Cynical Soapbox: Chick-Fil-A, Again

I’m sure most of us are sick of hearing about Chick-Fil-A by now, but I’ve been away and I’ve finally got the chance to throw my two cents in. For those of us who live under a rock, their company’s president, Dan Cathy, said he was “guilty as charged” when asked if he supported anti-gay groups, and went on to discuss his belief in the “biblical” definition of marriage, yata yata, yata yata. His statements, understandably, infuriated the LGBT & friends community and have created a political shitstorm.

The most recently sprouted head of the Hydra of Controversy involves the backlash–or support–that Chick-Fil-A is currently undergoing. Notable backlash comes from the likes of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who has very publicly told the company they have no business associating themselves with the Freedom Trail, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said Chick-Fil-A doesn’t “mesh” with Chicago values.  Considering Chicago’s (and Boston’s!) chequered past, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

On the other side of the coin, conservative pundits have become the poster children for fast food. Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, in what looks like the failed-politician equivalent of Dancing With The Stars, have all offered their public support for the company or ventured into CFA storefronts for a bag o’ sammies and waffle fries. And in all of this, there’s been a wave of rhetoric about how this is about “free speech” and “family values” and First Amendment rights and…whatever.

Behold the bastion of civil rights!  Photo from chick-fil-a.com, because why not go straight to the horse’s mouth?

So where’s my problem, right? What’s my big complaint with the whole CFA controversy? Why should I care where Sarah Palin buys her lunch?

The thing is, I don’t. Sarah Palin could open up a string of CFA franchises and I couldn’t care less. Mike Huckabee could have a Chick-Fil-A daily hour of appreciation for the next year and I wouldn’t care.  And Santorum can feed his kids all the Chick-Fil-A sauce he can get his family values-laden hands on. Go for it. I don’t care.

What I do care about, though, is the way the issue of free speech keeps getting twisted back on itself.  There’s a lot of bandying about of the concept of the “thought police”, and that those who vocally, publicly disagree with the president of Chick-Fil-A and are boycotting or urging their friends to boycott, are being discriminatory in their actions, based on the notion that they don’t agree with said CFA president.  Said one Facebook commenter, “Seems like anyone who disagrees with you is a bigot [Ed. note: more on this later]. If you disagree with someone then their [sic] wrong and your [sic] right. who is the bigot???? mmmmm maybe its you thats the bigot. you only have room for your opinion. there are differences of opinion in both sides of the issue and there are bigots on both sides too.”

In some of the other-side comments I read, one woman who thinks the CFA president is in the wrong, said, “It is NOT about freedom of speech, as I keep seeing repeated. It is about not handing money over to an organization that puts that money towards actively persecuting someone for being gay. Christianity is not an excuse for hatred- and most Christians I know do not use it as so, which makes trying to tolerate those who do even more difficult. This is about so much more than chicken. It is about basic human decency and respect.”

*sigh* Sort of.  Yes.  But not really… No.

The real problem that lies at the controversy that surrounds Chick-Fil-A is precisely about freedom of speech.  The CFA president had every right to say what he believes, and to set his company’s policies as he feels appropriate to the conduct of his business.  But speaking freely involves an inherent risk and that is, when you say something, you must expect to be held accountable for it. We suffer from an accountability lack these days; students are not held accountable for failing grades in school, bankers are not held accountable when they crash a global economy. So it should come as no surprise to me, really, that there is a contingent circling their collective wagons around Dan Cathy in an effort to protect him from the words that actually came out of his mouth.

In an ironic-yet-clever linguistic twist as evidenced previously, those protectors are also calling the people who oppose the Chick-Fil-A stance “bigots”.  Interesting.  I’ve pointed out in other arguments that words have meanings, and in this case the good people of Merriam-Webster define “bigot” as such:

a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.

Thus anyone who opposes Chick-Fil-A’s policies is accused of bigotry, of being intolerant to the company. Which, perhaps, is true, in that I am intolerant of a person or organization who engages in systematically disenfranchising another group and attacking their civil rights based on a personal dislike.  But I don’t try to disenfranchise them in turn, or strip them of their civil rights or the ability to live and love as they see fit. Calling my dislike “bigotry” is akin to saying that opposing racial segregation is “bigotry”, as opposed calling it what it is, which is “decency”.  See the difference in the meanings of the words I chose?  It’s nuanced, but it’s there.

And by “nuanced”, I mean “blatant”.

In the 1927 Whitney vs. California decision, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis initially defined the concept of “counterspeech“, claiming that more discussion about a topic, not enforced silence, was the route to enlightenment and would ensure the continuance of a democratic society. While counterspeech might not have had a formal definition, its principle has lived in the American psyche since Thomas Paine put pen to paper and wrote Common Sense in 1776.  Standing on a soapbox (ahem!) and stating your issues with a given situation is as American as a bald eagle carrying a flag made out of apple pie.  Calling someone who disagrees with you–solely on the fact that they disagree with you, without evaluating their argument–a bigot, is the adult equivalent of a second grade schoolkid calling someone else a poopoohead on the playground, because Sir Poopoohead likes the Mets instead of the Yankees.  Ad hominem rebuttals solve no problems, open no discussion, and reinforce the idea that the person who is legitimately involved in bigoted behavior has no real interest in reaching a mutually satisfactory conclusion. That person only wants to walk around, fingers in the ears, singing “La la can’t hear you la la.”

Dan Cathy is absolutely welcome to his opinions, and he is absolutely allowed to speak his mind.  And in no way am I obligated to quietly accept what he says.

No, Chick-Fil-A doesn’t discriminate against the LGBT community in that they are allowed to eat in their stores, and I’m sure at least one or two gay employees have manned their counters and have walked away relatively unscathed.  The bigotry comes in when you realize that in 2009, for example, CFA donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay groups (including one they founded themselves). And in the same way that Chick-Fil-A can set their own policies and run their own advertising and say what they want in public, people can set their own policies. I can choose–freely–not to go to Chick-Fil-A if I don’t want to. I can choose to dislike them, I can choose to tell my friends.  I can stand in the middle of Boston Common–like our forefathers did before us–to speechify about the civil injustice embraced by  Chick-Fil-A management, and I would be entirely within my rights.  I can write a blog. What I can’t do is spread vicious lies about them–if I said they made their food at the Soylent Green facility, it would be slanderous and I could get in trouble for it. But I’m only basing my words and action on what the president of the company has said in public, and the actions by which they express their values.

For those of you who object that a chicken sandwich has become politicized and the media and other people (like me) are making too much of a big deal about this issue, I’d like to remind you that the person who politicized this to begin with was the person who has donated millions of dollars in company money to further his political agenda. Not HIS money, mind you. If he’d just donated his money, then what sort of controversy would there be?  (Answer: None, because he can do what he wants with his money, and while I may disagree with his personal politics it’s not like I’m going to boycott his house.  See my previous statement about how people can set their own policies.) But no.  Dan Cathy donated an organization’s money–an organization that needs public patronage for its survival.  And he made his controversial statements while acting not as a private citizen but as a representative of that company. Isn’t part of the principle of the free market supposed to be that the buying public can choose to support a company (or not) as they see fit?  Individuals ruin companies all the time; why should Chick-Fil-A be exempted from facing the court of public opinion?

Geez.  If only we could work up this sort of public passion about the energy industry. Fast food? That’s what gets us going?  *sigh*

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