Big Town America

by tehgay

Frozen yogurt places are trendy, now. They often sport sorbets that vegans can eat, and low-fat or no-fat dairy treats for the rest of us; we can eat and feel good about ourselves, because, hey – It’s not like we’re eating ice-cream or something. This stuff is low fat. There are several such yogurt places in town, but I have one in particular I like.

This place has a small eating area, but my friends and I will dutifully crowd in where we can if there’s a lot of us. Here, they have about sixteen different flavors of yogurt at any given time; some switch out for a needed variety, while some stay consistently. Thankfully, the “White Chocolate mousse” is one of these staples. It is my personal favorite. I often times get it and the “birthday cake” flavor, partitioned to two separate sides of the Styrofoam container because I like to enjoy different palettes of flavor without their intermingling. I usually then go to the toppings bar and put chocolate-covered peanuts on top. Not because I actually eat them with the yogurt, but because I like to eat them separately, as a separate treat. So, I go and pay about four bucks for my treat, and proceed to pick the peanuts out, one by one, with a spoon. Afterwards, I eat my yogurt. It’s a nice place. They sometimes have bands come out and play music in the summer . This means that I bring a lawn chair and eat yogurt in the parking lot, in front of where they’ve set up the band.

In some ways, this isn’t the best yogurt place. I mean, they use Styrofoam, and that’s bad for the environment. Other places in town use biodegradable cardboard. Further, I know another place in town that has more flavors to choose from. That place has better chocolate-covered peanuts and due to more affordable pricing, I’d save about fifty cents each trip. It has more spacing, so my friends and I could sit more comfortably.

But I don’t go there. As it so happens, I have more attachment to the first frozen yogurt place. All of my friends like it, so they prefer that we frequent there. Further, I know the people that run the place – They went to the same University I attended for undergrad. They have been nice enough to hire my band to play there on Friday nights, and they hire employees that are always friendly and fun to interact with. Lastly, I have memories at the place. So I am loyal, because my experience with the people is superior, if maybe not the price or the product.

What is this? It’s bigotry, and the end of Capitalism.

That escalated quickly.

***

Well, maybe not quite yet. See, I’m doing it in a small-ish town. There are a couple of yogurt places, and I’ve chosen my favorite based on who owns it, because I like them and they are nice to me. I don’t think anybody thinks this is bad on this small scale. Sure, they think. It makes perfect sense that I would consider the kindness of the employees and my relationship to the owner when I go there. In fact, some might say, this is a good thing.

I certainly think so. I have a friend who puts together gift baskets. He has to charge a little more than a more commercial place to make a profit, but I like to use his products when sending gift baskets to people – It’s like giving a gift to two of my friends. The person who gets the basket, and the friend of mine who gets to profit from such a gift. I’m supporting a small, local business. Yes, this meant that there was a business that had a “better” product, and they sold it “cheaper.” But I don’t care. My friend has a business, so I use his business. I don’t think this is bad. I actually think this is good. See, the woman who runs the business with the “better,” “cheaper” product presumably has friends that do the same for her. And so she and my friend are really only in competition for unaffiliated people – The people who are not yet friends with either of them. So they can gravitate wherever they wish.

So, let’s switch around this scenario a little bit. Let’s say I go to buy some wallpaper from a small shop where I live, and the owner was very rude to me. I mean, she insulted my ability to wallpaper things, told me I had horrible taste, made fun of my accent, and started yelling lines from the cartoon “He-man” whenever I asked a question. I did not like her, and certainly won’t be returning to her shop. Furthermore, I’m telling all of my friends in person and on social media how very rude she is, and they won’t go there. They don’t want to get yelled at.

Did I call for a boycott? Nope. See, I just said that she was really mean, and people didn’t want to go shop at the mean person’s shop. This had nothing to do with taking a stand. This had everything to do with evaluating a product and the experience and thinking “Nope.”

I can see how the lines blur a little. Take the following example:

Several friends of mine have exotic pets. They went to a pet store called “Animal House” to buy supplies. While looking around the store, they noticed that the animals were not properly cared for, and that the conditions were cruel. Further, the owners of the store started yelling at them to leave, because they said they had been “Looking” too long. My friends literally fled the store, pursued by the owners. If you know the place, you know that it has horrible reviews. My friends’ experience is certainly typical.

This is an example that’s three-pronged. First, there was a legal reaction: My friends notified organizations that this place was committed acts of animal cruelty, and pending an investigation they may face criminal charges. Secondly, there was social sanction: My friends wrote newspapers and sought public forum to denounce the business and call for a boycott. Thirdly, there was the type of action I was describing earlier, wherein people warn their friends “Don’t go there, it’s horrible. They’re rude, and the animals will die.” I’ll call this “Package devaluation.” The “package” being the product and the experience of purchasing that product.

All three are, I think, completely appropriate reactions. As it is, though, people get really angry when you start messing around with these ideas on a larger scale. On a large scale, people accuse you of corrupting capitalism and being bigoted. Imagine if Animal house was a chain, and my friends heard about how horrible it was from a Facebook Group. In that case, the actions my friends took constituted “bigotry” against animal abusers everywhere. Further, because my friends wouldn’t buy the cheapest pets on the market, they were undermining the US economy, where we are supposed to buy the best product at the lowest price! Gosh, America would be a horrible place if we start letting our beliefs influence our buying!

It seems that if we look in our own parts of the world, our own communities, our own towns and cities, we have every right to choose businesses to patronize for the experience, the package. It’s actually encouraged. Yes, absolutely support your friend’s business. Absolutely volunteer at the organization that your church mentioned in the Sunday bulletin. Sure, warn your friends about that rude wallpaper lady and her store. That’s the great part of small town America – We all know each other, and support each other. Business, economics, money — They are all bound, somewhat, by who we are and how we engage with others in our community. When our experience of buying wallpaper is good, even if the wallpaper is a little bit more expensive, we may still patronize the store because the woman was wonderful. If she sells great wallpaper cheaply, but is really rude, we’ll avoid that store. When a bookshop owner tells me that I’d *love* a certain book based off of what he knew I had purchased before, I’ll probably try it out. If I like it, I’ll definitely use that shop more, because they know me there. It’s sentimental attachment, but also something more. I judge an experience by more criteria than just the price of the product and its worth.

This is weird in larger contexts, though. People are discouraged from choosing places based on anything except for the price and the relative value of a product when this happens on a large scale. What is the difference?

The reasons I’m making this distinction are because of, as you may have guessed, Chicken.

***

Counting back the calendar of controversial events (Sequester, Fiscal Cliff, Gun Control, 2012 Election…) we arrive at the CFA (Chic Fil A) scandal. This scandal has actually been around for quite a while and sports a very complicated timeline. However, things came to a head last August, with the CFA boycott and subsequent appreciation day. Everybody had to take a stand, it seemed. And poor indecisive people got confused about what the “Middle” is, and didn’t know what to do. Even now, after it’s happened, saying “Chic Fil A” is enough to elicit sighs from people tired of talking about it. (And not just those annoying Generation Y-ers who are convinced nothing they ever do will ever result in anything, thus ensuring they never have to take any responsibility for their own actions. I mean, even perennial optimists are tired of it.)

I sighed when, post controversy, CFA said they would back off of this issue, again. And I sighed when that one guy who’s purportedly important wrote an article saying that Dan Cathy was his new best friend and Dan promised not to spend CFA money on hate groups any more. And I sighed when it turned out CFA actually increased anti-gay spending.

So, I realize I’m probably getting a very loud, very pronounced sigh from all two people who read this that I’m bringing this up again. But it’s in a much bigger context, and really only meant as an example, I promise.

See, there was a three pronged reaction against CFA.

Legally, some cities threatened to do… something if CFA were to open a restaurant in their city. I’m not entirely sure what, though I am pretty sure it’d be unconstitutional and all kinds of not okay.  In any case, people on many sides of the issue saw this as problematic, and I think certain mayors backed off. So that made the first prong, legal action, pretty unimportant.

Everybody and their grandmother has written about the second prong: Social Sanction. The boycotts, the reverse-boycotts, appreciation day, and “kiss-outside-of-Chic-Ail-A” day. This was important and meant something. And many people wrote many important things about it. However, I’d like to bypass this part of the argument altogether. (Though I remember finding and loving this article, which is tangentially related though not completely so. I’ll link it anyway, because it’s wonderful.)

What I want to talk about is the third prong, that thing nobody really talked about that was objective in its subjectivity: Package devaluation. See, when I walk into a Chic Fil A, my first thought is “They hate gay people.” Whether or not it’s fair, that’s what I think. So I’m not eating there anymore. And, in fact, I may tell all of my friends the same thing. I’d tell them that I didn’t feel welcome in there because the CEO was rude to another gay person and donated to hate groups, so his product is less enticing to me now. I feel really uncomfortable whenever I go inside one, so I don’t want to eat there. I go somewhere else instead. I have positive experiences at other restaurants, so I patronize them. This isn’t necessarily boycotting CFA, anymore than I’m boycotting the frozen yogurt place I don’t go to. I’m just choosing what I think is a superior product – Or rather, a superior package deal which includes a product but also a lot of other things as well. It makes sense that my other friends would also want to eat at places that didn’t remind them at every turn that they or their friends less deserving of civil rights.

Some friends may not feel the same way I do, and we’ll get there in a second.

But before we get there I have to address a caveat. Some of you clever ones are asking yourselves “What if Christians started going to restaurants owned by Christians for no other reason than they’re Christian? Would you think that was okay?” Or, maybe “What if white people just felt more comfortable going to white-owned businesses? What if they just felt more comfortable and thought that package deal was better.”

I’ll have to make a small caveat for this, before getting back to the main point.

***

Sure. Go for it. Last I checked, the secular music industry is still going strong, even with all of those Christians listening to Christian music. Christians saw Passion of the Christ in droves, and dozens of secular movies still get made. I really think we’re all fine here. After all, I usually patronize businesses that my friends from church started. However, I think we’re starting a false equivalence that I’m going to address in greater depth later. Here’s the cliff notes version.

I’m white. I’m male. I have white privilege and male privilege. This means that I can go to almost any restaurant or business and feel comfortable. So, um, package devaluation due to rudeness doesn’t happen very often along lines of race or gender for me. Further, I’m Christian (vaguely, barely, maybe). So, package devaluation doesn’t really happen to me much because I’m Christian. I mean, if I knew that a friend of mine who was a person of color went into a business, and that business treated her poorly, I would take severe issue with that place. I would certainly not want to go there. But, this would only be known to me because of my friend. I wouldn’t know it for myself from just walking in there, because I’m white. It would be package devaluation that I experienced second-hand.

Now, where this gets interesting is that this hypothetical friend of color, she faces the threat of being discriminated against because of her being black anywhere where white people own the place. Also, she’s going to have to assume that most places she goes, white people will own the place. So, for her, it makes sense to be more comfortable in stores owned and run by people of color. The package she experiences at a place owned by people of color does not have this risk of discrimination; that makes it a better one. And, in order to have such packages, she may have to seek them out rather more consciously than I seek out positive experiences. I don’t have this risk as a white person. In fact, I don’t even experience that when I go somewhere where people of color are the owners. In this sense, I’m unassailable. Any package devaluation I experience with regards to race, gender, or faith will happen second-hand.

This is all to say that white people don’t really have to shop at only white places to feel comfortable. Privilege exists almost everywhere for white people  in the US. So if somebody only shopped at white places, consciously, and thought the package was devalued by going to a restaurant or business that was run by people of color, I would have to conclude that this was coming from a place rather different than that of mine when I don’t eat at Chic-Fil-A. Namely – That person was being racist and discriminating based on race, not because of package devaluation, but for other purposes. Because people with a disproportionate amount of power – White people, men, straight people, cis people, Christians, etc. – can already go anywhere without fear of first-hand package devaluation. To seek out that kind of thing in the US can, in my mind, only be bigoted. This hypothetical is silly.

Back to the point, shall we?

***

Hokay. I don’t go to CFA or homophobic places because the experience isn’t great for me. So, what if you just don’t feel the same way? You think Chic-Fil-A is delicious, and you don’t care about their politics.

Well, this is where things are weird. See, when I get touchy about something, I like my friends to get touchy about it too. This is not just about causes, but just my personal taste. If I like a musician a lot, and think he’s great, and my friends all say “Oh, him? He sucks. I think he’s the worst musician ever,” I don’t respond well. It actually hurts my feelings. Similarly, if I have friends who think Lady Gaga is amazing, I’m really going to be at a loss. I’ll feel like I am not as close to them, just because they like something I don’t like. This happens all the time with businesses and restaurants and maybe a little bit with causes too.

If I see a random stranger with a CFA product, I literally think “Oh, wow. A bigot.” And when I see a friend with one, I wonder if they’re trying to take some sort of stand and put me in my place. I stand still and process whether or not somebody just got chicken at a place where the owner is rude to me because they don’t care, or if they did so because they’re trying to call me out for being gay. Not fun. It hurts my feelings.

Cut it out, will ya?

Eat there all you want, but must you take pictures of it and put it on Facebook?

Of course this kind of consideration, if taken too far, would be ridiculous. But I don’t think it unreasonable to expect my friends to avoid the wallpaper place after its owner was super rude to me. Or, at least, not tell me about their shopping experience. Further, I’d consider myself a less-than-great friend if I went to animal house knowing that my friends were literally chased from the store.

And I think most people would agree with those assertions on that small scale. So why not on a big scale? Why not with Chic-Fil-A? Because like it or not, that controversy is the future.

We’re fast moving to a bigger scale. CEO’s are our next-door-neighbors and our spheres of influence are electronic as well as physical. What happens at an Applebees in Missouri comes to my friend who shares the news with me, and that affects where I eat. That choice, if made by many people, affects a corporation. When I have a bad experience at a restaurant, my friend in Alaska knows. If she visits a restaurant from that chain later, and I know about it, I may have my feelings hurt. I have to wrestle with what chains to support because so many support things antithetical to things I believe in. Package Devaluation and amelioration happen with frightening speed as business people make statements and retract them. What a person says in Georgia (and where he spends his money) can hurt me in Kentucky. Patriotism is global citizenship, chains are our ma-and-pa stores, and Facebook is a water-cooler we share with hundreds of our friends.

Welcome to Big Town America.

***

I don’t know if this is bad. I know that it is.

I can’t think of all the myriad implications to ethics, but I know that many exist.

However, one thing I’m fairly certain about is that the morals we use to guide our “Big Town America” interactions should not differ greatly, if at all, from the ones we use to guide our way through “Small Town America.” The difference in scale is not sufficient grounds to compromise beliefs we would otherwise practice small.

During the CFA controversy, so many people said that refusing to eat at Chic-fil-a was inherently wrong – that it would hurt people that weren’t responsible for their chain’s actions, that our world’s would be less bright if we only shopped at places where people agreed with us about basic human rights, and, most infuriatingly, that the economy was divorced from morality. Somehow, it was immoral to use a moral dimension to guide purchases and buying power. It was as though Chains lived in a world free of accountability.

But all of those ideas inherent in that rose-tinted view of the small town – How we engage contributing to the worth of the “package,” how word-of-mouth can make a well-run business do well, how discrimination can be stymied when people with bad experiences can share them with friends – all of these ideas are good. I look at them and see great worth.

Why then, would we not apply them on a larger scale? Why would Big Town America resist such good?

Big Town America needs a makeover. We’re still learning how to operate as global citizens, how to respect our friends, and how far our influence can and should travel. But though it needs a makeover, Big Town America does not need a divorce from morality and accountability. Indeed, too much of the latter may be what has so contributed to need of the former.

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