A month ago, I was in the lobby of a Boston hotel, needing to get somewhere. I asked the doorman about getting a taxi.
“I’ll get you an Uber, sir,” he replied.
“Uh, no thanks,” I said. “I don’t use Uber.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“I don’t use Uber as a matter of principle.”
He looked at me as if I’d morphed on the spot into the one of those winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.
Eventually, feeling vaguely embarrassed, I got a taxi.
Life sometimes produces odd clusters. Since then, a half-dozen occasions have arisen where I’ve had to explain this personal boycott.
I don’t do it all that well. My Uber-disdain is a bit fuzzy, as much about gut feeling as logic or consistency. It does spring, though, from a pile of unpleasant facts (reported in the New York Times and elsewhere) which, once I knew them, I could not un-know.
Consumer boycotts are much in the news, in this era of liberal rage at Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Breitbart.com, and other emanations of the angry right. (Which, in turn, is equally fond of the boycott as moral weapon. Tit for tat, ad aeternum.)
My personal ban on Uber isn’t tied to last year’s election. But it does partake of the complications, nuances, and confusions that cloud most efforts to make a political or moral point through consumer choices.
So what the heck do I have against Uber?
As mentioned, my bias against the ride-sharing company started long before the #DeleteUber hashtag became a thing last January, thanks to the (possibly unfair) perception that Uber had sought to capitalize greedily on airport demonstrations protesting Trump’s first immigration ban.
With Uber, it’s not just one thing; it’s a cloud of things, a miasma emanating from the bottomless pool of arrogance that is Uber’s founder, Travis Kalanick.
In his sense that he floats above the rules that bind mere mortals, Kalanick is like many Silicon Valley Midases — only more so.
Few can match the aggressive disregard for local laws Uber displayed as it invaded new territories and used tech tricks to confound regulators.
Few companies have done more than Uber to reveal the downsides of the heralded gig economy (in which I’m a happy participant). Its recruitment tactics lure drivers into an egregiously one-sided agreement — which Uber then defends fiercely in court.
Recently the #deleteUber movement gained new momentum thanks to revelations about chronic verbal and sexual harassment of women who work for the corporation.
Again, Uber is hardly the only tech company to create tough working conditions for women — but its behavior attained a high pitch of cluelessness, keyed to the tone set at the top.
Now, to be clear, I get that when a company goes from startup to verb (“I’m going to Uber it”) in just a few years, it’s done something impressive. I get that Uber is a case study in the power of digital platforms to transform the rules of business, while the taxi business was a study in shabby regulated monopoly. The sector deserved to be disrupted — but perhaps with less lawlessness and preening.
And I understand that many people, including the one I’m married to, find Uber to provide a clearly superior experience.
But let me take some grim satisfaction in pointing out that Consumer Reports and other analysts have concluded that Uber, on average, is not cheaper than taxis. And in noting that, while the privately held company’s growth may seem spectacular, it’s reported to have lost about $3 billion last year.
All that said, I do concede there’s something arbitrary about my little vendetta. I probably still use products and services from companies that rate worse on some objective scale of ethical awfulness. I just don’t know as much about them.
Here’s the thing: It’s exhausting, and maybe even impossible, to keep tabs on all the corporate behaviors you should track to align your every last consumer choice with your values.
Every new story you read can complicate matters. It once seemed easy for liberals to hate Wal-Mart. But should its recent wage hikes and possibly authentic steps toward sustainability be rewarded with patronage — or dismissed as eyewash? NRA types used to love the Coors family for its rock-ribbed conservatism. But they’re no longer buds with the Banquet Beer, now that Coors has merged with Miller.
Then there’s the boycott-blunting issue. If a company gets shunned by some for a policy you support, are you obliged to give it patronage (even if you don’t much like its wares)? Target got targeted for setting up transgender bathrooms. Must you head for the red circles? The Christian right surely flocked to Chick-fil-A to defend its owner’s anti-gay stance (though I suspect the weakness of the pro-gay boycott had something to do with sheepish liberals who couldn’t resist the siren call of those waffle fries).
So, no, I have no profound, clarifying standard for sorting through the complexities of ethical consumerism. All I can offer is my Uber axiom: When waves of evidence somehow smack you in the face, don’t download that app.
Chris Satullo is a former Inquirer editor. firstname.lastname@example.org.