Saturday, August 4, 2012

Making a statement with our sandwiches

Saturday's column in the print O:

Found myself near a Chick-fil-A one day this week. Not Wednesday, when drive-thrus were backed up with supporters for Chick-fil-A appreciation day. Not Friday, when some of the chain’s restaurants were hosts to a gay “kiss-in” protest. It was Thursday morning. I was hungry. I wanted a sandwich.

But Chick-fil-A orders come now with a mandatory side of self-evaluation. CEO Dan Cathy told an N.C.-based Baptist publication last month that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. His company donates millions to organizations that support that notion. None of that is new, but the uproar over it is. Hence the appreciation day. And the kiss-in. And my suddenly weighty chicken sandwich.

Actually, it’s not just my chicken sandwich. If Americans want to make a statement with the purchases we make, we have plenty of opportunities.

Take this week, for me. Do I buy that replacement kitchen faucet I need at Lowe’s, which gave in to extremists last year by pulling their advertisements from a benign cable TV show about Muslim-Americans? Do I use the nearby ATM at Wells Fargo, which paid $175 million this month to settle claims of targeting minorities with predatory lending?

What about our iPads or iPhones, which were built at Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer where conditions were so grim that despondent workers committed suicide? And don’t even start on our gasoline, much of which is refined from oil we import from countries that oppress women and treat homosexuals far more harshly than here.

Make no mistake: I don’t agree with Dan Cathy’s implicit views on gay marriage, and I don’t endorse some of the platforms of the organizations Chick-fil-A donates to. Certainly, each one of us can spend our money in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves and our world. But do we want to live in a country where people won’t do business with people who don’t share their beliefs? And how far down do we want to dig – to the causes your lawn guy supports, or the contributions your neighborhood pizza joint owner gives to politicians?

Making a statement – no matter how self-satisfying it may be – is not nearly as clean as we think. Take those chicken sandwiches. In Charlotte, there’s a married couple who run a Chick-fil-A. They have a fine family with a deep faith and deep compassion, and they don’t share the headquarters’ views on gay marriage. It’s not a prerequisite to being a franchisee.

This week, customers came to make purchases and say how happy they were to support the company’s stand. Others were angry, including one who approached a cashier – a single mom working 40 hours week – and seethed: “I don’t know how you can work here.”

“It makes my heart heavy – all this hatred,” the owner told me, but she was uncomfortable talking much about it, and she didn’t want to have her name published. Who can blame her? Any words she says publicly would be met with the same onslaught of judgment, the same abdication of nuance that passes for debate these days.

It’s no longer enough to argue our point and our beliefs; now we must make one-dimensional those who don’t share all of them. You’re a liberal or a conservative or a bigot or a socialist. Gone, too often, is the subtlety of shared values – that, by the way, Chick-fil-A supports worthy causes and doesn’t practice discrimination, or that even among Christians, there is genuine sorting and struggling about what their Bibles say about homosexuality.

Instead, we yell and boycott and demonize – and are demonized in response. And on we go, turning each other into caricatures, so much less than we actually are. And a chicken sandwich becomes so much more.