(Apologies for posting so much at once. When I’m feeling too sickly for real work and have limited internet connection, these things pile up.)
Tl;dr version? Don’t.
I’m noticing a trend in companies that make their living off Americans not thinking about what they’re doing, making statements that get Americans thinking. And whatever I think of the opinions being expressed, pragmatically it’s just not a good move to make.
It started with Chick-fil-A. I think most people remember the blow-up this summer. I was probably more sympathetic than most progressives to CFA because I generally think we’re all best off when people feel free to express their opinions, even unpopular ones. As someone whose ideas have always been different from a lot of other peoples’, I get really irritated at the idea that your being part of a community relies on you having the same ideas as other people in the community. It’s more about the nexus of social relationships, a commitment to other people living around you, than being just like them.
I’m all for using social pressure to criticize bad ideas, but boycotting a business seemed a little out of line. I got truly miffed when I heard city councilmen were denying Chick-fil-A business licenses unless they changed their policies, because that seemed heavy-handed. My opinion changed a bit when I learned that it wasn’t just Dan Cathy donating his own money to charities, he was also using CFA resources for that purpose. But at the time, I was sympathetic to his right to make statements I disagreed with quite strongly, without that meaning I had to give up on those perfectly-breaded chicken sandwiches the next time I was near a CFA. (Honestly, my mouth waters just thinking about them.)
Here’s the thing, though. Even when I wasn’t crazy about the boycott idea (I’m still not, though a bit less passionately), I thought he was playing with fire. CFA makes its money on selling delicious food that’s not that good for you, in a fun, relaxing environment. Growing up, a trip to CFA was often the highlight of my day. Good food, good atmosphere (for a fast-food joint), and generally a nice experience. Their being associated with anti-LGBT groups like the Family Research Council, to say nothing of Uganda’s kill-the-gays bill (which, tragically, is slated to become law before year’s end), changes that a bit for me. And that is a reason to not go to CFA, even if you think boycotts are out of place here. The next time I’m in range of a CFA I’ll probably go once – the flesh is weak, and their sweet tea is really very good – but would I make it a regular thing if I lived nearby? Probably not.
Others may feel differently, of course. Particularly in the South, CFA’s connection to conservative Christianity is well known. I can see stirring up culture-war connections becoming quite a successful business plan for this franchise, in the short run. But longer-term, this particular fad will die off and culture warriors will be on to another issue – leaving CFA with a tarnished reputation. If he wanted to do well at selling chicken sandwiches, Dan Cathy would have been better served by staying out of the limelight. It’s not like this controversy was stirred up by muckrakers or anything.
Exhibit #2 is Papa John’s. PJ founder John Schnatter says Obamacare is causing him considering laying off employees so he doesn’t have to offer insurance – or raise the cost of an order by about a quarter. On the off-chance some of my neighbors couldn’t afford it, I’ll gladly chip in fifty cents if it means his employees can get health care. That’s a bargain anyway you look at it – I don’t want to foot the tax costs of their Medicare or the hospital cost-shifting from their trips to the emergency room. (Actually, I live in NY where there’s much better pizza available than from Papa John’s, but I’d gladly chip in a few dollars if Mr. Schnatter needs the help getting his employees covered. Honestly.) Here’s the thing, though: by raising a stink over this Mr. Schnatter has successfully reminded me that his employees aren’t high school kids but are instead adults in need of their own insurance coverage. McDonalds, which is making the same point, is no better off in this area. Neither business model is particularly well-served by having their customers think about the living conditions of the folks taking their orders.
Exhibit #3 is a little different because they haven’t exactly kept a low profile in the past. I’m talking about Samaritan’s Purse, the nonprofit associated with Franklin Graham. Mr. Graham has made no bones about his Christianity and his theological position that Islam was an evil religion. As much as I disagree with him, I’ve always had a grudging respect for Mr. Graham here, because he has the integrity to say what he really believes but also still helps individual Muslims in need. I know there are some really good people working there who really are trying to make the world a better place. (Heck, I’m related to several of them.) But Franklin really kicked it up a notch this election year.
I keep meaning to write more about just why the BGEA ads in the latest election bothered me so much. I touched on the issue a little in this post, but really only in passing. I’ll get back to it in more detail one of these days. Now, I know that the BGEA (which paid for these ads) is a separate organization from Samaritan’s Purse, although both are headed by Franklin Graham. I also know that SP has a really good efficiency rating – you know, they get a higher percentage of your donations to needy people than a lot of other nonprofits do. My problem isn’t so much that whatever money I donated to SP would go to political ads I find noxious. (I could see how someone would have that impression, but it would still be wrong.) For me, the issue is more basic: how far do I want to carry the association with a group that’s recently focused so much on politics, and politics I really disagree with?
Just like Chick-fil-A and Papa Johns, SP relies on other people thinking well of them when it comes time to donate to them. I donated a bit to help with the cleanup work they’re doing in NJ, though probably less than I would have. I thought about doing a few shoeboxes and decided not to, instead donating to a cold-weather clothes drive a local church is running. I simply didn’t feel good when I thought about donating to SP this year. I hope that feeling passes, because I believe deep down that they really do good work – but this year, their political moves soured me on their organization enough that I decided to pass them by.
Which I think is an important lesson for groups like this to keep in mind. Yes, it is your right to say whatever asinine thing you want. No one’s going to stop you. But there are consequences, and they’re not all persecution or anything. Sometimes your actions just make your consumers think, and those thoughts take the fun out of whatever product you have on offer. Maybe it’s prudent to be a little more cautious here?