Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chicken Sandwich Meditation (Or: Can I get Free Speech on the Value Menu?)

January 2011 was the last time we had a big, huge, deep fried stink over Chick-Fil-A. I know, because I covered it here on the blog. At the time, they were put on blast over donating food to an anti-gay organization's meeting. Recently, though, some incendiary remarks and donations made by the company, and specifically its President & COO - Dan Cathy, son of CEO & Founder Truett Cathy who holds similar views - have caused an even greater shit storm.

Since I've linked to the ever-expanding Wiki article regarding this debacle, I'll just hope you go through and read all the pertinent bits, as I'm not sure I want to put them on my website. A lot of you have asked me to weigh in on the topic, wondered what my thoughts were. An even greater number of you have asked why it's taken me so long to weigh in, and the reason is this...  I wasn't exactly sure how I should respond. I try and take a balanced approach to topics like this. I want to remain as level-headed and employ as much common sense as possible. I like to have all the facts and not work from assumptions and half-baked news reports from our 24 hour news cycle.

So, I'm posting my thoughts on the matter in a free form style, cataloguing a few things that I've considered in retrospect to arrive at my current inner ish on the matter.

Enjoy!

Aurora and the Freedom of Speech


When the shooting happened in Aurora, Colorado recently, the town was picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church. They started the hashtag #godsenttheshooter on Twitter, which was hurtled around the news twittersphere at lightning speed. A lot of people - myself included - lamented the fact that these folks were allowed to do this, that they were allowed to insist themselves upon a town who experienced a unique and all together awful tragedy. The 40 members of this one church made worldwide headlines and a lasting negative mark on these families all in one fell swoop.

How awful, right? That the families of the slain and injured and affected must be subjected to the cruelty of some folks' twisted idea of evangelizing. It's the kind of thing that makes you want to call on the mythical superhero 'Somebody'.

Somebody really should put a stop to that kind of thing. I wish Somebody would make sure they couldn't picket this funeral. Shouldn't Somebody put them in jail or shut down their church?


We forget, however, that just like the capital 't' They (who aren't watching you), Somebody isn't going to swoop in and stop this. As much as we hate their hate speech, as much as we'd like to live in a world where people with that much vitriol aren't allowed to hold their signs and shout their message, we also want to live in a country where we can protest inhumane working conditions or call out the President for a perceived wrong or tell our neighbor to take a long walk off a short pier without fear of legal retribution.

Personally, I like living in a country where I can criticize the justice system, the government, et al without fear that someone is going to throw me in jail. Except....... There's this:

The Slippery Slope Fallacy

Let me let you in on a little secret: if you outlaw one specific kind of hate speech that involves physically picketing a funeral with large signs - basically make what WBC does illegal - it would not, legally or philosophically, directly and obviously lead to a ban of all free speech rights. The kind of argument wherein someone says, "If we outlaw A, then B will definitely happen," is a pretty sound argument typically. 

An example: If we outlaw the picketing of any funeral nationwide and enforce a 5 mile ban on any protester, then the outcome might be that the WBC folks will get arrested. After a few arrests, they stay in jail in a 3 strikes you're out situation. Boom.

Ahhh... But then there's the dangerous precedent of a limit to free speech. Right? Now you've told someone they can't say something. So, of course the following will happen:

If you outlaw the picketing of funerals and enforce a 5 mile ban on any protester, then my child will not be allowed to give his friends Christmas cards because the government will take my right to express my religion and buy overpriced holiday cards! 

A cause might equal B result, but it's a fallacy to say that A cause will definitely create Z result. There's also something called a 'conjunction fallacy', in which a long string of steps leads to an undesirable conclusion, however the chances of all of those steps occurring in just the right way and leading to the exact wrong outcome is less than the chance of any of the individual steps occurring alone. 

So... I could live in a world where the WBC can't do what they do and also live in a world where I'm allowed to speak my mind on the internet and buy overpriced holiday cards and use curse words...

And they can be the same world?

Yep.

The Freedom of Speech Fallacy

How free is the Freedom of Speech? Am I really allowed to say whatever I want to whomever I want whenever I want? Really? The answer to those three questions, in order, is No, No, and No. At least, not in the United States - nor, do I believe, in the civilized world. Without going overboard on detail, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has found quite a number of exceptions to Free Speech. They include: Incitement, False Statements of Fact, Obscenity, Child Pornography, Fighting Words & Offensive Speech, Threats, Speech Owned by Others, and Commercial Speech. There are also a number of exceptions to Free Speech if you work for the government in various capacities. 

To answer your question, No, hate speech is not a crime. At least, not most of the time. Also, the above exceptions are not hard and fast rules. There are a number of factors - situational, cultural, social, etc. - that must be considered on a case by case basis. But, they exist and can be enforced. 

Reiterating the point: You cannot legally say or write whatever you want, whenever you want to, about whomever you want, whenever you feel like it. But, you can so mostly what you want to a lot of people pretty often and not hauled in by the cops. 

Expensive Speech

I'm in the United States. We have Freedom of Speech. We also pride ourselves on being capitalists and having free enterprise and a free market and all of that. Basically, we can spend moolah on whatever we want - mostly - and our money can be used to make a pretty big impact. SCOTUS did rule, after all, that money equates to speech, and we've figured out how to use that fiduciary voice pretty well in the form of either boycotting or supporting businesses and individuals we disagree or agree with, respectively. 

Being specific, that means that the COO & President of a privately owned company can say whatever he wants. It's his company and his money. It's not publicly traded or owned in any way. Sure, it's a big fast food chain, but it's his big fast food chain. We, the people, have no rights over the profits or the manner in which they're spent. 

We do, however, have the right not to be forced to eat Chick-Fil-A for every single meal every day for the rest of our lives. If you do not want the company to have more money, then do not contribute your money to that company. This type of protest only really becomes effective, however, if most of its core, loyal customer base decides not to spend their money at the restaurant. If a bunch of people decide to boycott the company that never really ate there very often to begin with, then the company doesn't lose money and gains free press. 

Chances are, if you're currently boycotting Chick-Fil-A, you've been in the loop about their Christian beliefs and activism over the years and aren't one of their core customers. As such, your boycott, while admiral, isn't effective. (As much as I wish it was.)

To pull away from this situation, you can still pay dearly for the cost of free speech. Your employer, for example, might fire you for posting unflattering things about them on your blog or social network of choice. You work at the pleasure of your employer after all, and while you might not go to jail, you might wish you did when you're trying to find a way to keep a roof over your head and the continuation of 3 square meals a day. 

Your free speech can cost you relationships with friends, relatives, and coworkers. They might not like the things you say or the way you say them. 

In short, free speech can cost you and your business, but it doesn't mean you're any less free to speak. Or does it? Perhaps the proper term should be 'the Ability of Speech' instead of freedom. It's not Free. It costs. You. Me. Businesses big and small. Everyone. Negatively and positively. It costs. We have the ability to say what we want, but it's not necessarily free. There are consequences, just as there are with anything. 

That time I digressed

Thomas Menino, current mayor of Boston, MA, denied Chick-Fil-A the right to build a restaurant in the city after Cathy's remarks. He wrote a letter calling them out on their recent statements among other things. It went around the news media and interwebs as fast as anything I've seen go around the media and interwebs. I liked it, mostly because I like when I feel as though government officials are standing up for the under dog. About half a dozen city officials around the country - by my current count - have followed suit in places like Chicago and San Francisco. 

What I had to remember, though, was that we do, technically, have the Freedom of Speech in this country, and the company in question is privately owned by the same family that founded it. Dislike their views all you want, but to disallow their business to grow because you aren't a fan of what they do with their money is...well...it's unconstitutional. Now, that said, there are about a half dozen other ways you could legally shut down their growth due to discriminatory hiring practices and wrongful firings and a host of other things, but that's not why these officials are coming out against the company. 

They say that because the owners said some mean stuff about some people and gave their money and product (which they own and make themselves) to some folks these officials don't think appropriate, that the business isn't allowed to build more stores. Don't eat there all you want. Post messages decrying their views all you want. But, sadly, you cannot allow them to not make a living or grow their business because you don't like what they said. 

Let's reverse the situation... I live in the rural south and want to open a store called "Magic Mart". I'm going to sell religious and spiritual items pertaining to a host of religions and spiritual paths. I'm also pagan and publicly live my life as a pagan. Should the city disallow me to open my business, because they think I should be Christian? Or, that I should spell 'magic' with a 'k'? 

If I as a gay man wanted to open a restaurant and give the proceeds to an equal marriage rights organization, should I be shut down because some folks don't like the idea of two men kissing? 

If it's not ok for the latter to happen, then the former isn't ok either. It's not part of the slippery slope fallacy or the conjunction fallacy, because it's the same thing. It's apples to apples. It's business to business. It's speech to speech. So, I couldn't be happy about the officials getting all up in arms against Chick-Fil-A, because the business owners shouldn't have to have their personal speech used against them when operating their business. However, if customers want to stop going there, I'm all for that. 

Where I stand

This is a tricky thing. It sounds, I suppose, like I stand with Chick-Fil-A, doesn't it? I don't agree with them, and I truly wish Somebody would be able to save us with his magic Somebody powers from all hate speech, but that's not happening. I think the better way to phrase it is that I stand for Chick-Fil-A, or, rather, I stand for the rights of business owners to have a personal life and personal beliefs. They can think what they want, say what they want, and give their money to whom they choose, but that doesn't mean their business should be denied existence or growth due to those personal beliefs. 

It's tough, though. Definitely some 'cognitive dissonance' stuff happening. Stretches the boundaries of what I want to agree with, but there you have it. Feel free to share your thoughts on the matter below in the comments section. 

Also, one last thing: As for me and my wallet, I'm sad to say it looks like I won't be eating at Chick-Fil-A anymore. (But it's not like they're going to miss my business anyway.) 

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

3 comments:

  1. what about the jim hensen company pulling their product? What are your thoughts on that?

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    1. I believe their company can decide who they do and do not wish to do business with. If they disagree with how Chick-Fil-A is currently presenting themselves to the world and don't want the public to feel they are giving implied consent by continuing their relationship, they have the right to back out. They did so with great care for the issue without becoming too preachy, in my opinion.

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  2. This shit storm has gotten very nasty, on both sides really.

    While most people I know, gay and straight, aren't saying the CEO can't say what he wants, he also has no right to whine about the negative press. It goes right back to think before you speak.

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