By Josh Inocéncio
Moments after the hatch of my Xterra slammed onto the back of my head, throwing me into a developing concussion, I asked my friend to run and grab me a sandwich from Chick-fil-A.
“What if there isn’t a Chick-fil-A nearby?” he asked, with subtle protest.
“There is,” I replied. “It’s over on Sawyer. I’ve eaten there before.”
He was helping me move set pieces for my solo play, Purple Eyes, into a space near the Silos in the Houston Heights. The hinge for my car’s hatch was loose, so it fell sharply onto my head as I was unloading items for rehearsal. “The number one with a lemonade will settle my stomach,” I added, knowing from experience that a classic Chick-fil-A sandwich is the perfect amount of food—not too heavy, not too light—before a rehearsal or performance. My friend departed reluctantly, hoping he’d find another restaurant option for us along the way.
He didn’t. And 15 minutes later, we were eating Chick-fil-A sandwiches—a regular practice for me prior to a show (a tradition that dates back to high school) and a first for my friend in years.
When the news broke in 2012 that the fast-food chain’s president opposed same-sex marriage and had donated to anti-LGBTQ groups, I did boycott…for a bit. Instead of giving into the tastiest of fast-food sandwiches when on the road, I opted instead to eat at Whataburger or Chipotle. And as I traced where my money went and what businesses stood for, I refused to shop at a list of stores, including Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby, and Urban Outfitters—all places where I had regularly shopped. My outrage expanded into measuring ethical practices all around, and I began a vegetarian—and eventually vegan—diet because of slaughterhouse conditions for animals. I was minimizing violence in the best way I knew how.
But then I encountered two bits of information that increased my moral dilemma:
First, plants feel pain, too. Though perhaps differently than animals, plants do perceive pain and release chemical defenses when insects are eating them or even when farmers are harvesting them. My motivation for veganism wasn’t for health; it was for ethics. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to eat anymore.
Second, the coltan in our smartphone, computer, and car batteries mostly comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where, according to Amnesty International, enslaved women and children labor in appalling conditions. Yet, I don’t see any large-scale calls to boycott Apple and Microsoft.
With the plants, I realized everything I consume is textured by violence. Because of this, as well as the constraints brought on by travel, I weaned myself off a primarily vegan diet. With Amnesty’s revelation, I realized how we only boycott the things that we’re privileged enough to give up. There’s no way, with the demands in this era, that I can give up a smartphone—but I certainly can’t boycott Chick-fil-A for my own interests while the blood of children courses through my Apple products.
The boycotts we engage in largely serve to elevate our own egos, as people think, “Look at the good I’m doing in the world by rejecting the hate chicken.” Plus, it’s not that hard to choose another fast-food restaurant off a U.S. Interstate where they dot feeder roads like weeds. But it’s almost unthinkable for liberals to picket Apple—especially when they have a magnificent pro-LGBTQ record. To add another dimension, we mostly boycott companies that only negatively affect the domestic population. Apple proudly serves the gays, so what does anyone care if they exploit children in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
In today’s hyperpolarized culture, we’re not just expected to boycott companies and figures with problematic business ties, we’re shamed publicly if we don’t. With the recent NFL controversies over kneeling during the national anthem, I saw fellow liberals (who had never watched football in their lives) call out friends who were still watching the Sunday sport despite Colin Kaepernick’s continued time on the bench. Mind you, I don’t think the NFL cares about racial justice or aging fans burning their jerseys—the controversy served publicity purposes by raising viewership.
And this, at the core, is my issue: we’re shaming people on Twitter and Facebook (via smartphones powered by coltan) when they don’t share the most vogue opinion—or boycott—of the day. I can’t tell you how many gasps and protests I received once I started eating Chick-fil-A again, as if I deserved an outcast’s status. As the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out recently, “I think the left doesn’t know how to be a tribe, in the way the right does. The left is very cannibalistic. It eats its own.”
Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with the spirit of boycotts. And there are instances throughout U.S. history where boycotts have achieved desired objectives. If you’re driven away from something because it forces an ethical conundrum, then you should do what feels right. What’s wearying is the demand that everyone else follow your suit; it’s elitist and often classist. It also betrays a stark difference in political methodology between rural and urban liberals as well as southern and coastal liberals. It’s hard for a Texan like me to worry too much about Chick-fil-A’s business practices when I’m fretting each day over the fate of my healthcare.
Until we can entirely extricate ourselves from the inherent violence of both slave-made smartphones and regressive Chick-fil-A sandwiches, we’re nothing but hypocrites—especially if we persist with callout culture. The answer, of course, isn’t just giving into the complicity of violence. But we have to acknowledge that we live in a nation and a world where most of the transactions we make are at the expense of more vulnerable populations. To do this, we must raise awareness around all issues, not choose a select few to boycott while others go unnoticed.