Today I’m going to talk about fear: mine, yours, ours as a social collective entity, and how that fear gets used and manipulated. I’m writing about fear because I was asked to, or perhaps challenged to, by a friend on Facebook who seemed somewhat incredulous that I would express trepidation at what happened to Memories Pizza. In summary, after Indiana passed a “religious freedom law,” the stated purpose of which was to protect businesses and business people from being forced to ply their services on behalf of events they found objectionable within their faith, a news crew basically picked a fight with a family-owned pizzeria and got them to go on the record saying that they would not wish to service a gay wedding. Predictably, they got publicly hammered and had to close up shop for a while citing, among other things, death threats. I probably seeded further incredulity by monetarily contributing to their GoFundMe campaign despite being an outspoken advocate of gay rights and gay marriage. The dust-up was primarily viewed by most people as an extension of the long-debated “Wedding Cake for Jesus” debate, in which the ethics and legalities of refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding are run through the wringer on a daily basis. And to be clear, these are not merely academic exercises. It is precedent. Furthermore, it is precedent that is literally hitting people close to home. The Memories Pizza social-bomb terrifies me because there was no justification for it. None. It differs from the other examples above in one obvious sense because their position did not violate any human rights laws or any other type of law. In truth, their expression was in-line with alas that had just been passed. They were demonstrably within their legal right. A more important difference is that the business was vilified not for an action they took (or didn’t take as the case may be) in regards to a gay couple, hypothetical or otherwise, but an action they would never have been in a position to make a decision on. Memories Pizza does not deliver. Memories Pizza does not cater. The extent of their business is limited to their restaurant alone, and within it they have never discriminated. As a result, the idea of their “facing consequences for their actions” does not hold water with me because the action was minuscule and the disproportionate consequence was immense. One cannot claim that their possible shutdown was a socially organic result of free market or capitalistic response to their “hateful nature” as they lost business due to their stance because the reaction was not so much a boycott as a forcibly imposed embargo, marked with hints of violence and arson. Choosing not to patronize a business or even trying to convince others to join suit is vastly different from actively trying to prevent a business from doing business. It is a reckless and vindictive attempt to unleash a pitchfork nation, as Dan Barreiro calls them, on a vulnerable target. Minnesota has been in a whirlwind of change within this arena. I would argue that there has never been such a cultural about face as the current climate regarding LBGTQ rights. In one moment the state was positioned to pass a “Defense of Marriage” state constitutional amendment. But then, almost overnight, same-sex marriage was made legal as the vacuum formed by the possible backlash to presumed over-reach provided an opportunity to establish marriage equality. After same-sex marriage became legal, a wise Catholic pastor exhorted to his congregation “Even if you do not condone homosexuality or gay marriage, if you cannot recognize and understand the reasons why our gay brothers and sisters are celebrating today, then there is no chance that we as a people can ever be reconciled to one another.” I am pleading, desperately, with my pro-gay advocates to take an honest look back through that window. Even if you do not condone the position that marriage is reserved only for one man and one woman, if you cannot recognize and understand how long-standing religious and cultural influences can cultivate this belief in within caring, morally conscious, law-abiding people–your friends, family, and neighbors–then there is no chance that we as a people can ever be reconciled to one another. “Waiting for the bigots to die out” (or trying to force their economic extinction) is not a viable strategy, especially when simply holding that opinion in isolation from any form of social, political, or economic action to assert that position is being viewed as grounds for scorched earth responses. If being against gay marriage is considered acceptable grounds to inflict a business with such punitive blows of one form or another that they are inevitably forced to close shop, then we are basically codifying a stance that says that Christians or traditionalists should be prohibited from owning or running businesses, and possibly from holding any sort of public-serving job whatsoever. If five years ago a business the idea of legally established gay marriage was not even on the radar and all of a sudden lawsuits and exorbitant fines are the norm, is it any wonder why people are looking for protection? This is a thing that has sprung up around them, and they are worried it might be a snare. Even the people who agreed that Memories Pizza should be called out on their bias and chastised almost universally noted the ludicrous presupposition that a gay marriage would ever solicit catering for a pizzeria. Even in Indiana there was never any likelihood of this couple using their business to take a stance against gay people. This was all but a randomly selected public execution through the court of public opinion. Properly structured, the law is meant to function as a shield, not a spear. It is meant to protect the people, even in its punishments of those found guilty. In fact, this has been my argument for gay marriage itself in differentiating it from laws against child marriage, for instance, that get lobbied about in “slippery slope” discussions. Laws of marriage prohibition, where they exist, should serve to protect an unequal or unwilling partner. In regards to gay marriage, there is no one who needs to be protected, no vulnerable partner in the union. We as a society have come to recognize this and have shifted accordingly. Recognition of the law must always be tempered by one’s moral obligation to follow–or not follow– the law. The more spear-like the law, the less likely I am to agree with it or go along with it. When the shield-like named “defense of marriage” acts began to take on a sharp-edged quality, our I (like society) pushed back. Where the “freedom of religion” statutes might in likely practice be used to advance discrimination as a spear, I of course oppose that as well. However, when our neighbors are facing the potential obliteration of their life’s work within the wake of one vengeful or litigious customer, suddenly such laws start to resemble spears. And that means it’s more likely that such things will crop up and pass elsewhere. Unfortunately, the switch between legal defense and legal offense can be fairly mercurial, and the pendulum seems to me very squarely in offensive mode these days. I think this sensation is why there seems to be a swelling of an anti-cop vibe, and part of it can be neatly summed up by the exhortation below:
I completely sympathize with this, and I consider myself law-abiding to the point of being extremely boring. I don’t even have any speeding or parking tickets marring my record. But I do recognize that we have an overabundance of regulation, and that at this point we are all pretty much law-breakers now. We just don’t always know it. “Minding your own business” is no longer a defensible position if there are hundreds of laws that dictate when, where, and how you can acceptably mind it as government recommendations evolve into guidelines which quickly evolve into regulations. And once something is on the books, it can be used against you, as parents in “Child Neglect” states are horrified to learn. The fact is, if someone–a lawyer, a cop, a civic leader, a “social justice warrior”–wants to find you in violation of the law, they can find one to accomplish that. And because it’s legal, the legal system generally feels compelled to follow through or risk heavy repercussions themselves. And warding off these attacks is costly and time-consuming, and it’s why I often take steps in protecting my child that I often feel aren’t necessary, such as moving from the house interior side of the window to the exterior in order to watch my school-age children at play, because I worry that maybe some well-intending childless neighbor might phone in my “obvious” neglect. What I have begun to tell people is that it has reached a point where I am more fearful of a stranger’s good intentions than I am of their bad intentions. I will take precautions not to keep my child from being taken away by kidnappers but to keep them from being taken away by child protective services directed at me by people who think I’m not doing enough to keep them safe at a time when children are safer than they have ever been. I live in a time when parenting “experts” are equating sleepovers with child abuse. Can a possible SWAT raid off an anonymous tip-off about my sixth-grader’s slumber party be far behind? I wish I felt that statement was completely laughable. But I don’t. So why am I scared s**tless by the pizza and wedding cake conflagrations? Because I know that there is no way to promote a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance in a zero-tolerance environment in which the standards for absolute compliance are likely impossible. The rules that govern the game of life are no longer the boundaries that cultivate freedom, as the analogy goes, because our lives seem to be overlaid with nothing but boundaries. We are afraid to move about anywhere in the face of them everywhere, so instead we root ourselves in place and simply gerrymander and fight to re-draw the boundaries to put us in an favorable position on the field. The books we love to throw at each other, these rulebooks, have grown so much larger that it requires a mob to throw them. And despite having no personal stake in the action, despite the fact that these larger books are so weighty that those struck by them might be outright crushed or cripples, the mob is often all too willing to throw them. And why not? Be they the tax codes, city codes, workplace codes of conduct, etc., the bar for compliance is moving too quickly and erratically for any of us to keep up with, so maybe the best strategy is to make sure it keeps coming down on someone else. Keep the spotlight distracted. Because any of us could be next.