TW Viewpoint | Chick-fil-A in Toronto and Virtue Signalling on Social Media

January 22, 2020 | Michael Heykoop

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Wouldn't it be great if you could demonstrate to the world what an amazing person you are just by posting where you eat—or don't eat—on social media? Given the current state of polarization in our society, it should come as no surprise that something as simple as the opening of a fast-food restaurant has become not only controversial, but also one of the quickest ways to share with the world your remarkable example of "modern virtue."

In September of 2019 Chick-fil-A opened its first Toronto location. As has often occurred when popular American chains venture north in an effort to tap into the Canadian consumer market, Chick-fil-A was welcomed by long lines of eager customers. Many fried-chicken lovers stood in line for twelve hours to sample the latest entry into Toronto's food scene.

However, not everyone was so welcoming. The grand opening was also met with protestors wielding an array of grievances and serenading customers with cries of "Shame, shame!" The protesters voicing their disdain for the U.S.-based chicken specialists claimed multiple motivations. Jaymie Sampa, manager of anti-violence initiatives for the Toronto-based activist group "The 519," stated,

"When we have an increasing global climate and rhetoric around hate-fuelled values, this is about taking a stand against that", Sept. 5, 2019

The 519's involvement is in response to statements made by the Cathy family, owners of the poultry powerhouse, concerning their support for the traditional family unit centred on the marriage of one man to one woman. Animal rights activists joined in the protests, and some even tried to paint the opening as against native rights.

Such incidences of very public protests against retailers and businesses—showy and filled with an air of moral condemnation—are clearly on the rise. In an age when people post images of their meals on Instagram and chronicle their every action on Facebook and Twitter, everyday choices such as where to grab a chicken sandwich or buy a sweatshirt have become opportunities to declare one's superior moral stature.

Former President Barack Obama describes one part of the problem:

"I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that's enough. Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because: 'Man, did you see how woke I was? I called you out.'", Oct. 30, 2019

Polarization is fracturing our society, with social media serving as the jackhammer. In an age when it has never been easier to discover any individual's views, a single Tweet "outing" someone for being on the politically incorrect side of an issue can result in immediate calls for a boycott. When U.S. President Donald Trump announced his plans to attend a fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Toronto-born actor Eric McCormack advocated on Twitter for the Hollywood Reporter to

"Kindly report everyone attending this event, so the rest of us can be clear about who we don't wanna work with.", Sept. 4, 2019

While McCormack later backpedaled in the face of claims he was advocating a McCarthyism-style "blacklist," this type of attack is increasingly common, and such behavior is found on both sides of the political aisle. How many political conservatives in the United States tweeted their public declaration that they would never buy another Nike shoe when the corporation chose controversial football player Colin Kaepernick to promote its brand?

The draw of using social media for such public display is clear.

"In a world where everyone is a one man/one woman P.R. department on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, 'moral peacockin'—outrage on social media that is not combined with action—becomes convenient and costless", Feb. 7, 2017

It costs nothing and yet shows the world what a virtuous person you are—aptly symbolizing what our society has come to value: The appearance of good, rather than substance.

What danger is there in such virtue signalling and moral peacocking? The subtle temptation to believe that virtue is determined by which chicken sandwich we prefer, instead of the far more difficult task of living a life of honesty, integrity, and character. When we focus on which restaurants, clothing stores, or sports teams to avoid, the weightier matters of character are likely forgotten.

Perhaps you've heard the popular phrase: "Choose your friends by their character and your socks by their colour. Choosing your socks by their character makes no sense and choosing your friends by their colour is unthinkable." These days it seems we are encouraged to choose our socks by the character of the designer, the manufacturer, the retailer, the advertising agency, and any other set of hands that may be associated with the socks before they find their way to our feet.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with letting people know why you do or don't patronize a business. But we should consider such stances or actions in a balanced manner, examining what they do and do not represent. We should understand that avoiding or patronizing a particular chicken sandwich establishment says very little about the protestor's and patron's actual moral values. And it does risk causing us to fall for our own public relations efforts and forget that true virtue has little to do with chicken sandwiches and much to do with how we live our lives on a day to day basis and how we treat those around us.

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