Nuggets of Responsibility

Why I’m finally giving up on the campaign to give Chick-fil-a the benefit of the doubt

For a decade now — you can tell how old posts are when the images didn’t survive a change in web hosts — I’ve been writing posts about Chick-fil-a‘s role as The Heel in the fight against marriage equality, stupid attempts to drum up outrage, and my own clumsy attempts to explain how I don’t think we should fall for it.

For all this time, though, there’s been one thing I’ve never been quite able to settle on: how much am I willing to make this a hill I’m going to die on?

I mean, if people want to feel better by boycotting a fast food restaurant, what’s the problem? If there’s one thing I’ve felt consistently adamant about, it’s that people should be free to choose how to spend their money, for whatever reason, or for no reason at all.

And I certainly don’t have any sympathy for the Cathy family, especially Dan Cathy, and it’s nonsense to even hint that their freedom of speech or religious freedom might be at risk. Cathy is the epitome of the rich white guy who refuses to keep his mouth shut. He and the company that made him super-wealthy have had over a decade of opportunities to make things right. People have even tried to spin him as a case study for how we can all get along despite our differences. But instead, he and the company have made the barest of non-committal statements, and then the moment the heat’s off of them, they go right back to their same old bullshit. Screw that guy, and his whole damn family, who’ve made billions of dollars off of peanut oil and neoconservatism.

Ultimately, the problem I’ve had but have been unable to articulate is that I hate seeing smart people get sucked into a stupid, manufactured culture war. If I think it’s idiotic for Mike Huckabee to stage the most American South version of a protest, where people buy chicken sandwiches to stand up for freedom and stick it to the homos, then it seems hypocritical to cheer on anyone acting like their decision not to buy chicken sandwiches is some kind of bold statement.

Because ultimately, it is nothing but a statement. The practical effect is about zero. I’ve always said that patronizing the restaurant is, at worst, still a net positive: they’re a major employer in the southeast, and their positive charitable contributions outweigh the negative ones by orders of magnitude. Other people say that that’s irrelevant, and even a fraction of a cent going to a bigoted organization is too much. I think both opinions are completely valid. It’s entirely about how you think of it as a consumer, not about any practical effect. If bad PR and consumer awareness were enough to bring about real social change, then Chick-fil-a would’ve gone under years ago, but it hasn’t.

I don’t even have that much invested in the discussion anymore, from a practical and selfish viewpoint. It used to be one of the best options for fast food in the southeast, and nostalgic comfort food in the west, but it’s been beaten by competitors at this point: Bojangles in the south and Popeye’s out here are both at least as good.

So the thing that has kept me on the fence, begrudgingly trying to give a restaurant the benefit of the doubt despite its being an obviously futile effort, is seeing just how much people have gotten invested in it as a symbol for the whole issue of LGBT rights. I’ve been surprised to see so many otherwise mild-mannered gays just lose their shit over the idea of someone getting fast food.

I see you out there, still eating at Chick-fil-a! I hope that sandwich is worth it as a symbol of how much you hate me and don’t want me to have my rights!!!

I’m not even exaggerating; I’m quoting a couple of actual people from memory. And I just want to say, “Dude, chill the hell out. Sometimes people got to eat lunch. Sometimes you’re in the Atlanta airport, and the only options are that or a bag of cold Krystals. Sometimes you’re in a relatively small town in Georgia, and you can either get a pretty good sandwich from a restaurant run with In-n-Out-level efficiency, or go to McDonald’s and get a sack of despair.”

Getting so upset over such a practically insignificant consumer choice is the definition of a manufactured culture war. It’s assuming a motivation of other people that 99.99% of people simply aren’t going to have. There shouldn’t be so much ethical calculus involved in getting lunch.

Paul F Tompkins had a bit in one of his shows responding to exactly that: he mocks the argument “I don’t investigate all these other businesses I use,” by pointing out that there’s no investigation required here. You already know Chick-fil-a is against gay people.

Except we didn’t know that. After they were caught contributing to virulent, bigoted anti-gay groups — by all accounts, including their dipshit CEO1I just cannot stress enough how much I hate that weaselly guy, and being reminded that he’s a multi-billionaire just makes me even angrier — their PR scrambled to cover up and then, later, end the contributions. And seemingly year after year that followed, there’d be some expose with the headline saying that they were once again donating to hate groups. And seemingly every time, you’d read past the headline and see that the claim was, at most, exaggerated, if not completely made up.

The one that stands out in my mind was a relatively small donation to a children’s athletic group that had a backwards but harmless “Christian” charter that said they supported “traditional marriage.” Definitely not great, but a huge stretch to make it out to sound like a charity fighting against marriage equality, when they were spending most of their time buying football helmets.

Again, anyone is well within their rights to say that even a hint of contributing to bad causes is grounds for a boycott, personal or organized. But going from “Chick-fil-a gives money to ostensibly Christian charities” to “Chick-fil-a hates gay people” is a stretch that does more long-term harm to gay people than it ever would to Chick-fil-a. If you start seeing persecution in how other people have lunch, then you’re setting yourself up to be constantly paranoid, isolated, and reading motivations into other people’s actions that simply aren’t there.

So now there’s that story in the Daily Beast, about a bunch of super-rich conservatives — including Dan Cathy, because of course — funneling money to groups trying to stop the Equality Act. In the past, I would’ve pointed out that this is kind of old news: we already knew that Cathy was donating to the NCF, and we already knew that the donations were from the Cathy family’s personal fortune instead of charitable donations on behalf of Chick-fil-a. But really, screw that. I’m finally tired of pointing out the distinction, as if the distinction were relevant. I’m tired of giving the benefit of the doubt to people who don’t deserve it.

The thing that finally settled it for me was finally recognizing how much of this is similar to all the bullshit social engineering we’ve been subjected to since I was in elementary school: oil companies pushing the idea of “carbon footprint” onto consumers, car manufacturers pointing at their improved MPG numbers while still fighting to make sure we’re dependent on cars, plastics manufacturers making deceptive claims about recycling while increasing their production of single-use plastics. I’m remembering being in middle school and told that it was my responsibility to cut up the plastic yokes on six-packs for the sake of the seals and sea turtles, and how I continued to do it through college, never asking why the soda companies don’t stop using the damn things in the first place.

They’re all ways to drum up our own sense of self-importance, while absolving the billionaires and the corporations they own of any responsibility. We get to feel that we’re making a difference, while the people who actually have the power to make a real difference do nothing.

One thing hasn’t changed: I still don’t believe that our decision to buy or not buy food from a particular restaurant will make a damn bit of difference to the Equality Act, or to the continued attacks on transgender people. I’m not so cynical as to believe that we can’t do anything; I’m convinced that there are ways to make things better, but they have absolutely nothing to do with fast food.

But what has changed is that I’ve finally realized that I wasn’t taking the idea far enough. I hadn’t recognized how much I was pumping up my own sense of self-importance. I’d convinced myself that I was being a responsible citizen by doing the research. I won’t be taken in by any alarmist headlines, oh no! I’m going to get the real story, find out how much money is really going to which organizations, and where it’s coming from. I’m being an informed consumer.

It’s nonsense! Ever since Dan Cathy put his expensive shoe-covered foot in his mouth on some podcast, the Chick-fil-a company has put more money into PR than I will ever see in my lifetime. They’ve had so many opportunities to make this right, and they’ve done the laziest, most non-committal bunch of nothing. Other companies have had similar PR disasters, and they’ve done the right thing. Target is the one that springs to mind: there was a controversy about some anti-LGBT policy several years back, and their PR team and upper management went into overdrive to correct it. And now they’ve turned it into profit, selling Pride-themed clothes and mugs that say “Cheers, Queers!”

So I’m absolving myself of the responsibility of being an “ethical consumer” if it means doing lazy PR companies work for them, instead of trying to be active in the ways that really matter. And I hope everybody else can absolve themselves of the responsibility of having to be mindful of What Your Fast Food Choices Say About You. If you’re always looking for threats and attacks from everywhere, it’s going to overtake how you think about everything and just make you miserable. Most of the time, a sandwich is just a sandwich. (And really, Popeye’s is better).

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    I just cannot stress enough how much I hate that weaselly guy, and being reminded that he’s a multi-billionaire just makes me even angrier