Chick-Fil-A and the language of (in)tolerance

A few days ago, Boston mayor Thomas Menino told burgeoning restaurant chain Chick-Fil-A it was not welcome in his city.  Responding to chain president Dan Cathy’s personal opinions–on city letterhead, no less–he decried the restauranteur as “prejudiced,” insisting there’s no room in Boston for “discrimination.”  He concluded that to allow Chick-Fil-A in his city would be an “insult” to gay couples whose marriage ceremonies he proudly presided over.  Fellow mayor Rahm Emanuel soon tried to one up Menino by appealing to “Chicago values,” an incredible claim for a place which, politically speaking, is a values wasteland.

Menino’s letter in particular is unwarranted in its use of charged language.  He and his allies have read base motives into Dan Cathy’s recent comments, which were issued earnestly in a radio interview.  If you listen, it’s clear he’s not hopped up on hate, or motivated by bigotry; his words flow from a reasoned, sincere conviction.  Neither has his company been yet charged of legally-actionable discrimination.  The mayors and their fellow critics are free to dislike Cathy and his firm, but while their claims of prejudice and discrimination go unsubstantiated, they cannot be taken seriously.

Some have justified their indignation by pointing to Chick-Fil-A’s past charitable contributions.  Media reports (here, here, and here) have alternately labeled Cathy, the company, and the donation recipients as “anti-gay” for ultimately opposing same-sex marriage initiatives.  But within these reports, the label goes unexplained and unchallenged.  The reader must naturally take it to be descriptive of one who is against gay people themselves, an utter slander that people of good will ought to reject.

In a similar fashion, the broad, vague charge of “homophobia” came with coverage of Google’s recent “Legalize love” campaign.  To call one homophobic is just as destructive to discourse, as it imparts a motive of irrational fear to the one being described.  In popular usage it is synonymous with hate.

These words ought not to be bandied about by press claiming fairness and objectivity.  Yet, media have a long, bad habit of describing conservatives as phobic and painting them in “anti” terms, as in anti-abortion or anti-spending.  Pro-choice advocates are never referred to as anti-unborn or anti-child.  Deficit spenders are never called anti-frugal.  This is a function of the Orwellian intersection of the tolerance paradigm and positive rights.  Tolerance as presently understood never allows us to question the ever-expanding field of rights, even though reason assures that absurdity must ensue at some point.

Those who want real tolerance have to abandon these loaded terms that implicitly judge the hearts and inner motivations of other individuals.  The hypocrisy of using such labels hurts one’s own cause as much as the conversational climate at large.

Fortunately, the mayors have backed off a bit from their testy declarations.  As the controversy continues to roil, may more people become cognizant of the language used, and realize that same-sex marriage opponents should not be automatically equated with bigots.  We all carry our own personal experiences, shadowboxing with traumas of the past.  Let’s not allow these to cloud an important and necessary conversation.


About Lewis W
I earned an M.A. in Christian apologetics at Biola University, and occasionally write on ethics, truth, science and politics.

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