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Is free speech fried in Chick-fil-A debate?

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

The American fast food company Chick-fil-A is facing a nationwide backlash after the president of the company made critical comments about gay marriage. But do the politics and morality of marriage really need to dictate who sells you fried chicken?

You’ve probably heard about the Washington, DC. chain of dry-cleaners who have been barred from opening a store on Dupont Circle after their CEO admitted that she favoured a qualified franchise. In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Kate Parker of GreenClean was reported as saying that “anyone should be allowed to vote, so long as their families have been in the US for at least 3 generations”.

You haven’t? Well, neither had I until I made it up a few minutes ago. But the story that has received a significant amount of coverage are the calls for boycotts and attempts to block the expansion of American fast food chain Chick-fil-A, after their president Dan Cathy was quoted as saying “We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

Conservative activists (including ex-presidential no-hoper Rick Santorum) have rallied to Cathy’s defence, while defenders of gay rights and marriage equality have been quick to denounce the company for offences including not only offensive remarks such as those quoted above, but also their financial support for anti-gay organisations and therapy groups that aim to “cure” gays.

But while companies that are anti-immigration attract only very occasional and fairly disorganised backlash, Chick-fil-A is experiencing a nationwide campaign calling not only for boycotts of their franchises, but also statements from lawmakers including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who supported Alderman Joe Moreno’s effort to block Chick-fil-A’s expansion in that city following Cathy’s homophobic comments.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating: the only way free speech arguments can ever be taken seriously is if we apply them consistently, and especially to speech that offends us. If free speech is only about forcing people to listen to what you have to say, you’re missing the point. That sort of “free speech” typically only entrenches the privilege of those who already have something to say and a platform from which to say it.

Meanwhile, the very views that are marginal and unpopular might be worth hearing, and protecting. Sometimes, because we learn that we are wrong through being exposed to them, and sometimes because we learn why we can consider ourselves right through hearing how weak the opposition’s point of view really is. But if we don’t allow for the possibility that we are offended, we can’t describe ourselves as campaigners for free speech.

Emanuel said that “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbours and our family members. And if you’re gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values”. If it’s freedom that’s at issue – whether in the form of gay rights or freedom of speech – the question of whether Emanuel’s comment is as offensive as Cathy’s is not a trivial one, because Emanuel is giving a moral principle the same status as a legal one.

It matters not that I – and ideally all of you – share a commitment to the moral principle at issue, namely that heterosexuals don’t have a monopoly on “family”. What matters is that having the sorts of views that a Mogoeng Mogoeng or Jacob Zuma have can be condemned through the use of one’s own right to free speech, rather than effectively stripping that right from others by threatening to (illegally) discriminate against them in terms of where and how they can trade.

Following an outcry from liberal commentators in the US, both Emanuel and Boston Mayor Tom Menino have subsequently admitted that any such restraint on Chick-fil-A’s operations would violate the chain’s rights. If Chick-fil-A could be shown to discriminate against gay employees in terms of who they hire or what they pay, or perhaps in their treatment of gay customers, legal action is both permissible and proper. In the absence of that, much of the outrage has rested on a confused conflation of morality and legality.

Part of speech being free is that we can be outraged, whether for good reason or not. In this particular case, even the question of whether the outrage is merited is an open one. While there’s no question in my mind that homophobia is a bad thing, it isn’t clear that it’s a failing that trumps all other potential failings.

We know this one thing about Chick-fil-A and their values, and what we know obviously can’t be measured up against the attitudes of any other fast food chain, where presidents might hold more odious views and simply choose not to air them.

Then, we also know other things about Chick-fil-A, for example that the roughly $2 million they donated to anti-gay causes over each of the last two years is trivial in light of both their $4 billion annual sales, and also that they donate substantial amounts to non-homophobic organisations also (as an expression of the same conservative Christian principles that motivate their homophobia). 

Calling for a boycott might sometimes be exactly the right thing to do, although it remains unclear that we should feel compelled to mix every aspect of our lives (including our fast food choices) with moral debate. But seemingly knee-jerk moral outrage is something to be treated with suspicion, whether or not it happens to agree with your viewpoint. This is perhaps especially true if it’s a bandwagon that you can’t avoid joining, for fear of being labelled a homophobe. DM

Read more: 

  • Chick-fil-A starts a culture war, Salon
  • The cult of Chick-fil-A, Forbes

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