August 1, 2012 will be marked in American history as Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day. Typically on such celebratory, capitalist occasions business owners show gratitude to their diners by a discount or a balloon. That Wednesday was topsy-turvy. Dan Cathy’s customers reversed the tradition, showering this Atlanta-based corporate CEO with consumptive love. Lines stretched around the block, a record-breaking scene. It was a bad day for poultry; a good day for cows.
I admire Cathy’s chicken sandwich and waffle fries as much as any fried mercantile repast, even though my patronage is spotty. A business that closes on Sunday so that diners can attend church has made a financial bow to belief. One can hardly imagine Einstein’s Bagels, say, closed on Saturday.
But several weeks ago, Dan Cathy crossed a line. He didn’t change his opinions, but those opinions became newly publicized. Mr. Cathy was quoted as defending traditional marriage – for God’s sake! – suggesting that gay marriage is “inviting God’s judgment on our nation.” I am not in the business of discerning God’s judgment. My concern is more parochial.
After Cathy’s remarks were broadcast, several politicians suggested that there was no place for Chick-Fil-A in their blue-state communities. Rahm Emanuel, no shrinking violet, opined that Cathy’s values were not “Chicago values.” Surely the Daleys would not have forgotten the Catholic Church down the street. Pandering attempts to banish the chain because of politics are clearly unconstitutional, particularly in the absence of evidence that they deny service to any customer.
Citizens properly have the choice to patronize whichever business they wish. Private boycotts for political reasons fall within our rights. The question is not whether such boycotts are legal, but whether they are wise.
I am troubled by choosing consumption based on the boss’s belief. Let us take the case – the case at hand – of “gay marriage.” In the United States today we are equally split on marriage equality. The numbers in support are growing and in five years a new consensus may emerge, but today we are split. We have red states and blue states, and even, as I argued previously, red jobs and blue jobs. But do we need red businesses and blue ones? The same week in which the debate over Chick-Fil-A was bubbling, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, announced that he had contributed $2.5 million in support of a same-sex marriage campaign in the state of Washington. Can one read a Kindle in a Chick-Fil-A?
The deeper issue involves the question of how much should personal politics matter in selecting which businesses to patronize. Do these personal announcements count for much and should they be newsworthy? I do not care what Madonna or Jon Voight or Susan Sarandon thinks about the topics of the day. And I do not care much more about the opinions of Mr. Bezos or Mr. Cathy or Ben’n’Jerry. We each have an obligation to our politics, but I would prefer to select sterling films, toothsome chicken, and tax-free videos. I wish to make my consumer choices on the basis of the products, not on the producer. All of these worthies are welcome to contribute to this site, where it is to be hoped that they will consider deliberately their topic. But the mere fact that they are known should not count for much. A diverse and contentious debate is essential for democracy, but the merest whiff of opinion should be lightly heeded, treated as little more than celebrity gossip, when making consumer choices.
It is not only celebrities and public figures who intrude. So do my Facebook chums. Every day I receive a bundle of snarky little mots that suggest that my friends are persuaded that their friends are of one mind. The messages, and their responses, reveal that we have red networks and blue networks. Few purple worlds exist in the Facebook universe. Let us gather radical, progressive, libertarian, conservative, agnostic, and Chick-Fil-A friends. Just as I treat businesses and films in light of their quality, I try to do the same for my acquaintances. This is not easy and, as I strive myself to avoid quick classification, perhaps I provide some value-added benefit. Just as I eat sprouts, waffle fries, and Chunky Monkey, I try to be a political omnivore.
We are in danger of becoming a nation in which the gaps between those with political differences are deepened and are increasingly stoutly defended. We exclude those whose opinions differ from our own at the cost of diverse sociality and at the cost of congenial debate and perhaps persuasion (us of them or, just maybe, them of us). John Stuart Mill argued that “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” An enlightening error is almost as worthy as a good chicken sandwich.