I have a confession: I eat at Chick-fil-A. When you live on the road, you prepare your own meals, or someone else prepares them for you. When the refrigerator in your van is broken, or you’re just too tired from traveling to think about cooking, you stop and find what you can. Seeking out exclusively local fare is time-consuming and hit-or-miss in its results, so occasionally we opt for the familiar. In a similar fashion, we have shopped at Walmart more during our year of vanlife than in the last couple of decades. It’s there, we understand it, and we’re on the move. Sue me. If we were staying around for days, our approach would be different.
In my opinion, the market salads, chicken sandwiches, and waffle fries at Chick-fil-A are among the best fast food available, but the company’s politics have been a struggle for us. Several years ago Chick-fil-A gained notoriety when their CEO, Dan Cathy, publicly stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, and it came out that some of the profits from the company supported violently anti-gay organizations. LGBT communities and allies boycotted them, while social conservatives flocked to their side. For the politically-inclined it quickly devolved into a case of binary signaling, with the restaurant chain cast as either threatening or heroic. As is usually the case, it’s more complicated than that.
Enter Shane Windmeyer. Shane is a prominent voice in LGBT rights, and he tells a compelling story about how his protesting of Chick-fil-A evolved into a friendship with Dan Cathy. I used to assign some of Shane’s writings to my intercultural communication course when we talked about culture and sexuality. Today he was the guest on Jason Kander’s “Majority 54” podcast. You should listen to the whole episode, especially if you’re going to make a critical comment.
Shane talks about being attacked by the Right and the Left, and how the people in the middle are the only ones who seem to be encouraged by the kind of conversations he was having. I hear ya, pal. He describes the current false dilemma between civility and resistance when he says, “There’s a time when you have to stand up…yell and scream and holler…but I can also sit down with someone and dialogue…one of the reasons we have so much division today is we lead from a position of fear instead of a standpoint of hope.”
Fear is an unsustainable platform. We have to keep ratcheting up the threat and rage to keep up the addiction. Over time we work to reinforce narratives that aren’t really factual, but achieve the responses we like. That kind of leadership bends toward tyranny, no matter its origin.
Real change is relational, and it takes time. It’s difficult. It doesn’t get much attention in our culture of drive-thru and drive-by politics.
When we came through Atlanta, my former student Jessica gave us a tour of Chick-fil-A’s executive office complex, and we ate lunch there (yum!). Jessica is part of the corporate marketing team, and she talked to us about the controversy. The company and their partners now hire LGBT employees at the executive and local levels. They support causes and events hosted by LGBT advocates. They’ve quit supporting some of the more aggressively anti-gay organizations, but they don’t talk about it much publicly. Overall, I was surprised to hear of the work they are doing to support underserved communities all over. I don’t think their public messaging and support on sexuality issues is quite where it needs to be yet – they have a lot of work to do – but I found the direction and momentum encouraging.
But, you won’t hear about these kinds of conversations, because the media rage machine will continue to cast the issue as simple and polarizing. Messages of reconciliation and incremental progress don’t stimulate our reptile brains. We tend to gather ill-informed scraps of information and group them to our satisfaction, so we can make a judgment, slap some leather, and launch our ships. Fear, not hope.
Shane had some encouragements for better, hopeful conversations with people who disagree with us. Here’s my interpretation of his thoughts:
- Stop relying entirely on media sound bites. Read.
- Work to preserve a common understanding of truth.
- You can’t have a conversation with an unwilling partner.
- Get to know people first, before pushing an agenda. Be human. Be authentic.
- Build trust and be patient.
- Accept that you will fail. Frequently.
Okay, it’s time for lunch.
Btw, Chick-fil-A, mandating your employees to respond to every “thank you” with “my pleasure” is creepy, not to mention an unfortunate form of technologizing discourse that reduces human interaction to formulaic units of machine-like behavior. Just sayin’.