NATCHITOCHES, La., August 1, 2012 — There’s no Chick-fil-A in Natchitoches. My decision not to eat a chicken sandwich today is thus completely without political significance. In Natchitoches, a chicken sandwich is just a sandwich, not a political statement.
If there were a Chick-fil-A here, I’d have faced a quandary. On the one hand, I favor extending to same-sex couples all the legal, contractual rights we call “marriage,” and letting churches perform their religious rites as they see fit. It would be pleasant to support my gay friends as they protest Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s donations to groups opposed to same-sex marriage. It’s fundamental to free-market capitalism that people can vote with their dollars based on any criteria they please, as long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s economic vote. There’s nothing wrong with a boycott of Chick-fil-A.
On the other hand, it would please me greatly to express my contempt for the mayor of Boston and other politicians who think it proper to enforce correct thinking by denying business licenses to people who think incorrectly. If Mayor Menino doesn’t like Chick-fil-A, he shouldn’t eat there. If he wants to deny them a business license because he doesn’t like the CEO’s politics, he should have his rear-end hauled off to court and sued. If the people of Boston take freedom of expression at all seriously, they’ll hand him his hat at the next opportunity.
There’s the problem with politicizing a firm’s product on the basis of its owner’s politics: It creates inevitable contradictions and forces people into hypocrisy. Leave this as a private movement to convince people to vote with their dollars, and it’s an exercise in economic democracy. Drag the power of government into it, and it turns into a suppression of rights in the name of rights.
As many Internet observers have pointed out, the hypocrisy is deeper than that. We boycott firms when we don’t need their products and when we don’t badly want them. Middle-Eastern despots and religious fanatics have no problem stoning gays and oppressing women, yet we organize no boycotts of their oil. There were boycotts of Exxon after it spilled oil in Prince William sound, and of BP after it covered Gulf beaches in oil, but they were minor, both companies remained hugely profitable, and when you need gasoline in the middle of west Texas, you buy it from whomever is selling it.
If Apple’s CEO announced tomorrow that he felt that marriage should be between one man and one woman, most Apple users would probably pretend they didn’t hear him, that he was misinterpreted, or that his personal views were completely irrelevant to corporate policy. No one needs Apple products, but it’s a lot harder to give up iPads and iPhones than Chick-fil-A sandwiches.
Boycotts only gain traction when the product boycotted has close substitutes. It’s easy to boycott Chick-fil-A. That doesn’t mean boycotts are hypocritical; you use the tools that work, and if a boycott won’t work, there’s no sense trying to organize one. But when we pretend that Cathy’s beliefs are a bigger outrage than Saudi barbarism and stay silent on the latter, we are indeed hypocrites.
If there were a Chick-fil-A in Natchitoches, I might have gone today to buy a sandwich but then declined to eat it, sending it instead to Mayor Menino while I treated myself to a Whataburger with jalapeños. But we have no Whataburger either, so I had quinoa with tomatoes and black beans for dinner. I had the satisfaction of not assaulting my arteries with a huge dose of cholesterol, and not giving myself indigestion with politics for dinner.
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