Copyright 2012 Doing the Right Thing
Playing Chicken with the Law
Chick-fil-A and the demise of responsible discourse
By: John S. Ehrett|Published: July 30, 2012 10:48 AM
Possibly the biggest news story over the past week has been the unfolding Chick-fil-A controversy. After chain president Dan Cathy stated in an interview that his company supported the “traditional family,” LGBT rights activists cried foul.
Furthermore, civic leaders in Boston and Chicago announced plans to block the expansion of Chick-fil-A into their communities…immediately transforming a social issue into a political issue. Though the mayor of Boston backed down (under the threat of an ACLU lawsuit), Chicago’s leadership has yet to recant.
Regardless of the position one takes on hot-button culture war issues, this is an unfortunate stance. The saddest element of this conflict, broadly writ, is its far-reaching implication for civil dialogue.
The goal of discourse in a modern society – the ability to engage in passionate yet reasoned debate over a provocative issue – is undermined when one group attempts to suppress the voice of another. Ethical topics have always been contentious, and the great advantage of a free society is the liberty of inquiry.
All ideological groups – with the rare exception, perhaps, of those advocating imminent lawlessness – should have their voices heard in a free society. It’s easy to exclude and demonize one’s opponents, selectively applying the free speech and association guarantees of the First Amendment…but this is a grave error. Protection should be extended to Christian conservatives, LGBT advocates, conservative Muslims, secular humanists, and any other group at risk of marginalization.
The government should not – must not – style itself the arbiter of socio-moral controversy. To do so is to engage in viewpoint discrimination, a seductive road that leads to authoritarianism. Surely, no one seriously desires a religiously-motivated theocracy…but the opposite extreme, a society antagonistic to those with divergent beliefs, may encroach far more insidiously.
The issue is undoubtedly more difficult when a broad social consensus exists regarding a given topic. Most Americans, for instance, would likely label the Church of Scientology a cult. The Westboro Baptist Church – known for its obscene statements regarding LGBT persons – falls into this category. Furthermore, the vast majority of individuals find ethnic-supremacy organizations fundamentally aberrant. Yet insofar as these entities operate within the bounds of constitutionally permissible laws, their voices must not be directly silenced. Those in opposition to their views may take any number of actions – boycotting, publicly protesting, etc. – but they, too, have rights deserving of protection.
Why does this matter?
First, the aggressive demonization of one’s public opponents – and the suggestion that opponents are undeserving of constitutional rights – must stop. Few issues are more critical to a liberal society (using the term “liberal” in its classical sense). Real “tolerance” – and basic ethical treatment of others –requires that one respect others’ right to disagree.
Second, private pressure must be the catalyst for social change. Those who disagree with Chick-fil-A’s position on marriage have a number of options: they may choose to take their casual-dining business elsewhere; they may demonstrate against the restaurant chain; they may petition the company’s leadership to change its stance. Resorting to political arm-twisting sets an unhealthy and subversive precedent.
The ideological majority of today may be the ideological minority of tomorrow. Ruling factions must not establish a precedent of suppressing dissent...or risk the tables being turned upon them. And that, in a free society, is the death-knell of liberty.
Suggesting that others no longer have a right to their opinion – even if that opinion runs counter to prevailing societal currents – is unethical at best and tyrannical at worst.