Macro/Micro: The polarizing business of opinion

By the time this article is printed, it will have been months since the Chick-fil-A scandal. Those of you reading this in the United States will hopefully let out a groan at old debates drudged anew, and it’s my hope beyond hope that those of you outside the United States will have no idea what I’m talking about. When I think of how I want my country projected in international media, let’s just say exercising sin and judgment over the purchase of a chicken sandwich doesn’t come to mind.

For those of you who have forgotten the scandal or never heard of it to begin with, please allow me to fill you in. Chick-fil-A is an American fast food chain serving the tastiest chicken sandwich known to man. Seriously, I think they must slather the things in crack or something because they’re that addictive. Anyway, while the actual Chick-fil-A restaurants are locally owned franchises, the brand itself is owned and licensed by a man named Dan Cathy. July 16, 2012, Cathy was quoted by The Baptist Press as being personally against gay marriage for religious reasons. Enter the long tail. Media organizations that do not share Cathy’s beliefs of course got wind of them. And they printed them. And aired them. And broadcasted them until the whole of the United States was fully aware that the owner of Chick-fil-A is anti-gay.

Personally, I don’t care if his religious beliefs are the worship of Zuul, Gatekeeper of Gozer, the demigod from Ghostbusters. His company makes a darn good chicken sandwich. But I’m pretty much alone in that opinion. The Twitterverse, Facebook — the entire US media world, really — erupted.

First, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community rallied, boycotting Chick-fil-A instantly. In return, a group of drag queens parodied 1990s band Wilson Phillips with their smash YouTube sensation “Chow Down (at Chick-fil-A),” making the point that it was even greater discrimination for gay people’s orientation to de facto deprive them of an amazing chicken sandwich. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee declared August 1, 2012, National Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, asking everyone who supported “family values” to eat at Chick-fil-A in support of Cathy. Not to be outdone, the LGBT community then declared August 3, 2012, to be National Same-Sex Kiss Day at Chick-fil-A. Even the Emmy awards got in the spirit. Its September 23 ceremony included a sketch where the girl who plays Lily on Modern Family ate a Chick-fil-A sandwich in front of her character’s gay dads, saying, “This is what I’m going to eat at my wedding. What are you going to eat at your wedding?” Socially, the country got more charged than it’s been in years; Facebook friends were defriended, hot and heavy tweets were fired off into the ‘verse. Shiznit got real, yo.

I love Chick-fil-A. I’ll admit it. I have to drive, which I don’t do often, to get to one of the restaurants, so when I do, I stockpile. I’ll literally buy three or four sandwiches and store them in my refrigerator, eat them for, like, three meals in a row. The things are pure awesome on a white bread bun. Chick-fil-A takes fresh chicken breasts and soaks them in pickle juice or something, and I’m a dill pickle freak. Again, it would not surprise me if one day there wasn’t some kind of huge reveal à la big tobacco where the whole world learns the sandwiches are really rolled in crack before serving. There would have to be some sort of substance like that involved for a chicken sandwich to polarize an entire nation.

But really, I think we both know, dear reader, that this has nothing to do with a chicken sandwich. In fact, it has more to do with whether the chicken sandwich-eating clientele shares Cathy’s individual beliefs.

I write about macrotrends here — larger issues that impact our world as a whole — then pin them down to see how they affect translation. Now this is one issue where I can’t speak for other countries (again, I apologize that this is how we Americans project ourselves to you), but in the United States, we are having major issues right now over how we deal with differences of opinion.

Part of it might be related to election season and the preparation for new and returning politicians. But one thing definitely will not have changed in the few months between writing and press: the United States will unfortunately still be the kind of nation that decides whether to purchase a chicken sandwich, not based on the quality of the food, but on whether or not we agree with the restaurant owner. And this impacts the translation industry whether we like it or not.

When I started a company, the last thing I ever thought I’d have to abandon was my opinion. Those of you who know me personally are laughing very hard right now. I mean, this column is essentially editorial. Yes, I have opinions on our industry that MultiLingual very kindly lets me share every month. But do you know if I’m conservative or liberal? Democrat or Republican? Know-Nothing-Party?

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be President of the United States when I grew up. Mom says I just wanted to be something important and that to a child, nothing seems more important than being in charge of an entire third of the US government. But even as an adult, I still daydream of political aspirations. It’s because I’m from Kentucky, one of the most politically charged states in the Union. It’s actually in our state constitution that every Kentuckian is entitled to an opinion. The first Saturday of August, there’s an event Kentuckians consider as vital to who we are as the Derby or, well, fried chicken: Fancy Farm. Fancy Farm is a Catholic church picnic that brings together politics and barbecue, where every year since 1880, presidential and/or congressional candidates have gathered to quite literally yell at each other while stuffing their mouths full of pork (you’re beginning to see a food theme here). We have politics in our blood, we Kentuckians, and we bleed quite freely. As a Kentuckian, it never dawned on me that owning a business would mean I one day would be unentitled to voice my opinion.

Cathy’s opinion — as much as I may or may not agree with it — has cost him business. A Baptist, he told a Baptist magazine that he shared the very Baptist belief of being against gay marriage. But non-Baptists saw that belief and they exercised their own belief in not buying chicken from a man they call a bigot. That’s one trend — that even if you’re speaking directly to an audience you know agrees with you, people who aren’t in that audience are going to hear you anyway. It’s called the internet, people.

Before, folks might have actually agreed to disagree. Now if Americans don’t agree, they’re more inclined to not want anything to do with you. September 27, 2012, Crain’s Chicago ran an article called “Matchmaker Barbie Adler says political opposites falling out of favor.” This article reveals what Adler calls “a party-line dating trend.” My Grandpa Bell was what you call a party man. He would enter that election booth and vote Democratic ticket, straight down the line. Evidently this concept of the party voter has now given birth to the party dater. “We’ve always screened for political views but now more than ever it’s showing up in the searches as a deal breaker if someone has polar-opposite viewpoints,” Adler told Crain’s, revealing her matchmaking business has seen a 75% increase over the last four years in requests for what she calls “political symmetry,” as though politics are as important to singles now as height or a sense of humor. “Four years ago, it was about four out of 10 who thought it was relevant. Now it’s more like seven out of 10.” Has it truly gotten to where Americans don’t even want to date anyone who might disagree with them?

We are polarized. And this polarization has little to do with a chicken sandwich. Cathy didn’t make the mistake of having an opinion, but he did make the mistake of voicing it. As a business owner, I kept seeing the anti-Chick-fil-A tweets and thinking about the local franchisee who really wound up facing the brunt of this mistake — the man who’d put his life savings into buying a name and recipe but who now was seeing a rise or decline in his own profits based on the religious beliefs of a man he’d never met. I kept thinking about Chick-fil-A’s employee scholarship program and how the high school girl manning the drive-thru might not have enough for college now because Cathy doesn’t believe in people’s fundamental right to marry. She could even be gay herself, I thought. After all, Cathy’s opinion only represents Cathy. It doesn’t represent her. It doesn’t represent me, the customer, as I stare down at a sandwich my friend Christa says only tastes like hate.

Personally, when clients are choosing the best translation company for their needs, I hope they don’t do so because I’m Catholic, because I’m an environmentalist, or because I wake up every day and try to love all people like I love myself. Yes, I long to build personal connections with our clients — it’s actually built into In Every Language’s branding — but for the love of the God I believe in, please buy translation from us because we’re good at it. Fortunately, we operate in an industry where the vast majority of buyers are sane and judicious. They make good decisions, sound decisions. But more and more Americans are making dating, purchasing and other decisions based on who they do and do not agree with on a deep-down, personal level.

I wish that I could say this was a generational issue. That it’s the teens and the people in their twenties who haven’t yet learned scholarly debate and respect, the division of personal and professional, but it’s not. It only takes one Fox News anchor to reveal that it’s our entire nation now. Maybe it’s been our nation all along. People are who they are, and while the varnish can be repainted, the wood itself will never change. We may think as an industry that this isn’t going to hit us, that that line between personal and professional will make translation sellers and buyers keep religious and political beliefs out of it, but the fact is, if we want to sell translation in America — if we want to sell anything in America — on some level we business owners will soon have to hold our tongues or be prepared to see the changes in sales that will result.