Sponsored Liberation is Oppression in Disguise

 

 

 

Some students at the university where I both teach and learn are “questioning the presence” of a Chick-fil-A franchise on our campus. This questioning emerged after Chick-fil-A president, Dan Cathy, admitted in an interview with the Baptist Press that the company supports “the biblical definition of the family unit,” which does not include same-sex couples. This comes after Equality Matters reported that Chick-fil-A donated over $3 million between 2003 and 2009 and over $1.9 million in 2010 to antigay organizations through its WinShape Foundation. Chick-fil-A is, indeed, a company that fuels Christian-based homophobia. That being said, I don’t frankly care. I mean, I don’t eat at Chick-fil-A as it is. Now, before you get up in arms, this isn’t meant to be an appeal to apathy. Quite the contrary. See, I don’t eat at Chick-fil-A because my diet is vegetarian and because I try to avoid fast food. The reason that I don’t care is because Chick-fil-A is a corporation. And corporations have little bearing on my life; even though I am queer and in a same-sex (open) relationship. Or, rather, they shouldn’t have any bearing on any of our lives in the ways that Chick-fil-A is made out to have and that we have concomitantly granted them. And here lies the beginning of my argument. See, I believe that protests against Chick-fil-A should commence and that we should all “question the presence” of Chick-fil-A on our campuses (and elsewhere); though there is only one reason why Chick-fil-A is on any given campus: it pays the rent. Cathy remarks “While developers had no identity whatsoever with our corporate purpose to ‘glorify God and be a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and have a positive influence on all that come in contact with Chick-fil-A,’ they did identify with the rent checks that we wrote to the mall, that were based on our sales.” Public universities—like my own—who are in constant budgetary crisis mode, are made to rely on funds wherever they are, and that increasingly includes sponsorship in many shades. Hence, Chick-fil-A’s presence on a public university campus.

Now, this isn’t where the questioning or discussion should end. Indeed, it should begin at the point where financial impetus emerges. With this in mind, I am certain that the university will not boot Chick-fil-A because it is a guaranteed income flow. As such, a university decision to grant Chick-fil-A rental space has little to do with queer politicking and far more to do with larger economic political moves that disallow such questioning to have any effect at the start. So, where do we begin? Well, I think we need to begin with a line of questioning that leads to a serious reflexive critique of not only Chick-fil-A’s presence in America but larger economic systems that operate in and around our lives. The reflexive component emerges when we begin to ask ourselves the necessary question: in what ways are we securing our own oppression by protesting supposed anti-gay or homophobic businesses.

Questioning whether or not a corporation supports queer people reiterates the very structures that keep us all oppressed, which inevitably forecloses on analyses of neoliberal governance, which prohibits a radical coalitional politic. Neoliberalism is an antipolitic politic where individual liberation is accessed through consumption. That is to say: those who work hard will eventually achieve liberation. Thus, our liberation is inherently indebted to and reliant on corporatism. In the long run, this is why so many have fallen (and continue to fall) for the belief in the inevitable success that is waiting just around the corner. Newsflash: we can’t all be billionaires in a profit economy as Audre Lorde showed me years ago. That means you. And me.

Tiffany Hsu—author of a July 18, 2012 Los Angeles Times article reporting the Cathy interview—asks, “Is Chick-fil-A anti-gay marriage?” Similarly, I imagine protest signs that will declare: “Chick-fil-A is homophobic!” These rhetorical means anthropomorphize a corporation and as a result grant humanity to non/human entities. To answer Hsu’s question: no, Chick-fil-A isn’t homophobic. Rather, it is a business with a corporate structure that is set up in such a way as to allow for a flow of funds that support the owners Biblical principles, which includes opposing marriage equality in addition to supporting conversion therapy programs (Exodus International being a beneficiary of Chick-fil-A donations via WinShape). This isn’t merely a game of semantics. Rather, Hsu’s logic (and the inevitable protest signs) emerges because, sadly, we have already collectively fallen for the belief that corporations are indeed, persons. The (in)famous 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee signaled that corporate personhood is indeed a viable position in America. This disgusts me and it should you. In this system, Chick-fil-A (not a human, but granted personhood) can be homophobic. That is to say, a corporation can somehow possess an attitude toward particular persons. This makes no sense. And yet it does: Corporations “express” their attitudes through financial support of a given cause. I am not saying that it is fair or right. I am saying that this is the twisted reality: corporations have been granted the ability to express hateful attitudes because individuals can rarely match the financial support of a billion-dollar corporation.

It is Cathy who is homophobic and it is Cathy who hides behind Chick-fil-A drawing on selective Biblical principles to justify his company’s stance. But, as Cathy makes clear in the Baptist Press interview: “There is no such thing as a Christian business . . . Christ never died for a corporation. He died for you and me . . . But as an organization we can operate on biblical principles.” This muddled rhetoric buffers him from accusation. That is to say, accusations of homophobia will never strike him directly. He is a moving target between a corporate-person and himself. Don’t be fooled: Cathy is homophobic and uses his religious beliefs to justify his “love the sinner, hate the sin” position.

This is what I call “corporate evangelism.” Chick-fil-A, drawing on corporate evangelism, creates more revenue (more than $4 BILLION in sales in 2011!) to support their Biblical positions than any church ever could. Indeed, corporate evangelism takes tithes in the form of indiscriminate financial transactions. Church tithes have one thing in common: they come from believers in a given religious tradition often in a given church locale. Corporate evangelism tithes have one thing in common: they come from customers who enjoy a particular product. In Chick-fil-A’s case, customers like questionable fast food. In terms of raising funds to spread one’s own agenda, corporate evangelism is the present/future for the dissemination of conservative belief. Likewise, the corporate evangelical model is the present/future for the dissemination of supposedly liberal stances as well. Sort of.

J.C. Penney’s hire-ups were criticized when they hired Ellen Degeneres as their advertising representative. One Million Moms, an organization filled with angry homophobic moms (with less than a hundred thousand members on facebook), declared a protest against J.C. Penney for their hiring Degeneres. However, their protest was against the company, not those who instituted the hiring. J.C. Penney’s advertising responded with a father’s day ad featuring a same-sex male couple. In the end, the counter protest benefited J.C. Penney through the same channels that elicited the initial protesting. That is to say, for a company to make millions, their teams must create an ad campaign that provokes religious fanaticism by appearing to support queers. Thereafter, they need only wait for the pro-gays to offer a counter protest that challenges the religious hate by buying things in support of the allegedly pro-gay company. Meanwhile, these funds do not go to queers that need it. Instead, it stuffs the pockets of stockholders and the like. In the end, queers lose. Again. They will receive millions for “standing up” for gay rights, and very little critique of the company will emerge because any such critique is viewed as being against gay rights. Bush Jr would be so proud that the pro-gay side of the aisle has taken to his “you’re with us or you’re against us” rhetoric. This is the latest scheme in corporate gain: exploit the fuck out of oppressed classes by creating the need for a protest whose goal is to consume products in the name of liberation!

Likewise, Kraft made headlines when it featured its now (in)famous gay pride Oreo cookie. Both ads sparked controversy, creating rifts of dialectic support and protest. On a recent drive from Southern California to Southern Illinois, where I now live, I listened to the Michelangelo Signorile radio show. A central topic was the gay pride Oreo. Signorile admitted that he hadn’t had an Oreo in over 10 years and that it was because he was health conscious and found Oreo’s suspect. Admittedly, Oreo’s are allegedly vegan. However, I prefer to avoid them because I am not quite sure how I feel about a vegan product with a creamy center. I digress. Signorile stated that despite his health consciousness, he would probably purchase a package of Oreo’s in support of Kraft. This worries me. Unlike Chick-fil-A’s corporate evangelism, I doubt Kraft or J.C. Penney, as corporate persons, are donating millions of dollars in support of queer politics. Perhaps they are. But how much do they truly care about queer bodies or politics? About queer sexuality? What do they lose in the larger scheme? What is at stake for them? When we believe that they lose millions in protest, we have been taken by the neoliberal impulse to buy our liberation through their corporate gain. Not our political gain. Said another way: it isn’t liberation! Indeed, J.C. Penney featured two dads and Kraft featured a gay pride Oreo because they can make more money off of queers (and supporters) than off of one hundred thousand angry moms. These are corporate ploys where financial gain is the game and where oppressed classes always lose. I worry because we need to step back and look at the larger picture that extends beyond supposed attacks against, or corporate support of, queer bodies. What are Chick-fil-A’s hiring practices? What are the working conditions like? The same goes for J.C. Penney. Kraft. The stores where Kraft’s products are sold even.

As many of you should know, women are disproportionately affected by poverty. This poverty is often the result of our buying into the logic that we can purchase our liberation. Indeed, the liberal impulse to unabashedly protest marked antigay corporations (or ahem, corporate owners who draw on corporate evangelism to disseminate their word) is the same dialectic impulse to support, without critique, those businesses heralded as progay. However, that progay stance has very little to do with queer people and more to do with making revenue for that company. Again, Kraft will make more money off of a queer (and queer supporting) base than an antigay base. This wouldn’t be the same 10 years ago, when “support” didn’t guarantee profit. Wherever there is profit, there will be corporate support. And support is relative to a given time and place. Are the same ads running in other countries with the same fervor? Thus, progay corporations might support marriage equality in America because it is popular now but would probably fail to lend public support to say universal access to HIV/AIDS medication, informed consent access for gender and/or sex transition practices, gender identity protections clauses, reform in immigration policies, and even equal access to abortion.

That said, beyond Chick-fil-A’s antigay support, I am worried about the coded sexism and racism that gets overshadowed by the desire to protest antigay businesses. I mean, doesn’t a Biblical view of the traditional family also suggest a vehemently prolife, antiabortion, anti-access stance? I think so. And as a result, “questioning the presence” of such businesses should concurrently question other areas that the financial donations inevitably support.  While marriage equality is the hot button issue of the day, so too is abortion access. And it must remain so. What, I wonder, is J.C. Penney’s stance on abortion? Kraft’s position? Where’s the abortion pride Oreo? The J.C. Penney pro-abortion ad? What? Abortion doesn’t sell products? Well, coded antiabortion rhetoric sells Chick-fil-A. What is the pay disparity between women, and especially, women of color, that work for Chick-fil-A and J.C. Penney, and Kraft? Who gets health insurance? Who doesn’t? Conservative antiabortion programs target young women of color. What does this say about Chick-fil-A’s financial donations? These are questions that must be attended to when “questioning the presence” of any corporation. In the long run, these businesses do whatever it takes to make a profit.

In the meantime, I refuse to see inclusion of queer bodies in advertising campaigns as a marker of liberation. Unlike corporate evangelism, which funnels funds to projects it supports, corporation that verbally support relatively liberal causes (like marriage equality) funnel funds to their stockholders. In one way, Chick-fil-A emerges as a relatively moral company because at the very least it funds what it believes in. Perhaps we should inquire what Kraft and J.C. Penney—as corporate persons—believe in beyond using queer bodies to make a profit. The same could be said for those companies (Starbucks, which is known for its oppressive work practices locally and globally, comes to mind) that have pledged to support marriage equality. I am not asking that Kraft, J.C. Penney, and the like match Chick-fil-A (and similar) donations. Rather, I am asking that our critiques of supposedly antigay corporations be matched by critiques of those allegedly progay organizations. Without such critique, we might find ourselves supporting a company for one embodied dynamic at the demise of another. Yes, they might appear progay but they might be painfully sexist, racist, ableist, and the like. I don’t know about you but I hardly see this as a move forward. It is a sideways and backwards move into the pockets of corporate owners who win either way. Unlike oppressed classes, corporations lose nothing when gambling with our lives. In the meantime, I won’t shop at J.C. Penney because they feature same-sex couples in their ads. I might shop at J.C. Penney because they have a sale that fits my budget. Some of us don’t have the means or privilege to protest what is the popular thing to protest or support what we are supposed to support. I will continue to avoid Oreo because cream shouldn’t be vegan. And I will continue to walk past Chick-fil-A because I don’t want to consume chicken. I will continue to work with queer folks in my communities. I will continue to compile lists of resources for transfolk in rural areas. I will continue to voice my pro-abortion politics. And I will continue to critique corporate structures that demand our unquestioned allegiance at the demise of our brothers and sisters in struggle. Finally, I will continue to question the affective drive that propels us to act without critically asking what is at stake in our desire to protest without linking to broader systemic oppressions. I will also continue to support those students protesting Chick-fil-A and Dan Cathy.

In solidarity and critical reflection.

References

Blume, K. Allan. “‘Guilty as charged,’ Cathy says of Chick-fil-A’s stand on biblical & family values.” Baptist Press. 16 July 2012. Web. 19 July 2012.

Equality Matters. Fact Check. Equality Matters, 2 July 2012. Web. 19 July 2012.

 

 

 

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About Benny

My name is Benny LeMaster. I am an academic, activist, and artist. I research questions of identity, culture, and representation. I am interested in exploring ways to relate to one another in critically affirming ways. In terms of identity, I identify as queer, trans, mixed-race Asian/white, fat, and, frankly, fabulous. Let's talk!
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2 Responses to Sponsored Liberation is Oppression in Disguise

  1. bani.amor says:

    This was everything I’ve been thinking and feeling but could not find a way to express. Awesome : )

  2. Benny says:

    ^^ Why thank you. 🙂 Glad to know allies in mind and spirit.

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