better spent. Manufactured controversy is just that, and it would be easy to exhaust our indignation.

If we took all of these distractions seriously, then we might never turn on our televisions or open a Web browser again, we might never be able to decide what to drive, eat, or wear, much less where to buy it. I’m not arguing that we should abdicate our moral responsibilities as consumers, only that we should take them seriously enough to focus our energy on substantial issues.

It’s easy to tweet outrage about a reality television star, while ignoring hate crimes in our own communities; much more palliative to sign an online petition chastising a celebrity than to lobby for real legislative protections. As consumers and citizens it’s not only whom we condemn but what we celebrate and, especially in the aftermath of the holiday shopping season, not only what we boycott, but also what we buy.