Thursday, July 26, 2012

Boycotts, Identity, and The Products We Consume

Matthew Lee Anderson with a wise prophetic word in light of all the hubbub about Chick-fil-A in the media lately.  Take good notes:
It seems to me that we’re going to see more of these sorts of boycotts going forward, and that the cultural pressure creating them has been at work for a while. Two interwoven threads, specifically, seem to be significant:

First, if you buy (while appreciating the irony) the story of consumerism, then purchases aren’t simply the sorts of things that fill a need but are rather ways in which we express our “identity,” our most deeply held values. They are, to use an Augustinian turn, expressions of our loves and those loves make us who we are. TOMS Shoes is trying to do good and that’s part of the appeal. But it’s also got cultural cache that comes with the brand. You’re not just wearing shoes, after all, as much as joining a movement. Nike had “Just do it” and all the hipsters decried advertising, but TOMS offers “One for One” and now we smile and nod. It’s the same sort of identity expression, except with a more socially minded gloss.

And there is the corollary development in all this: the self-conscious turn by the corporation from maker of products to expresser of values. Think through the two major boycotts this year, Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A: which of those had to do with the products the company produced?

It be folly to think that companies have ever escaped having values. Yet those values seem to have been, well, tied to their products. Industry. Thrift. Quality construction. Chick-Fil-A’s decision to close on Sunday’s is a decent example of this: I suspect it doesn’t actually hurt their bottom line nearly as much as people think because everyone is happier and more productive the other six days. It makes a better product through creating a better workplace. But what, pray tell, has Starbucks’ support of gay marriage to do with their internal “culture” or bottom line?

You can judge the transition, I think, by contrasting these boycotts with those from years past. The Religious Right took on Disney and K-Mart, most famously, but for slightly different reasons than people are protesting Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A. In Disney’s case, well, they were making content that the Southern Baptists didn’t much like and were hosting parties at Disneyland that the Baptists wouldn’t attend. K-Mart owned Waldenbooks, and they sold porn. In both cases, it wasn’t simply the internal “culture” or a commitment to tolerance: there were products that were coming out of those values, products that a constituency saw fit to reject. We don’t have to agree with those decisions to note that something has shifted.

The effect of all this, I think, is a new form of Puritanism that is slowly throttling our society. The irony of the intolerant tolerant has often been noted. But the problem goes far deeper than that: it’s that as the expressions of our identity continue to expand, intolerance will continue to take a more visible form. That mocha-frappacino is no longer just a drink and your chicken sandwich now signals your values. And once that game starts, then everything’s in play. The end result will be that moral judgment will happen easier and faster than ever, and always without the benefit of a hearing. (my emphasis)

1 comment:

Steve said...

"Without a doubt the most sensible commentary I've yet heard on the Chick-fil-A controversy..."

-Eric Metaxas