Don’t worry. I have no intention of wading into the social issues surrounding the Paula Deen and Chick-Fil-A controversies. Besides my general inclination against rehashing commentary that has been overdone, I’m much more interested in chicken.
Therefore, I’d like to note a characteristic of some protests that these two controversies bring into focus. I’ll start by reviewing each one individually before moving on to broader conclusions:
1- After revelations of Paula Deen’s racist words, her employers and sponsors raced to distance themselves from her as the bad press kept piling on. But then, her forthcoming book jumped to the top sales rank at Amazon because people demonstrated their support for her by placing an order. The publisher decided to cancel the book’s publication soon afterwards, probably fearing a backlash. The underlying assumption, which probably resembles some people’s motivations for ordering, holds that at least some of these orders constituted intentional support for racism. Along the way, though, people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton called for people to be more forgiving of Deen.
I don’t aim to prosecute or defend Deen; what happens to her strikes me as unimportant. She’s old and rich, so the loss of her business empire won’t affect her life too much. And even if she had been let off the hook, I’m pretty sure most people would still have understood how offensive the N-word is.
Instead, I’d rather discuss how the whole episode influenced people’s thoughts. The people who already abhorred racism still abhor it. The people who support racism found a new and socially acceptable way to vent their feelings, namely by expressing their newly discovered support for Paula Deen. Plenty of others were receiving the news as “woman crucified for racist comments she made 30 years ago,” which is not a lesson that increases racial harmony. Whether or not she deserved the consequences that were handed down, the attacks on Deen can only be said to have increased the racial tensions they were presumably intended to keep at bay. I suspect that Jackson and Sharpton recognized that when they chose to defend Deen.
2- Some of you may remember the boycott and demonstrations against Chilk-Fil-A because of the owner’s Christian conservative views on homosexuality and extensive financial contributions in support of that belief. I’m not here to argue whether the protests were justified or not, so let’s look at the protests’ long term effects. Some people on the pro-gay-rights side have stopped frequenting the restaurant but others find that they can’t stay away. However, people on the traditional morality side have learned to recognize the restaurant as representing their ideals and they seem to be eating there more often than before. Others who were less invested in the issue turned on their televisions to find gay and lesbian protesters being served free drinks by the “homophobic” restaurant chain while they were conducting their gay rights protest. If the protesters were trying to demonstrate that religious objections equal homophobia, they lost the media battle. Badly.
I don’t know whether Chick-Fil-A gained or lost financially because of this. Money was not the protesters’ foremost concern and it’s not the business owner’s either. If the protesters were aiming to change minds on a social issue close to their hearts, they failed miserably. If they were trying to raise awareness of some very tasty fried chicken, they succeeded.
Now, let’s review the problems with “raising awareness” as a technique of social change. “Social change” as a motivation can be ascribed to both liberals and conservatives, to the protesters I mentioned and to clergy, to educators and to writers. These groups share a tendency to believe that their message is understood and absorbed as intended, at least in some small part. Problem is, these messages bump into news outlets that are slanted in one political direction or another, into people’s library cards and the opposing views people have encountered elsewhere, and into the way each individual evaluates how compelling a message is.
Few people will accept a claim of “I support this and so should you” unless it’s being expressed by an overrated celebrity. “Because I said so” stops working by the time a child finishes kindergarten unless the speaker can make credible death threats.
It’s not enough to shout one’s view or take down people whose transgressions one perceives as unforgivable, even if those transgressions really are unforgivable. Instead, one must outargue the other side if one wishes to change minds. Even if the other side isn’t visible from one’s vantage point.
One should also learn the opposing viewpoint in full detail before demonizing someone else. Outarguing a caricature doesn’t count as productive dialogue. It doesn’t change minds either; one’s audience knows when its views are being misrepresented.
Unfortunately, well informed discourse remains rare and is encouraged by few.