Saturday, July 28, 2012

Birdbrains of a Feather

Jonathan Merritt:

Should they swear off the legendary chicken sandwiches to support gay rights? Or could they eat one of the filets anyway, knowing their dollars would be but a drop in the bucket for a chain that has more than $4 billion in annual sales and donated a pittance to groups they may disagree with? I'd argue the latter -- and this has nothing to do with my views on gay marriage. It's because Chick-fil-A is a laudable organization on balance, and because I refuse to contribute to the ineffective boycott culture that's springing up across America.

...I'm flummoxed that so many consumers are so quick these days to call for boycotts of any company that deviates from their personal or political views. For one thing, boycotts rarely cause actual pocketbook - rather than PR -- damage. Most consumers don't care enough to drive an extra mile to get the same product from someone else. And that's especially the case for companies as large as Chick-fil-A, which has prime locations on many college campuses where there is little head-to-head competition.

But my bigger question is this: In a nation that's as divided as ours is, do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed? And is this really the kind of culture we want to create? Culture war boycotts cut both ways and are much more likely to meet with success when prosecuted by large groups of people, such as Christian activists, who are more numerous than gays and lesbians and their more activist supporters.

...From a business standpoint, some might say Cathy's comments were imprudent if not downright dumb. But in a society that desperately needs healthy public dialogue, we must resist creating a culture where consumers sort through all their purchases (fast food and otherwise) for an underlying politics not even expressed in the nature of the product itself.

Someone somewhere on the Internet made the point already: most of the people threatening to boycott probably wouldn't eat there in the first place; the people who do will largely shrug their shoulders and tuck in to another sandwich. More useless theater. But what exactly is it supposed to accomplish? As he says above, do you really think this is going to affect the company's bottom line? Even if it did have a serious chance of doing that, what would be the goal? To put the chain out of business? To make it so that one less conservative Christian has political or economic clout? To convince him to see the error of his ways? To flex some muscle, make an example, send a message? Or is it just to flatter your self-righteousness and give credence to the delusion that much of what you do in your personal life matters at all in the big scheme of things?

Whether the nation is divided or not, I simply don't want to live in a culture where everything from food to clothes to entertainment has to pass through a political filter before it can be appreciated. Politics is a regrettably-necessary evil. It's one of the most disheartening, debasing, unrewarding activities that humans have ever invented, and it seems to be a magnet that attracts a disproportionate number of sociopaths. What kind of warped personality wants to increase its scope and presence in everyday life? Lest you think, though, that I'm simply incapable of idealism, let me assure you that I simply prefer to dream of a day when people stop treating every difference of opinion like a contagion that must be immediately quarantined and stop using economic sanctions as a loophole to reach the same results as literal censorship. I know, right? I'd like to envision a state of affairs where people realize that the fate of the world doesn't hinge on winning whatever argument they're having at that moment. I'm crazy like that.

Leaving aside my idiosyncratic definition of the good life, I agree that most consumer boycotts are ineffective knee-jerk reactions that rarely outlast the temper tantrum that spawned them, and I suspect that they're quickly becoming just one more cynical means of signaling, that is, meaningless in and of themselves, only useful as a way of strengthening group identity. Sort of like any other vapid party where scenesters show up to see and be seen. No one but the most naïve still believes that this week's boycott will actually accomplish anything, but it provides a chance to attract praise from someone important for a really dazzling outfit really stirring blog post or tweet. Dude, Arianna's totally checking your Twitter feed out! You might be front-paging at the HuffPo next week if you play this right!

People can spend or withhold their money however they want, of course. But if you don't want your money to end up being pocketed by conservative businessmen or invested in unpalatable companies and politicians at some point in the financial cycle, you might want to consider going off the grid, making your own clothes, and growing/hunting your own food.