Eat Less Chikin: The Rhetoric of the Chick-Fil-A Boycott

(via Mikee Anderson on Flikr)

Chick-Fil-A makes overrated chicken sandwiches, ruined the venerable Peach Bowl with tacky naming rights, and hates them some gays. Dan Cathy, the President of Chick-Fil-A, as well as the son of the chain’s founder, explained that the restaurant was “guilty as charged” in its opposition to gay marriage. Cathy went on to let us know that he thinks “we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’” True…which is why I’m opposed to America’s ban on concubinage.

Many liberals reacted with shock and indignation, which was extraordinarily stupid, because Chick-Fil-A has never attempted to disguise their radical agenda. The restaurants themselves are closed on Sundays to allow employees to “worship if they choose to.” This is actually admirable because I’d have expected a right-wing organization to deal with the Christian Sabbath by forcing workers to take part-time shifts on Sunday to “worship if they choose to” later in the day with the fringe benefit of possibly weaseling out of providing full-time employee benefits for some employees. It has openly donated to groups opposing marriage equality, under the tax-deductible guise of “charity” for years. Honestly, did liberals think that “The Ken Coleman Show” had uncovered a hidden gem when asking Dan Cathy about gay marriage?

Nonetheless, the revelation made news and liberals began calling for a boycott of Chick-Fil-A over its opposition to gay rights. The first domino to fall was the withdrawal of the Jim Henson Company, whose Muppet toys had been Chick-Fil-A giveaway. Chick-Fil-A provided a classic, “there’s nothing to see here” response, electing to post signs claiming that they had already decided to pull Muppet toys before they killed the Chick-Fil-A deal. Believable? Absolutely not. But this is a PR war and rapidly blaming the other side is crucial. Chick-Fil-A (or at least someone acting on their behalf) even went so far as to impersonate a teen girl on Facebook in order to defend their Muppet lie.

Boston, ChicagoPhiladelphia and San Francisco have all expressed opposition to Chick-Fil-A’s stance and suggested that the chain would not be welcome in their cities. These are empty political gestures because any attempt to legally block the restaurants on purely political grounds would fail, but its an important moment for the mayors of these cities to employ the “bully pulpit” and endear themselves to the electorate by standing with the boycott.

But the conservative backlash (and it’s odd to hear conservatives complain about boycotts because in the past they have actively boycotted companies that provide benefits to gay employees. Starbucks, General Mills, and even Disney for being too supportive of gay rights) found a voice in Governor Mike Huckabee, who has branded the proposed boycott “economic bullying,” which is at least a more politic description than his prior labeling of liberal boycotts as “economic terrorism.” In either phrasing, it evokes a powerful image, even if it’s entirely unfair to compare a voluntary decision to eat fattening, mediocre sandwiches from another fast food restaurant with holding a child to the ground to forcibly cut off his hair. There’s something off-putting about insinuating that a fast food restaurant turning $4 billion every year is being unfairly tortured if people choose to eat elsewhere. It furthers the narrative that the wealthy and powerful are actually fragile and constantly threatened by the “mob” seeking to tear them down. I’m not saying a boycott won’t sting Chick-Fil-A, and indeed it may sting Chick-Fil-A in ways that its corporate investors find unacceptable, but to suggest that a boycott for gay rights is bullying or terrorism attempts to invert the social order to create victimhood where none exists.

The National Review tried to “turn the tables” by labeling those supporting the boycott as the real bigots. By finding anti-gay public comments from one Board member of an organization that opened a Mosque in Boston, writer Mark Steyn smugly accused Boston’s Mayor Menino of coming down on Chick-Fil-A while supporting anti-gay Muslims. The point of this comparison is to draw a line between Menino and Islam to elicit fears from those who irrationally revile Islam. For the National Review’s audience, the lasting impression is not “Islam is also anti-gay” but “liberals protect ‘terrorists’ over Christians.”

Some on the internet are also trying to suggest that the boycott is intolerant of Christians. This image for instance, taking advantage of the “You Must Be New Here” or “Condescending Wonka” meme.

Putting aside the fact that “Christianity” is not a monolithic philosophy and to suggest that the only “true” Christians are those that use their business as a front for stripping people of their rights, the most troubling aspect of this image is the parallel between “being able to sell sandwiches” and “being able to have basic benefits for you and your partner.”

The problem with this argument of course is that our nation was founded on the bedrock principle of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The free exercise clause protects to worship as you choose. It does not, actually, protect the right to sell chicken without scrutiny. I  personally support the rights of certain Christians and certain Muslims to be bigots…but I don’t have to buy their products.

And that’s the point of the Supreme Court’s decision in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., where segregated businesses tried to sue the NAACP for losses incurred in the 60s while the NAACP organized boycotts to encourage businesses to challenge segregation. Mississippi law had, unsurprisingly, declared that the boycott was illegal, but the Supreme Court recognized that the right to petition enshrined in the First Amendment protects the right to boycott businesses even if the boycott seeks to “coerce speech” from the business. Dan Cathy can hold whatever opinions he wishes and can (at least until the Supreme Court wises up on Citizens United) spend all his money to make America a worse place to live, but he does not have a right to force us to buy his food.

The conservative response as a whole is a bizarre inversion of the capitalist system. To suggest that consumers should be robbed of their freedom to act as consumers and “vote with their feet,” for any reason, embraces a “corporate fascism” rather than a free market. Bringing us back to Mike Huckabee, who has, in fairness, actually called for the appropriate conservative response to this boycott by suggesting a national “eat in,” asking like-minded conservatives to show their support for the embattled restaurant by eating there on August 1st. If you really believe in the market, like Huckabee does, you should fight market forces with market forces rather than whine and complain about how unfair life is. Like Huckabee, I say we let the economic chips fall where they may on this one.

And on August 1st, go to McDonald’s to support their decision to leave ALEC. We haven’t celebrated the success of that boycott enough yet.

1 comment for “Eat Less Chikin: The Rhetoric of the Chick-Fil-A Boycott

  1. August 19, 2012 at 3:29 am

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