It’s moments such as these that are only possible on the web…
After hearing some amount of Facebook-based moral outrage from friends both progressive and conservative, centered somehow around the fast food chain, Chick-fil-A, I decided I better pull my head out of the sand and see what the kerfuffle was all about. The first story I read was an LA Times editorial on Chick-fil-A and free speech. I’ll return to the content of that story in a moment, but as I reached the bottom of the page, my eyes uncharacteristically caught sight of the advertisement. It’s offer? Free Chick-fil-A!
In this post I want to focus on two interrelated things: 1) The capitalist logic to expressions of morality in the digital age, and 2) its effect on our understanding of the principle of free speech. What I’ll argue is that contemporary moral discourse is marked by a sense of victimhood which fuels the vitriolic and polarized nature of its expressions. In a society saturated by competing values disconnected from substantive moral traditions, this vacuum is filled surreptitiously by the moral logic of the “free” market. Moral discourse and outrage, then, has a deeply economic quality with a thin ideological sheen. The second part of my argument rests upon the first in that appeals to the principle of Free Speech – e.g. the Chick-fil-A flap – act simply as a screen for the phenomenon described in point one. Finally, my brief constructive remarks belie a vision for radical ecclesia which resists such destructive practices by enacting a politics and economics which emanates from the story-shaped practices of the body of Christ.
Morality after “Like”
When the Chick-fil-A story broke earlier this week, you could almost hear the pillars of the internet straining under the nationwide mashing of the “Like” button. Indeed, the “Like” button has done an interesting thing to the web and to us, its users. When Facebook liberated “Like” from the confines of its own site in 2010, the button quickly penetrated every website popularly used by the American public. (Even this one! Come on, click that button down there…) The button itself is a data gathering mechanism for the company’s massive warehouse of consumer preference data, access to which is provided to paying clients. This data warehouse is remarkable for the fact that users actually volunteer this information; a marketer’s dream. What other explanation does one need for the non-existence of a “Dislike” button? As media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff has stated, “on Facebook we’re not the customers. We’re the product.”
So deeply down has sunk this consumeristic culture of “Like,” that it’s now plastered on billboards and t-shirts, instantly recognizable. And it’s not just products but ideologies, moral values and preferences, and even Jesus. (Who of us here doesn’t like Jesus?!) So where has all the discontent gone? Into ideological camps, of course! That’s why when the Chick-fil-A story blew up, everyone in America mashed the “Like” button regardless of the content of what they were… “liking”; the news was being presented to them on websites with ideological commitments already their own, chosen from the marketplace of ideas.
Sociologist James Davison Hunter has characterized the American moral climate as being one deeply marked by ressentiment, which entails a group sharing a sense of having sustained a moral injury and therefore a sense of victimhood, and a deep fear that one’s treasured core is “under attack.” Hunter states these are “not the weak or aggrieved per se…but rather those that perceive themselves as such.” This may help explain why some white Christian males are suddenly saying, publicly, that they’re the most persecuted people on the planet, or help explain the names of some prominent Super PACs: “Restore our Future,” “Winning Our Future,” “American Crossroads,” “American Sunrise,” and “Make Us Great Again.” The sense of injury and urgency is dripping from these names.
So you don’t want a Fish sandwich?
The LA Times piece exhibits the standard script for the principle of Free Speech. It goes something like this: “We are [insert adjective for moral outrage] by [the offender’s] [morally outrageous act], but (sigh) we will defend this person’s right to utter such morally outrageous nonsense; such is the importance of the principle of Free Speech.” The LA Times piece actually offers a slight extension to this since there are two offenders: Dan Cathy and Thomas M. Menino. Cathy’s remarks are regrettable, the editorial board states, but more worrisome is Menino’s response that he will move to block Chick-fil-A opening a store on the city’s Freedom Trail. (The symbolism here should be incredibly obvious.) What’s curious to me is that Free Speech here is being championed for a corporation’s right to do business in a particular area, not primarily for an individual’s right to make noise about one thing or another, which is what Cathy has done.
There’s logical dissonance here which is created by dogmatic adherence to the principle of Free Speech. On the one hand, the LA Times editorial board explicitly distances themselves from Cathy’s remarks and the commitments that stand behind them. They believe such ideas put into action would be deleterious to their vision of a good society. On the other hand they uphold the right of Chick-fil-A to do business in Boston and the company’s president’s right to say things that are wrongheaded and potentially, in their view, dangerous to society. All this to uphold the principle of Free Speech.
But “(t)he trouble with principle,” as Stanley Fish states, “is that it does not exist.” Such belief in abstractions only create more problems than they solve, confusing matters more than elucidating them. Free Speech also rests on the liberal public/private dichotomy, which again does more to complicate than enlighten. Finally, the principle rests on an incoherent notion of speech-as-noise divorced from context and consequences. But nobody actually believes that’s possible; not, as Fish shows, Supreme Court justices and not the editorial board of the LA Times. Words, the conveyor of ideas, emerge from and necessarily have consequences on bodies personal and political. And what goes unexamined in most Free Speech discourse is notion of an “even playing field” or a neutral “marketplace of ideas” for free individuals. But Fish points out this is an impossible notion “because individuals are not free but socially constructed by the same forces and pressures embodied in their governments.”
So if you’ve had your political vision trained as I have by “new traditionalists” and “particularists” like Fish, Hauerwas, and MacIntyre, then taking a side in this particular case is profoundly difficult. If we’re playing the Free Speech game, then it seems that I concur with the LA Times editorial board that preventing Chick-fil-A from doing business in Boston is probably a bad idea. And yet I find bits of sympathy with both Cathy and Menino. Cathy primarily because – despite our likely vast theological differences – he’s my brother in Christ; Menino because he’s a man of conviction and honesty who knows, to borrow another phrase from Fish, that life is politics…all the way down.
Where’s the beef?
What the Free Speech game does to the moral life is to keep it captive to a supposedly neutral abstract principle, a false neutrality which, as I pointed out above, gets its substance from the logic of the market. It is therefore no accident that economic metaphors pervade the language game of Free Speech. The “empty shrine,” it turns out, is far from it.
What’s a hungry Christian to do? What I’ve done above is entirely critical and is basically an attempt to change the subject. While there’s no getting around it for Christians in America, we should nevertheless be wary of the terms of play in our late modern society. We should, as Stanley Hauerwas has often urged, work mightily to disentangle the Christian “we” from the American “we.” As Hauerwas does in his Christian Ethics course and as James K.A. Smith has shown in Desiring the Kingdom, the worshiping/liturgical life of the church is constituted by a story different from that of modernity, a different story whose practices form a distinct vision for and being in the world. So constituted, the church can live faithfully out of control in a world that’s madly bent on wrangling the levers of history.
- James Davidson Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 107.
- Stanley Fish. The Trouble With Principle. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 2.
- Ibid, 104.
- I’m playing with the metaphor given to me by William Cavanaugh, who in turn took it from Michael Novak. Cf. Cavanaugh. Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, pp. 92-108.
Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Seminary (MDiv) and Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (MA). He is currently working as the Distance Learning Technology Analyst at EMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and blogs regularly at Restorative Theology and tweets: @bgumm.