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Of boycotts and “intolerance”

[1]Rob Christensen, a veteran political columnist with Raleigh’s News & Observer, devoted his weekly column [2] this weekend to the hubbub that has arisen around Chick-Fil-A restaurant.

The point of the column was a little unclear, but it seems to have been that it’s ultimately futile for groups of consumers to boycott businesses whose politics they disagree with and that those who attempt such a thing are “intolerant.”

Christensen quotes Democratic political operative Gary Pearce [3] at the end of the column as follows: “The lesson: Eat up. Enjoy the hotdogs and chicken sandwiches. Good Karma will come around.”

He also makes the following statement of his own: “The left’s intolerance of different views is matched only by the right.”

Christensen, it seems, is trying to give voice to the longing held by so many Americans — a group in which I certainly include myself — for a less-politicized time in which the country didn’t seem so divided up into warring camps; a time, for instance, in which people didn’t think so much about the politics of the companies they patronized.

Unfortunately, while lots of caring and thinking people sympathize with this sentiment, the hard truth of the matter is that there is no putting this genie back in the bottle. While we all might long for a time in which we could patronize whichever business we want with no thought as to whose pockets our money will end up in, such a time is simply not coming back anytime soon.

The current era of business boycotts is simply a reflection of how divided our country has become on some pretty fundamental issues. Christensen (and I gather, Pearce) may think that progressives are being “intolerant” to suggest not patronizing Chick-Fil-A because of the owners’ public stances against equality for LGBTQ people, but that says more about Christensen and Pearce than progressives.

Obviously, there must be some stance that a business owner would take that would make a boycott appropriate in the Christensen’s and Pearce’s eyes. What if the owner of Chick-Fil-A was an avowed racist who opposed interracial marriage? What if he was a supporter of Al Qaeda? Would either of those be enough to make it okay to oppose the man and the company that makes him wealthy?

If Christensen and Pearce say “yes” then it’s clear that their beef is really just with the cause of LGBTQ equality, not boycotts. And if they say “no,” well then I guess they’re being consistent but also amazingly oblivious and just plain wrong.

The simple fact is that boycotts of the kind we’ve been seeing lately are as old as the Republic and frequently effective and worthwhile. People have always put their money where their politics are and undoubtedly did so 200 years ago. Sure, it can be confusing and there are undoubtedly lots of gray areas and inconsistencies. A company with a good stance on one issue can be lousy on another.

But that’s just the way it goes. Over time, with enough information — something we have a lot more of these days — things will sort themselves out. Consumers will figure out who they want to patronize and businesses will figure out whether or not it’s worth it to them to take stands on controversial issues.

In the mean time, though, there’s absolutely nothing “intolerant” about the act of organizing a boycott — especially when the boycott itself is meant to call attention to genuine intolerance like that preached by the owners of Chick Fil A.