“OK, good,” Chip said. “But the question is not whether we care about breast cancer, its what breast cancer has to do with selling office equipment… “So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot-pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the glorious and courageous fight against cancer?… “Baudrillard might argue,”Chip said, “that the evil of a campaign… consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: ‘Desire office equipment.’ It signifies: ‘Our bosses care about us deeply'”
– Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
I know, I know, Chick-Fil-A articles ad nauseam. But I think you’ll see that this isn’t really about Chick-Fil-A.
Prompted by the predictable but relatively harmless comment of a successful entrepreneur, we’ve allowed the common discourse over an important issue to be governed by the signs and symbols of commodity and exchange – or in this case a chicken sandwich. We assume that by either condemning or condoning chicken sandwiches that we’ve said most of what needs to be said about our position on gay marriage. The result is that we never clearly articulate what it is we’re talking about, and are instead tangled up in symbols and images that allow us to eschew the real issue. The real issue is that a significant group of folks are claiming that they are victims of discrimination, that they have civil rights that are yet to be realized. Whether you agree with this position or not, your decision to boycott a restaurant or stuff your face with their food not only fails to advance dialogue, but it basically avoids the real debate altogether. Its like texting a deeply personal message to a family member who is standing right in front of you – even if you manage to get your point across, the means by which you’ve done so is inappropriate, clearly lacking in principle, not effective, and even dehumanizing. A total failure of communication.
Somehow, illiterate cows and are now symbols of homophobia. Yes, it is that ridiculous. And that’s the point. Baudrillard was right. Our lives as consumers are increasingly artificial and governed by signs, images, and inadequate symbols. Welcome to the “hyperreal.”
The primary reason we participate in this means of pseudo “communication” is that we spend a ton of money on a ton of stuff, having given ourselves over to the “voting with our dollars” mentality. Thus we have an urge to invest our money, i.e. ourselves, into those companies with the hippest agenda. Perhaps Bill Gates and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, among others, really do have a principled interest in supporting gay-marriage, but we all know that such a position is also in their best financial interest. What a wonderful convenience that their evolution of views on marriage have been in lock step with the culture’s mainstream. But where were all the “courageous” humanitarian business owners fifteen years ago, when two-thirds of the country opposed gay marriage? Crickets…
Sure, there are circumstances in which your dollar may need to spent or clinched, based on principle. But as long as we believe that we can dust off our hands and pat ourselves on the back after such a decision, we’re still suckers. For starters, you’re probably spending money every single day that supports something you don’t like (do you really think your gasoline is totally agenda free?). So be it. We’re all in this together. But as long as we allow the comments of a bigwig, the symbols of their establishment, or indeed the symbol of our currency to govern the exchange of words, ideas, and principles, we have missed the boat entirely.