This is how Indiana Gov. Mike Pence wins: Moral superiority, "religious freedom," social media hypocrisy and the problem with #BoycottIndiana

Let's stop patting ourselves on the back: Public pressure hurt Indiana's activists and enhanced governor's profile

Published April 2, 2015 11:01PM (EDT)

Mike Pence               (AP/Darron Cummings)
Mike Pence (AP/Darron Cummings)

This morning, members of the Indiana General Assembly and a selection of Indianapolis business leaders appeared at a press conference to announce amendments to the RFRA that Gov. Mike Pence signed into law last week. The changes represent a limited victory for supporters of human rights. If you think the ill-conceived, celebrity-endorsed consumer boycott of Indiana had anything to do with the alteration of the law, you should pay closer attention. In particular, pay attention to who stood next to the legislators at this morning’s press conference. The actual events that have unfolded in the past week tell a different story.

Pence and the Indiana Legislature passed and signed an unneeded law with outrageous potential for abuse. Though the bill does not mention LGBTQ people, its timing, following on the heels of the judicial establishment of legal same-sex marriage in Indiana and, before that, the failure of the state’s marriage amendment, is suspect at best. But the real goals of this law were otherwise, and chances are, if you advocated a boycott, you helped accomplish at least one of them.

The bill’s first purpose was to shine the national spotlight on Pence in advance of his 2016 presidential announcement. Mission accomplished. While progressives are shouting about electability, the entire GOP field is making its customary shift to the right in order to woo the absolute extremes of the conservative wing of the party in order to open pocketbooks and launch primaries.

The second goal was to establish a law that would be litigated all the way to the Supreme Court—a dubious honor that state legislatures all over the country have been pursuing, mostly with bills restricting reproductive rights. Whether this goal is still achievable after the law’s alteration remains to be seen.

As usual, the Internet exploded in self-congratulatory moral superiority. Celebrities and corporations alike took advantage of the situation in order to call attention to themselves and their own high ground, and everyday people showed themselves to be champions of civil rights on social media. Social media activism can be and often is powerful. But Indiana’s economy as a whole is essentially boycott-proof, built as it is on pre-production industrial materials (aluminum, automotive components, seed and feed corn, etc.), distribution, medical devices, and intellectual property, among other unavoidable purchases. But as long as you employed the #BoycottIndiana hashtag a sufficient number of times, you found yourself on the right side of the discussion.

Instead of impacting the law, though, what your boycott accomplished was to damage the city of Indianapolis, a city where LGBTQ people have been protected as a class from discrimination for 10 years, a city that has been consistently victimized by the state Legislature and governor’s office throughout Pence’s term and Gov. Mitch Daniels’ before it. The state has stripped away the city’s control of its own schools, severely increased income inequality through terrible economic policy, and deliberately situated new employment opportunities, like the Honda plant that opened in Greensburg, Indiana, in 2006, outside driving range of residents of the city. And why shouldn’t they? They’re serving the rural constituents who put them in office and keep them there. Meanwhile, this “boycott,” which has consisted of pressuring organizations to move their conventions out of the city, has further punished the residents and business leaders of Indianapolis who have been fighting laws like this for more than a decade, and who defeated the state’s marriage ban last year.

So now, at the behest of local business leaders, the Legislature has agreed to add protections against discrimination, a compromise that was announced with representatives from the NBA's Indiana Pacers and Salesforce, among others, standing by. Note that these are not companies that produce consumer products; they’re local leaders taking care of the situation here at home, without your help. Meanwhile, everybody loses: The conservatives who pushed for this law in the first place are livid that the legislators they thought they owned have caved. Those who advocated for a boycott of the state won’t be happy until LGBTQ residents are afforded full class protections statewide, despite the fact that such protections would never even have been up for discussion two weeks ago. And Indianapolis, a diverse, vibrant city struggling hard with education, crime and its own governance issues, has lost an estimated $250 million in future economic impact.

Well, not everybody loses. Owners of a strip-mall pizza dive near the Michigan border, after claiming to have received death threats for expressing anti-gay views, are sitting back watching the donations roll in. A writer nobody knows from anywhere but Twitter is receiving a hundred times the attention for pulling out of a tiny area writing conference than he would have received for attending. A lot of celebrities have raised their profiles through their public expressions of outrage. And Pence has sealed his status as a leading national conservative voice heading into the 2016 election season, and is grateful for your help disempowering the most liberal voting base in his state. Meanwhile a city full of LGBTQ allies is out an irreplaceable sum of money.

And what, exactly, did those who boycotted Indiana boycott? Did they decline to buy that new Honda Civic or Subaru they’ve been eyeing? Cancel their Anthem/Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance? Stop taking their antidepressants or diabetes drugs? What, exactly, is a boycott if you weren’t planning to participate in the subject’s economy anyway? #BoycottIndiana has been nothing more than a soapbox for people to stand on and shout from afar while the people of Indiana fight like hell to get their state back. Make no mistake: Today’s developments were a result of that fight from the inside, not from the deployment of a clever hashtag.

By Victoria Barrett

Victoria Barrett's work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, Confrontation, The Massachusetts Review, and Puerto del Sol. She is the editor and publisher of Engine Books, a boutique fiction press. She lives and writes in Indianapolis.

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#boycott Indiana Editor's Picks Indiana Internet Culture Lgbtq Mike Pence Religious Freedom