This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.
When I think about the future of higher education I don’t normally think about hand-breaded chicken-breast sandwiches, but I can make an exception. Chick-fil-A is a fast-food company that operates primarily in the Southern states and has a devoted following of millions of ornithovores. The company, which is privately owned by its 89-year-old founder, S. Truett Cathy, and run by his two sons, has a handful of other distinctions. It stays closed on Sundays. Its official mission includes a commitment “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” And the Cathy family has contributed money, partly through the Winshape Foundation, to various Christian and pro-family causes.
Because of Chick-fil-A’s support for pro-family causes, it has recently run afoul of some gay bloggers who have called for a boycott of the restaurant chain. And as The New York Times reports, “Students at some universities have also begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses.” Indiana University at South Bend and Florida Gulf Coast University are mentioned in a Huffington Post article about the controversy as places where student groups are attempting to get the restaurant removed from campus. (Huffington Post initially reported that the Indiana University campus had banned the restaurant. The University issued a denial, but the situation seems rather murky at this point.)
Students, of course, are well within their rights to criticize the company and to circulate petitions, and Chik-fil-A is well within its rights to support pro-family causes even as it pursues business opportunities on college and university campuses. As it happens, Chick-fil-A appears to have pre-emptively backed away from its previous practice. In a statement issued over the weekend, the CEO declared, “we will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family.” I don’t see a free-speech issue emerging in this controversy. But I do see another instance of aggressive intolerance in higher education towards those who uphold traditional social values.
So far as I can tell, no one has accused Chick-fil-A of discriminating against gays and lesbians in its employment practices or its customer service. The incident that sparked the boycott campaign was a Pennsylvania Chick-fil-A restaurant’s provision of sandwiches and brownies to a marriage seminar put on by the Pennsylvania Family Institute—a group that opposes gay marriage and has been characterized by activists as anti-gay. The seminar in Harrisburg is “The Art of Marriage: Getting to the Heart of God’s Design.” Presumably Chick-fil-A contributes to other groups that hold similar views. Does that really provide a sound reason to those who favor gay marriage to drive Chick-fil-A off campus?
I think not. The campaign is unwise because it seeks to punish and stigmatize those with whom the protesters disagree. The ideal of the campus as a place where people debate their differences by means of rational arguments and well-vetted evidence has been on a downward trajectory for decades. Kicking Chick-fil-A off campus is a reductio ad absurdum of the now-common tactic of roaring at your supposed opponents. The company, after all, isn’t busy on campus promoting an anti-gay marriage agenda. It’s just selling chicken sandwiches.
Protests like the one aimed at Chick-fil-A are partly or even mostly attempts to exhibit the power of the protesters. That aim has nothing to do with winning the argument—is gay marriage a good social policy or a mistaken one?—and everything to do with controlling the narrative. Only those who agree with the protesters are granted a legitimate voice hereafter. Roar loud enough and you may intimidate the target, but that’s of less importance than pumping up excitement among followers and creating a secondary wave of self-censorship among others who correctly surmise that it is dangerous to disagree.
Organized bullying has become almost a settled feature of American college life. It draws much of its sense of legitimacy from professors who extol victim-group self-empowerment and who offer valorous stories from past protests to gin up enthusiasm for turning disagreements into grievances and grievances into demands. The moral capital of the Civil Rights struggle and the Women’s Movement is spent again and again in ever-more trivial protests: this one against a vendor of chicken sandwiches. Collective action targeted against people and institutions that cannot easily defend themselves is a tactic honed to perfection by the campus left. It works all too often.
Higher education, however, is ill-served by this spirit of censorship. If we want students to learn the principles and arts of governing our republic, for starters they will need to learn the importance of living alongside those who hold views that clash with their own. The campaign against Chick-fil-A also illustrates the tendency of higher education to lose itself in symbolic causes at two or three removes from reality. Attacking Chick-fil-A for the religious beliefs of its owners makes about as much practical sense as banning trays from the cafeteria to save the world from global warming. Higher education ought to teach students to recognize the difference between effective social advocacy and make-believe. These campaigns erase that distinction.
Higher education has recently seen some strenuous efforts to elevate “civic education” to a key concern of the undergraduate curriculum. The Association of American Colleges and Universities last fall issued a “national action plan for civic learning,” and the Lumina Foundation last week presented “civic education” as one of its five benchmarks for all of higher education. Should we consider the campaign against Chick-fil-A as an illustration of this new spirit of campus civic-mindedness? It looks rather like no-holds-barred political activism. I wonder whether higher education is losing its ability to tell the difference.
Perhaps I should add that I’ve never eaten in a Chick-fil-A restaurant, and I’ve never been a beneficiary of Chick-fil-A, the Winshape Foundation, or the Cathy family’s philanthropy. The National Association of Scholars takes no stand on gay marriage, but we oppose bigotry, including its anti-gay and anti-Christian forms.