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Playing Chicken: What’s At Stake in the Chick-fil-A Controversy

by Charlie Tyson | University of Virginia

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: July 31, 2012
Charlie Tyson (2) Charlie Tyson

Those plugged into gay news have known for years that Chick-fil-A is about more than illiterate cows and artery-clogging cuisine. The conservative Christian ethos of the Georgia-based chicken joint is blatant, as anyone who’s tried to get Chick-n strips on a Sunday will tell you.

But comments Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy made earlier this month about gay marriage (he doesn’t care for it) have made the fast-food chain the latest battleground of the American culture wars. His comments have also provoked bad behavior from both sides of the political aisle. Some liberals have stood up for what is right; others have been self-righteous. Some conservatives have affirmed principles of free speech; others have spouted anti-gay vitriol.

Moderates, too timid to take a side or buy any chicken nuggets, have merely been hungry.

What dumbfounds me about this “controversy” is that Cathy’s comments took anyone by surprise. Eighteen months ago Chick-fil-A weathered bad press for sponsoring a traditional marriage seminar led by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, an advocacy group whose goals include “promoting righteous marriage policy” and “defending traditional marriage from attack.” In a January 2011 letter explaining the restaurant’s actions, Cathy wrote: “My family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage.”

Yet lawmakers who said nothing last winter when The New York Times reported that the company’s operators had given millions to anti-gay groups have spent the last week grandstanding. Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno said he plans to block the restaurant from opening a location on the northwest side. And the mayors of Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. say they don’t want Chick-fil-A in their cities.

What’s changed since last January? Well, first off, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed and New York legalized same-sex marriage. Gay-marriage initiatives in Maryland, Maine and Washington State have also gathered steam, and in May, President Barack Obama publicly affirmed that gay marriage should be legal. Perhaps we’ve reached a tipping point on gay issues that’s left lawmakers emboldened.

Call me cynical, but I’m more inclined to chalk up the political pressure liberals are mounting against Chick-fil-A to the fact that it’s an election year. Cathy’s traditionalist views, which were a mere blip on the political radar last January, now enter a conversation invested with a newly-kindled sense of urgency. It’s a conversation about the dignity that should be afforded gays and lesbians in a free society, and it’s a conversation about what kinds of speech our society should tolerate.

Though I believe Cathy’s views are wrongheaded, it’s a dangerous step to equate opposition to gay marriage with bigotry. It’s also a lazy argument, a way of dismissing an opponent’s view without refuting it. Instead, we should articulate the value that same-sex marriage will add to our society. Some have been doing this. That is admirable. Others have been playing political games. That is abhorrent.

It’s troubling how some politicians supporting gay rights have turned to the same not-in-my-city rhetoric one can imagine anti-gay lawmakers spouting a couple decades ago. The sides have flipped, and it’s the “bigots” instead of the “queers” who find themselves no longer welcome. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, for example, penned a letter to New York University President John Sexton asking him to kick Chick-fil-A off NYU’s campus.

“Let me be clear—I do not want establishments in my city that hold such discriminatory views,” Quinn wrote.

Like efforts from other government officials to block Chick-fil-A’s business operations, Quinn’s action is a dangerous attack on free speech. Her phrase “my city” reeks of egotism at best and mild fascism at worst. It’s ignoble behavior in support of a noble cause.

Gays, we can do better.

There’s more at stake in this game of political chicken than free speech, though. Equally dangerous is the politicization of consumer behavior—even something as innocuous as eating a chicken sandwich.

Aristotle said man is a political animal who attains virtue through civic life. But most Americans have turned their backs on the polis. Approval of Congress rests at 17 percent, and voter participation rates are embarrassingly low for a country Benjamin Franklin described as “a Republic—if you can keep it.”

Americans may have lost faith in politics, but we sure do consume. The Chick-fil-A controversy, however, threatens to elide the distinction between economic activity and political activity. Eating at Chick-fil-A has become a political act. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declared this Wednesday “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” and fellow GOP has-beens Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin followed suit with Tweets supporting the restaurant. It’s enough to make one lose one’s appetite.

Our actions in the marketplace have always been part of our political identity. But the thought of Chick-fil-A emerging as a potent cultural symbol, an anti-Whole Foods, is wholly unappealing. I imagine a dystopic world where we no longer vote. Instead, we buy. The Democrats go off to buy electric cars and granola. The Republicans purchase hunting gear and Hummers.

I’m kidding, mostly. Consumer preferences do differ depending on political affiliation, but that’s largely cultural, a way of affirming one’s identity within a larger imagined group. I worry that what’s now cultural will soon be political. Consumer behavior governed solely by partisan considerations is a bleak prospect. Consumption should not equal political action. Dollars should not equal votes. And what if I, a liberal, want to enjoy my Chick-fil-A sandwich with a side order of waffle fries, rather than a steaming plate of liberal guilt? Is that so wrong?

There is, however, a bright side. If the past tells us anything, it’s this: given the short memory of those in politics and media, conservatives and liberals alike will soon be happily munching on fried-chicken sandwiches. Give us 18 months, and we’ll forget this ever happened.

Until it happens again, that is.

Charlie Tyson Charlie Tyson Charlie is a third year at the University of Virginia majoring in English and political and social thought. He is the assistant managing editor of The Cavalier Daily.

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