By JEL, guest contributor
Since Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy sounded off on traditional marriage and biblical principles, everyone from conservative provocateurs to liberal politicians to my Facebook friends voiced their Johnny-come-lately support or opposition to waffle fries and iced tea. You can recap who said what when elsewhere. My point is that this entire faux flaptrap is really stupid.
Normally I reach for more eloquence, but it’s difficult to write poetry without inspiration, and I find nothing inspiring in another fake controversy designed only to increase page views and public profiles while further dividing Americans. It’s hard to ignore the obvious free speech implications – however ill-advised, Dan Cathy is a private citizen who expressed political views publically. It stretches credibility to taint his business with discrimination’s stench when no evidence of any kind has been unearthed to suggest that Chick-Fil-A franchises have ever discriminated against anyone based on sexual orientation or perceptions thereof. If one doesn’t wish to patronize a business based on the private political views of its chief executive, that’s fine. But we don’t call that a strike against intolerance. It’s just a personal choice.
And that’s what rankles – we aren’t supposed to exhibit independent thinking in America anymore. Independent thought – the ability to decide issues for yourself – allowed me to oppose many elements of the gay rights movement for years. I didn’t understand why rainbow flags and safe spaces and same sex public displays of affection were important, or why they should be to me. I never heard of the concept of gay marriage before college. I once thoroughly embarrassed a friend of mine by visiting his sociology class as I toured Penn State at seventeen. The professor invited some spokespeople from a local gay rights group to discuss their experiences before the class. One woman discussed feeling trapped in her body – she desired men, but felt she should have been born a man.
For whatever reason, this concept floored me. I didn’t possess the good sense to shut up. My hand shot skyward. My voice intoned disbelief. “Doesn’t what you’ve described make you straight? Wouldn’t it simply be easier to remain female? What could you possibly hope to gain by surgery? You’ve just listened to two gay men describe their persecution: why choose that?” The class reeled. The teacher blanched. My friend seethed. I was young, but not innocent.
Now I’m neither. I recognize that I turned that classroom into a public hearing on the nature and morality of gender manipulation, an experience which no trans person should ever be subject. It was hurtful. I pressed the interrogation without regard for the practiced indifference to personal narrative adults call tolerance. I was honest – I didn’t understand her point of view, and I wanted her to explain it further. Years later, I can’t say I’ve personally experienced anything like what that woman described, but I do understand that other people can. That matters. Being exposed to mind-bendingly different points of view matters. If anything, the widespread support gay marriage enjoys among members of my generation stems directly from the personal familiarity many of us have with gay people. We know, much more than our parents can know, that gay people are just and fallible and beautiful as the rest of us. They are us, and nothing is gained by denying human liberty to any of us based on identity alone.
The point is that we (some of us, anyway) have to have the space and the time and the desire to learn that. Independent thought is still the only real American freedom. Not to paraphrase Aaron Sorkin in The American President, but it’s true – this is advanced citizenship. You have to be willing to choose what you believe for yourself, and change your mind when presented with new data. I believe earning one’s keep here means engaging the debates about our economic future and our unemployed present, about our eagerness to incarcerate and our unwillingness to educate, about our desire to assimilate immigrants and our fear of losing ourselves.
And foolish culture war hysteria like this Chick-Fil-A thing is killing the debate! We can’t discuss culture anymore without safe spaces and political correctness. Warring camps aim potshots across the rhetorical demilitarized zone that used to represent public consensus on domestic and foreign policy – even when that consensus denied opportunity and full citizenship to many minority groups. Even when we were wrong, we were wrong together! Or so I’ve read. This is another one of those American lives I’ve never personally experienced.
I was born after Atwater; weaned during the era of welfare queens and Star Wars. Corporate clientelism and microtargeting campaigns dissected the American electorate before I learned to walk. By elementary school it didn’t matter if you kept Hope alive; Willie Horton kept your playmate’s parents afraid of you. The point is that we have always suffered Americans who benefit from the perpetual campaign, who profit from cultural demarcation and segregated society. Given this, we have the benefit of hindsight. Yet too many liberals today emulate the dividers! I used to have the same three debates every time I hung out with friends in Drinking Liberally Tucson – why do conservatives run the media, why do conservatives hate science, and why aren’t conservatives as tolerant and multicultural as me?
My answers? They don’t. They don’t profit. You’re not.
But the questions are the trouble. Using labels to discuss people ensures that your audience will only recognize the humanity in those people if they view themselves in the subject group. This was why in my experience at Drinking Liberally Tucson, no one was ever chastised for using the word ‘conservative’ as a pejorative, but people were regularly offended when I spoke about White people. Look, this isn’t anti-label advocacy, this is a appeal to common sense. Liberals, unless you have personally purchased a chicken sandwich and lemonade from Chick-Fil-A only to find Leviticus 18 and 20 printed like some Jerry Falwell fortune cookie inside the oily foil wrapper, shut up about boycotting Chick-Fil-A.
I didn’t say go purchase food from them, I said shut up about it. The company isn’t intolerant, Dan Cathy is. And he’s within his rights to be as intolerant as he likes. You don’t have to support his company, or all the service industry workers who process chicken parts into fried breaded goodness with pickles. But you can’t pretend you are fighting corporate intolerance when the corporation isn’t intolerant! It’s just silly. Divisive. Stupid.
Nor has biting into a chicken sandwich become a partisan fuck you to the gay rights community. It’s just a damn sandwich. When a politician who once championed weight loss (including his own) as a public health issue encourages increased fried fast food consumption in a dangerously obese nation to support those to oppose gay marriage, his public comments lack import, and respectable voters no longer need heed his words. Stop taking pictures of yourself buying and eating Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, people! Gay people don’t care about your lunch. Your Facebook friends don’t care about your lunch. No one cares about your lunch! You can’t order solidarity with Christian tradition by number in a drive thru.
Especially since the company is guilty of nothing. Dan Cathy transformed ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ into yet another cultural Rorschach on which we project our biases, and we can’t have a reasoned debate about gay marriage or any other cultural touchstone amid all the projecting. America is neither Christian theocracy nor cosmopolitan Europe. America is the debate. We have the right to disagree with the choices’ other people make, but our Union is best preserved when we attempt to understand those social and political choices. I’m older now. I’ve known different people. I’ve read Randy Shilts. More than just a positive life choice, marriage in my view is a human right that should exist for all people. If you disagree, that’s fine. Let’s talk about it. After you are done with your lunch.