Monday, August 6, 2012

Making the world I want

I saw a quote recently on Facebook in the wake of the brouhaha over a certain fast food chain owner's stand on gay marriage to the effect that you should spend every dollar as if it were a vote for the world you want. And it's made me think about what is the world I want, and how do we get there?

It will be no surprise to most of you that I am a pragmatist, not an idealist. So what follows are a pragmatist's thoughts on the infeasibility of spending every dollar like it's a vote for the world you want. If you are an idealist, I'm not trying to offend or denigrate you or your choices - the world surely needs idealists, and I'm grateful for you, I just am not one of you. For the rest of you, I promise not to rehash the fast food chain issue (which I choose not to name in the hopes of not drawing the crazies out of the woodwork...but if you don't know who I mean, I wonder if there's room under your rock for me, because I'm getting sick of reading about it).

Anyway. I read a piece about the brouhaha that asserted that in this age of the Internet, it was possible to get information on companies about their stands on political and social issues. I agree in theory, up to a point. But here's where the pragmatist speaks up. The theory is all well and good: yes, that information is out there on the Internet for publicly owned companies for sure, and probably a number of other large but privately owned companies. But stop and think for a minute about everything you buy in a month, about every store you patronize. How many different companies are represented? Companies that make or sell the goods, companies that offer services? Groceries, clothing, home improvement, cleaning supplies, household items, toiletries, medications, pet products, toys, entertainment, and that probably only scratches the surface.

So in theory, I could find out where all those stores, all those products' manufacturers stand on gay marriage, but how long would it take? And wait, while I'm at it, where do they stand on the environment and global warming - are they green? And what about evolution vs creationism, or women's rights? The list could be endless. I, like you, have a life: a job, two kids, volunteer commitments, family, friends... gathering all this information on that many entities and all the issues I care about would be a full time job...

And what of the small businesses? I like to patronize small local businesses when I can, especially for service-oriented things. That's based not just on spend-local principles (though that factors in), but also on the selfish observation that small businesses usually provide better, more personalized service. That's why I patronize a small local pharmacy, the locally owned movie theater, a locally owned restaurant - they know me, they want to help me, they want to accommodate my preferences. I recently ran into my pharmacist in another store, and he greeted me warmly. His staff usually has my prescription in their hand by the time I cover the 25 ft from the door to the counter. But I confess, I know nothing of his views on social and political issues, or how he donates his money (or if he donates his money), and it's not really something I can find out. I patronize his business because he provides good, personalized, attentive service, and frankly, I don't really care what his politics are - he treats me with respect and attention to my needs, and that's all I can reasonably ask.

But suppose I did know a lot about a business - either I've done my Internet homework, or I happen to have information about a local business some other way. Then it's easy, right? Wrong. What if you agree on some issues and disagree on others? What then?

As it happens, I do patronize a local business, a dairy about 5 miles from my house that I drive past every day, whose owners (a couple about the age of my parents) I do know a fair amount about. We make a point of buying their milk, and we patronize their ice cream store far too often for the good of my waistline. They are Republicans, and not shy about it - they post political signs regularly, and those are 100% Republican, so there can be little doubt. I think it highly likely they supported Amendment 1, which amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage, an outcome that grieved me enormously. But. They also give generously to the local schools and have for years. They run a solar-powered agricultural education center to teach kids about green agriculture. They recently donated land to the local volunteer fire department for a fire station, and have given easements in perpetuity to the Triangle Land Conservancy, ensuring their many acres in rural Orange County will not be turned into a subdivision in 10 or 20 years (for which I am grateful, because I'd rather drive by cows than McMansions). They are active in the community - I routinely see the wife volunteering at the precinct we both vote in on election day. Their ice cream store opened on New Year's Day 2005 and donated all the receipts to relief efforts for the victims of the December 26, 2004, tsunami; the line was out the door.

So. Should I stop patronizing a local, environmentally responsible business that supports many causes I approve of because the owners are Republicans who are almost certainly against gay marriage? For the record, I have not, and I don't plan to. Their milk is in my refrigerator even as I type, and I'm seriously thinking of going to the ice cream store tonight to celebrate The Nerd's first stay-home-with-Rapunzel-all-day success.

The problem is, even if we had the time and ability to obtain perfect information, life is so much more nuanced and complex than us vs. them, than gay marriage or not gay marriage (or any other hot button topic of the day). If we're going to make the world I want, we have to keep talking to each other, not choosing up sides and shouting at each other over our signs at a protest. Social issues like gay marriage change over time through the gradual changing of one person's heart at a time. I know people I love dearly who are still struggling with this issue, and others who have struggled and whose hearts have been changed. Those hearts weren't changed by a sign in a picket line, by standing on one side of a line in the sand, by being shouted at by someone on the other side of that line. They were changed by having real dialogue, real relationships with other human beings. By listening and being heard. And that's the world I want.


  1. I agree with you academically. I'm more of an idealist-pragmatic combo. I realized that there's no way for me to make sure that every store and manufacturer I patronize will agree with my views, but I have decided on a couple issues I feel strongly enough to boycott the companies who don't follow my ethics--namely companies and industries that use slave labor.

    I support same-sex marriage, and it gives me the squiggles that Chick-Fil-A donates to companies that the Southern Poverty Law Center categorize as hate groups, but in the grand scheme of things, if I'm going to boycott someone, it's going to be Forever 21 for supporting the highly unethical Uzbekistan cotton trade, not Chick-Fil-A for some off-handed comments about the "sanctity" of marriage.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Yeah, I should maybe have made a distinction between differing views and outright human rights violations. Whatever Dan Cathy is guilty of, it's not human rights violations - he just sees marriage differently and more narrowly than I do. There is definitely a place for selective, carefully thought out boycotts, especially of companies guilty of human rights violations that people have tried to engage in dialogue and been rebuffed.

      I don't actually eat at Chick-Fil-A much (though I love their waffle fries); Rapunzel eats there some, when we eat at the food court at the mall. But at almost 16, she's old enough to decide this for herself, and not have it dictated by her mother!