Free Markets

Elton John vs. Dolce & Gabbana: Should You Boycott Anti-Gay-Adoption Businesses?

The famous fashion designers are gay but oustpoken critics of gay parents and IVF children.


Who are the true warriors for freedom of speech, Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) or Elton John? This puzzle comes out of last week's furious bust-up between the Italian fashion designers and the widely loved piano man. When Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who are gay, told an Italian magazine that they aren't big fans of in-vitro fertilization treatment or surrogate pregnancies for gay couples, John hit the roof.

Being dad to two surrogate children, John was understandably offended by the designers' dissing of gay families, which they described as made up of "synthetic children" born of "semen chosen from a catalog." So John called for a boycott of D&G, and hordes of celebs and tweeters heeded him. Before long, #boycottD&G was trending on Twitter and an angry crowd had gathered outside D&G's big store in central London to holler "Shame! Shame!" at the staff inside. Commentators insisted that all self-respecting supporters of gay rights should stop buying D&G's stuff, at least until its founders apologize for or, ideally, retract their "vile" comments.

Let's leave aside the question of which camp is correct on the matter of gay families. Instead, let's ask which side is respecting free speech and which side is doing something else. 

Both claim to be pro-free speech. In an echo of the post-Charlie Hebdo global cry, D&G's supporters have been tweeting "Je Suis D&G." Stefano Gabbana said that, unlike their stinging critics, he and Dolce "firmly believe in democracy and the fundamental principle of freedom of expression that upholds it." An Italian politician accused John of behaving like the Taliban, describing his crusade against D&G as "shameful and intolerable."

But wait a second, counter the D&G boycotters—aren't we just exercising freedom of speech also, the same as D&G did? A Guardian writer said that just as D&G "used their public platform to make gross generalisations," so John and his backers have "exercised [their] own right to freedom of expression in response." A writer for Pink News said D&G's claim to be suffering some kind of "censorship" is nuts, and it's a "gross mutation of freedom of speech" to suggest that people should be able to "express whatever offensive view [they] like… without being offended in return." 

So is this a simple clash between competing views, with both sides exercising free speech in a fair debate over values? I don't think so. The boycotters' claim to be merely "exercising freedom of expression" is spectacularly unconvincing. In truth, they have brought to bear against D&G what John Stuart Mill called the "tyranny of prevailing opinion"—the informal, non-governmental policing of the parameters of acceptable thought, and punishment of anyone who steps outside those parameters. Whatever one thinks about the gay-family stuff, I'm in the "Je Suis D&G" camp: they're the ones whose speech rights have been dented here.

Yes, the anti-D&G side is using words, and could therefore be described as "exercising freedom of speech." But they're doing something else, too: they're using financial pressure to force two individuals to abandon their deeply held moral beliefs (or at least pretend to) and conform to what others consider the correct way of thinking. They aren't simply saying to D&G "You're wrong, and here's why," which is the lifeblood of good, testy debate. They're saying, "Your views are unacceptable—so unacceptable that we will seek to punish you financially until you retract them." This moves beyond speech into action, censorious action.

The anti-D&G brigade have responded to accusations of censoriousness by saying no one has a right to speak his mind without being criticised. They're absolutely right about that. But the campaign to hit D&G where it hurts—in the bank—isn't criticism. In fact, it's the avoidance of criticism; it's the dodging of grown-up, heated debate in favor of simply saying: "You can't say that! What you have said is so vile that we will seek to expel you from polite society and the free market until you have apologized."

There's nothing wrong with boycotts, per se. But traditionally they were aimed at overturning discriminatory behavior—think the bus boycott in the 1950s. Boycotts harnessed "people power" to throttle an actual discriminatory action that heavily impacted people's lives. More recently, however, we've seen the rise of boycotts designed to punish a company for what its bosses think, not what they do.

Philosophers have warned us about this. Consider Baruch Spinoza's essay on freedom of speech, published in the 1660s. Yes, Spinoza tub-thumped beautifully against "government by compulsion." But he also took aim at those who "seditiously stir up the quarrelsome masses," so that even "in a free state, [they] seek to curtail the liberty of judgement which they are unable to tyrannize over." That is, even where speech cannot legally be trounced, it can still be informally assaulted by the "quarrelsome."

The clearest argument against non-state authoritarianism came later, from Mill. His On Liberty (1859), perhaps the greatest of liberal texts, isn't really about the state; it's far more about the "deep slumber of decided opinion" and the informal intolerance of those who snub mainstream thought. Mill couldn't have been clearer about the need to liberate thought and speech, not only from the officialdom's dead grip, but also from the spittle and fury of non-state authoritarians.

"Protection against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough," wrote Mill. "There needs [to be] protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them."

Here, in these 150-year-old words, we have the perfect description of what the financial punishers of D&G are seeking to do, and what is now done by so many Twitter-mobs infuriated by offensive speech: a stab at imposing "by other means than civil penalties" the prevailing opinion on those who have dared to turn their backs on it. From the campus authoritarians who win the disinvitation of controversial speakers by threatening to disrupt their speeches, to the protester-won sacking of Brendan Eich by Mozilla over his views on gay marriage, ours is an era of weaponized majority opinion—the imposition of "right thinking" not only by the church's flames or state coercion, but through informal threats of financial hardship or social ostracism against mis-speakers.

The end result is that the worst kind of censorship—self-censorship—spreads. Who will now dare express religious reservations about gay families following the fury visited on D&G? Every act of non-state authoritarianism is a reminder to all of us to silence our darker or simply non-mainstream beliefs. It's the straitjacketing of public debate, the informal silencing of out-there or eccentric views. And that's a disaster, for as Mill said: "The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time." And of ours, too.

NEXT: National Review Launches Another Attack on 'Libertarian Constitutionalism'

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  1. This not-at-all frivolous battle is free speechifying all the way down.

  2. Isn’t public ridicule the best option in wading through the marketplace of ideas?

    Though I loathe the thought of politics running every facet of your lives and being a deciding factor in every decision you make down to the trivial, it sure beats the hell out of using government to force your ideas on others.

    1. I’d have to agree. Public ridicule isn’t anything new. The only thing that’s changes is who has the power to wield it. It used to be mainstream Christians, now its mainstream PC warriors. I’m sure it will change again. There will always be some sort of tyranny of the majority over the minority. Sometimes its through government action and sometimes its through public protest. I’d rather it be public protest.

      1. Somehow I suspect that these people would gladly use the full force of the state to enforce their views if they could get their hands on it.

        “Though I disagree with what you say I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” is a dead sentiment in America these days.

        1. Yeah but wanting violence to happen and it actually happening are two different things. You shouldn’t be able to indict someone who thinks about committing violence. Fortunately, they have to actually do the act in order to be guilty.

  3. Both claim to be pro-free speech.

    Everybody claims to be pro-free speech, right up until they hear something they don’t like.

    Then you find out who is actually supports free speech and find that it’s a small crowd.

    The slacktivist/”boycott the unbelievers”/#HASHTAGTHIS movement is really just an electronic lynch mob.

    1. The slacktivist/”boycott the unbelievers”/#HASHTAGTHIS movement is really just an electronic lynch mob.


      I don’t think boycotting a product made by somebody who has views that don’t gel with yours is the equivalent of lynching people.

      Boycott is a very libertarian response. It’s the cure to the bludgeon of CRA Title II.

      Now what gay activists have done to Prop 8 supporters, that really is disturbing.

      1. Yeah, boycots can be stupid and pointless, or counterproductive, but they are hardly equivalent to acts of violence.

      2. Okay, I’ll retract the term “lynch mob.” What I’m reaching for is that there is no engagement of, or exchange of thought. It’s simply “I don’t like what you think or say, so rather than try to persuade you or prove you wrong, I’m going to stick my hand in your pocket and take your livelihood until you yield, which I think is attempting to harm someone for their opinion, but you’re right, it doesn’t rise to acts of physical violence.

  4. You’d think D&G would like the idea of designer children.

  5. When The Dixie Chicks made fun of Dubya, they were surprised to find that the people who had been buying their albums stopped buying them and their new friends bought one or two new albums… but didn’t keep buying them, and didn’t buy concert tickets, and didn’t buy t-shirts, and didn’t buy posters…

    When Ted Nugent made fun of Obama, it didn’t make a dent in his sales, his concerts, or his merch. Those offended quickly realized that they, themselves, couldn’t boycott someone that they weren’t already patronizing. The people who had never purchased a Ted Nugent album got all huffy and asked why the people who boycotted the Dixie Chicks weren’t also boycotting Ted Nugent. They, of course, asked this of each other rather than the Ted Nugent fans because who in their right mind would hang out with Ted Nugent fans?

    All that to say: if D&G did not ask themselves “who will be buying the stuff we want to sell?” before they said something more interesting than “Buy our product because our values communicate *YOUR* values”, then they deserve to be usurped by whomever is next in line.

  6. The two designers oppose IVF, Elton John is for it. If Mr. John is correct, then these designers are hateful bigots, like Illinois Nazis. Would you buy goods and services from Illinois Nazis?

    If they’re Illinois Nazis, they *should* be driven out of business.

    If they’re speaking truth to power, then their business ought to survive, because they’re correct on the merits, which is (surprise!) what I believe.

    “Let’s leave aside the question of which camp is correct on the matter of gay families.”

    No, let’s not. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

    (of course, IVF is about more than “gay families,” but let’s not nitpick every piddly error in this article)

    I agree with Mr. John on one point: Human beings conceived in a lab are just as human, and just as entitled to human rights and dignity, as human beings conceived in the normal way.
    It is precisely for this reason that IVF is wrong. Because with IVF, the lab “discards” the “excess” human beings who are considered unsuitable. In other words, IVF involves killing living human beings.

    Which I’m against.

    And of course IVF is unnatural, since it occurs outside of the conjugal act, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from history (having totally ignored the warnings of the Popes), it’s that separating sex from reproduction is a very bad idea. If you don’t agree, ask the innumerable fatherless children who disproportionately go in for crime and public assistance.

    1. Boring. Everything people do is unnatural. Or everything is natural. Pick one. How is IVF any more unnatural than blood transfusions or heart surgery?

      1. Let’s see…separating sex from reproduction on the one hand, vs. heart surgery on the other hand…what’s the difference?

        Maybe the fact that heart surgery doesn’t lead to a generation of fatherless children who are disproportionately likely to commit crime and go on public assistance?

        1. I should say, “separating reproduction from the marital act.”

        2. So what? You are just supporting my point that a thing being unnatural doesn’t mean it is bad (or good). What does any of that have to do with naturalness? A discussion of the merits of the traditional family is a separate issue. If there is something wrong with non-procreative sex, it isn’t that it is unnatural. I’m not trying to argue about that. I know it is pointless.

          1. ” A discussion of the merits of the traditional family is a separate issue.”

            So…it’s just a coincidence that children fare better in a traditional family than in “alternative family structures”? It has nothing to do with the fact that the traditional family is natural?

            1. “So…it’s just a coincidence that children fare better in a traditional family than in “alternative family structures”?”

              I hear the research on this is pretty shaky at best when it comes to same-sex parenting.

              It’s pretty well-known that there is a correlation between single-parent child rearing and the child’s increased vulnerability to crime and poverty later in life, but the jury is still out on children of same-sex couples.

              1. Each new experiment in tampering with the natural order of things is accompanied first by promises of how transformative and wonderful this experiment will be, and if that doesn’t pan out, they retreat to the “they haven’t proven it’s harmful” dodge.

                Experiements in departing from the “two married parents and their children” norm have consistently led to bad results for children. But we kept being told that This Time It’s Totally Different, and the results of previous tampering with the natural order are meaningless for the most recent instance of tampering.

                And, of course, we must ignore the testimony of actual people raised by gay couples, who love their same-sex “parents” but don’t think it’s as good as being in a normal family:


                1. I fail to see how an anecdote is supposed to serve as data, but hey, maybe that’s just me.

                  1. By the time the “anecdotes” have piled up too much to ignore, we’ll be on the next great crusade, and the data against SSM will be put in the round file along with the data against no-fault divorce.

                    1. “By the time the “anecdotes” have piled up too much to ignore, we’ll be on the next great crusade, and the data against SSM will be put in the round file along with the data against no-fault divorce.”

                      Ug, I hate sophist arguments.

                2. And I suppose we must also ignore the testimony of people who are horribly abused by “normal” families. Individual testimony tells us nothing.

                  Fuck off, I just wanted to say something about the silliness of the idea of the “unnatural” and now look what you made me do.

            2. Alternative family structures seem to exist quite frequently in more “primitive” human societies, which would suggest that the traditional family might not in fact be the natural order. But I’m really not trying to argue with you over the merits of different family structures.

              Anyway, my whole point is that natural is not necessarily good and unnatural is not necessarily bad. As the examples of heart surgery and blood transfusions illustrate. And the silliness of the organic food movement.

              Humans are the remarkable creatures that we are exactly because of our ability to do “unnatural” things. Either that or absolutely everything is natural, which is really my preferred way of looking at it.

              1. In most primitive societies what you have is the extended traditional family structure. Mom, dad, kids, grandparents, aunts uncles and cousins.

                It doesn’t take a village to raise a child–it takes a family.

  7. A more appropriate term: “Designer Children” not “Synthetic/Chemical Children”, there is nothing synthetic about sperm or surrogates unless, there is some popular technology I’m not aware of.

    If gays can’t make comments about other gays, then what the hell has this world come to?
    I’m not giving up my perfume just because the designers don’t think designer children shouldn’t be the norm for gay parents. This is a personal opinion and people have the right to their own personal objections, but to boycott ? Do these people not have anything else to do?

    1. Do these people not have anything else to do?

      Um… duhh.

  8. So, why does anyone give a flying fuck what the people who make their clothes think about IVF? Do you ask the hot dog vendor what his opinion on capital gains tax is before buying the hot do?

    Legally, of course, they can protest whoever they want. Just as they could protest a business owner because he let his gentile daughter marry a Jew, or something equally absurd. But ultimately, the ethos of these people is disturbing. They don’t want to share the world with people with different views from theirs, or at the very least want anyone whose views do differ to be branded as bigots and shunned from society.

  9. I’m on the side of D&G – although probably not for the same reason.

    It’s the pretense that I take issue with.
    Elton and his Mister are not normal, Full Stop.
    They need to own their abnormality, rather than go through the sham of pretending to be normal. Own it or give it up. The pretense is demeaning to them, and insulting to others.

    I’m not normal – intentionally. Not only do I not want to be like everyone else, I don’t want to be like anyone else. 5 minutes in the same room with me will prove that I do a pretty good job of it.- although I’m differently abnormal than Elton or the D&G guys.

    The difference is. . . I don’t pretend to be something I’m not – normal.

    The correct response to unpopular speech is more speech, not less.
    Anyone who says otherwise is nursing a serious mental illness and should immediately seek a skilled brain surgeon.

  10. “Being dad to two surrogate children, John was understandably offended by the designers’ dissing…”…his personal decisions and feels entitled to destroy someone who does.

  11. The problem with the SJW lynch mob is that they’re not content with boycotting–if they don’t like something they want to prevent anyone from getting it.

  12. Haha I never thought I would see Mills quoted on a libertarian site

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