Thursday, April 9, 2015

In the Market for Justice

An interesting trend has developed lately around our national "debate" over gay marriage. Americans both for and against legalizing same-sex marriage engage in boycotting and targeted patronizing of businesses based on the business' position on the issue, usually voiced by someone in a leadership role.

Three years ago,  Chick-fil-a, purveyors of (delicious) fried chicken sandwiches and sweet tea, became a flashpoint for the gay marriage debate. The CEO of Chick-fil-a, an evangelical Christian named Dan Cathy, made a not-so-surprising public statement about his opposition to same-sex marriage (and presumably, to same-sex relationship in general). In the summer of 2012, then, people drew lines on gay marriage by boycotting or buying Chick-fil-a. I drove past one of the restaurants in Dayton during this time and saw an enormous amount of people clamoring to exercise their freedom of speech by doing probably the most American thing possible: buying a fried chicken sandwich.

It's happening again, of course, as Indiana's passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) effectively allows businesses to deny service to individuals on the basis of their sexuality. (By all accounts, this seems true, unfortunately.) A hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Indiana decided to go public with their refusal to cater a gay wedding with their pizza. Besides the obvious problems here--who wants pizza at a wedding, let alone mediocre, Midwestern pizza?; "cater" is a strong word for pizza delivery; why are businesses feeling the desire to discriminate in hypothetical situations--the Memories Pizza conversation is just another version of the Chick-fil-a situation, with admittedly more complicated legal stakes. Memories Pizza has gone on to receive over $800,000 in donations from presumably like-minded people. At least they got chicken sandwiches last time!

On the other side of things, a backlash ensued against world-famous fashion designer Stefano Dolce, who said the following: "I am gay, I cannot have children. I don’t believe one can have everything in life, if it isn’t there it means that it cannot be. It is also nice to deprive oneself of something. Life has its natural course, there are things that cannot be changed. And one of these things is the family." Celebrities and other people who can actually afford Dolce and Gabbana called for a boycott, calling their opinions anti-gay. Most notably, singer Elton John spoke out against them, taking special exception to the implication that his own children are "synthetic."

For whatever little they have in common people on both sides of this debate share one thing: their chosen method of political action.The internet provides both sides with extensive lists of businesses to boycott or patronize, and people think things are really happening here. The heart of this movement is not a renewed sense of civic or political activity in American culture. Rather, where the heart of civic discourse should be one finds instead a pile of cash, the only language that has any political relevance anymore. Trained by a market logic that infuses every aspect of our lives, we give money or withhold it because it is our only means of political voice. Especially after Citizen's United, Americans know well that unless you "put your money where your mouth is," whatever you believe has no teeth. Demonstrating in the street is fine for a night but even the largest demonstrations are easily ignored until economic strategies take hold.

Most of the Americans donating to Memories Pizza or boycotting Dolce and Gabbana might not be as bluntly cynical as I'm being here but it seems pretty obvious that in a market economy as thick as ours, market exchange has become the only effective means of political activity. One of the terrible things about this new and singular means of political efficacy is that it inspires no real conversation. What it inspires is a tangible way to score points for one side of the debate or other. As we enter a new election cycle, we will pretend that we have free spaces for thoughtful political discourse, while at the same time we lament in our hearts the economic reality of our political system.

Boycotting or patronizing businesses on this issue may make us feel good and righteous, but it's doing precious little to move public discourse forward. It simply allows us to re-harden our political identities in antagonistic ways. Even more disturbingly, it shapes those identities primarily in terms of what we buy and what we don't, allowing what we perceive to be the true and the just into commodities. 

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