There is a French term I love: esprit de l’escalier. It translates literally as “wit of the stairs,” and means roughly “the concise and clever retort that occurs to you too late, as you are on the stairs and leaving the scene.” I was sad to hear it is rarely used any more in French, as I think it’s a perfect turn of phrase for what often happens to me when I’m having difficulty focusing, or am participating in a particularly contentious discussion where everyone is both struggling hard to remain civil, but also exploring issues which are often hard to conceptualize or verbalize.
I’ve noticed I often come up with the perfect answer for a question only some time after I’ve had time to muse quietly and in peace. So that’s what this blog is: an answer — maybe two — to questions which were important to me, but difficult to answer well at that particular, often heated moment. I suspect questions like these will come up more than once in my life, and I want to remember the good answers I was able to come up with. If this helps anyone else with similar issues, all the better.
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Many years ago I worked for a short time in a mall that had a Chick-fil-A in it. I often ate there because I liked their chicken sandwiches. The mall was slowly failing, though, so eventually the Chick-fil-A closed. I was mildly bummed, but thought no more of it.
Fast forward to today, where there’s still controversy over what precisely Chick-fil-A supports. For myself, I’ve read over what I could find on the subject, and as a consequence I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot in good conscience spend my money there any more. Again, after making that decision I thought no more of it, past keeping an eye out for any sign that the company has had a public change of decision… but the issue came to the fore for me recently when an acquaintance of mine and I were trying to figure out where to go for lunch. He suggested Chick-fil-A, I declined, I explained why when he asked — and he grinned incredulously and said he thought that was silly! If I liked the sandwiches then I should eat there! Did I really think one single person depriving themselves of something they liked would make a difference to the company?
…wow. Where to start.
Well, first the easy one: do I think my actions alone will change some arrogant corporation’s attitude? No, of course not. But there is nothing quite so powerful in a democracy as a large and determined mass of people. We may not be able to vote with Chick-fil-A’s board on their corporate policies, but we sure as hell can vote with our dollars. That’s the best way I know of for us to let them know when we disapprove of their actions, and feel they should change their behavior if they want our continued patronage.
Next: should I eat there if I liked the sandwiches, regardless of Chick-fil-A’s policies? I don’t believe so — firstly because my hard-earned dollars are effectively my consumerist stamp of approval. Secondly, I doubt my companion really wants me to do what pleases me regardless of the associated ethical issues. If I’m going to eat what I please simply because it pleases me, at what point do I start applying ethics once more to my life choices? Why shouldn’t I, for example, simply steal the sandwich — it pleases me not to have to pay, after all. When the clerks try to stop me, maybe I’ll punch them too — I might enjoy that, after all, since I don’t like the company they’re working for. Heck, why not engage in a gunfight with the police as well? That’d be exciting, and I do love excitement in my life.
Yes, I know that particular argument is a form of reductio ad absurdum — but I happen to believe the old saying that says if a person cannot be trusted with little things then they cannot be trusted with big things either.* So yes, I intend to live as ethically as I can, despite the immediate physical pleasure I may forego. In the long run I’ve found it’s a greater pleasure to feel I’ve done the right thing rather than simply grabbing always for instant gratification.
Finally there is what I consider the greater philosophical issue involved. It is true that I, as a white middle-class female, will not be immediately much affected by hateful or fearful actions taken against gays or lesbians. Upping the ante dramatically, I’m also not personally physically harmed by a bad neighbor kicking his dog, his wife, or his kids; or corrupt police brutalizing or murdering either peaceful protesters or people of color; or even appalled soldiers of the US army obeying direct orders to torture prisoners. None of these actions physically damage me right here and now.
But I strongly feel that if I know of these things — and I stand by and do nothing — then I am as complicit as the perpetrators. Worse, by my lack of action I am directly working towards making my society an ethically poorer, more undemocratic, more totalitarian place. True, I probably cannot stop any of these bigoted actions on my own. But I will do what I can… and in a strong, healthy democratic society the best thing I can do is to vote, with either the ballot or my dollars… and to try to convince as many as I can to vote with me.
My lunch companion was a white, hetero, middle-class male; I would venture that he is, in fact, a good example of this society’s epitome of self-centered privilege. I have my own forms of privilege as well; I won’t deny that for a moment. But I don’t want to maintain that privilege at the expense of others — I want us all to be able to live lives of dignity and self-respect.
So no… I will not be eating at Chick-fil-A any time soon. Feel free to give me a call, though, if they finally issue a clear, unambiguous retraction of their support of anti-gay-marriage groups.
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* How interesting — when looking up the source of this saying, I’ve discovered it’s actually from a bible verse — Luke 16:10 (NIRV) — “Suppose you can be trusted with something very little. Then you can also be trusted with something very large. But suppose you are not honest with something very little. Then you will also not be honest with something very large.”