The music we listen to, the stores we buy from, the movies we watch, and the food we eat all say something about our values. What do you want your choices to say about you?
Do you have Chad Johnson, Michael Vick, or Ben Roethlisberger on your fantasy football roster? Do you root for Jason Kidd or Ron Artest? Not a sports fan? Do you like Chris Brown’s music? Do you appreciate the art of Picasso? Do you like James Brown? Do you, from time to time, enjoy the films of Roman Polanski or the stories of Ernest Hemingway?
Join the club, we’re called Supporters of Violence and Violence Against Women and we have about seven billion members. It begins with you and me and ends just shy of nuns and cave-dwelling hermits. Our activities include patronizing establishments that discriminate, buying records that line the pockets of abusers, and supporting the ex-pat lifestyle of child rapists who go overseas to avoid trial. What do we get in exchange for membership in this club? Entertainment, some damn good entertainment.
In the wake of Chick-fil-A’s public relations nightmare, I’ve seen my online network explode with debates about patronage, convenience, free speech, and the value of a really good chicken sandwich. In all of the vitriol coming from both sides, we act like this, to buy Chick-fil-A or not, is the first decision of its kind that we’ve ever had to make. Remember when One Million Moms tried to boycott J.C. Penny when they hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson? Or when they protested Chaz Bono’s inclusion on “family” show Dancing with the Stars? Same idea, different sides. The act of boycotting a business based on their politics is old news, but you don’t need to issue a press release to make it official. In fact, the smaller decisions we make every day of what to buy and where are effectively a rolling, evolving portrait of our collective values.
Every time we choose a television show to fall asleep to, every time we buy a hamburger, every time we choose this department store instead of that department store, we are communicating our values with our dollars. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those values are convenience, practicality, ease, and cost. Once in a while, a values statement is so loud or so emphatic that we feel we must pay attention; that’s what happened with Chick-fil-A. On a small scale, we all make consumer bargains every single day to make our lives a little simpler.
Do I know that the lettuce on my burger was picked by migrant laborers in the hot California sun? Yes. Do I know that the Forever 21 tee I’m wearing was $9.99 because it was sewn in an airless room by immigrants who make a few cents per garment? Yes. Do I know that my enjoyment of mango in Chicago, instead of sticking to apples and potatoes, explodes my carbon footprint? Yes. We can make every argument we want about capitalism and money as free speech, but we can’t pretend we don’t know that there are real, ethical, human costs attached to every consumer act we commit. After we acknowledge those costs, it’s just a question of how much they matter.
If I sat down and wrote out the values that I wanted my consumer dollars to support, I would never be able to shop again, for anything. The economy I live in is not based on the values I would list, and unless I’m ready to make my own clothes, grow my own food, and hamster-wheel my own electricity, I have to find ways to operate in this economy as best I can.
Could I be a better, more conscientious consumer? Of course. I try to patronize local businesses, buy used clothing, donate my excess, and live within my means, but if I’m honest with myself, I could do more with less. I could bike instead of taking the train, I could check the corporate and political donations of every big business I patronize, I could only cook with farmer’s market produce. Why don’t I? Convenience, as simple as that.
But what about entertainment? If I go to the movies, I have 20 options at a time. For every song I download, there are millions of others I could pick instead. My fantasy team will survive without Big Ben and his history of sexual assault. And although the literary canon is littered with wife beaters and violent alcoholics, I’m sure I could find a few writers who might meet my ethical standards. When an artist or athlete beats his or her spouse, tortures pets, or sleeps with underage teens, should I forsake supporting his or her work? Should I change the channel when Charlie Sheen comes on?
Ah, but art is unique, and that’s where it’s different. I could buy the same black tank top at any of a dozen stores, but there is only one “Hills Like White Elephants.” Do I up that short story so as not to tacitly condone spousal abuse that happened decades ago? If I support the creation of dangerous, destabilizing, challenging art, which I do, can I condemn the artist? That seems unfair.
We ask each other why Chris Brown still gets to perform at the BET Awards and on the Today Show. It’s the same reason that Ben Roethlisberger is still the Steelers QB and Roman Polanski still gets nominated for Oscars: We like our entertainment, and we like it a lot.
A few weeks ago in a boot camp class, the thumping background music switched from Neyo to Chris Brown in the middle of a jab, jab, cross sequence. I grimaced. I couldn’t separate the catchy hook and the boxing maneuvers from last year’s tabloid images of Rihanna’s bruised and battered face. After class, I explained my distress to the instructor, but she was baffled.
We act like there’s an obvious right and wrong to these things—and sometimes there may be—instead of recognizing the spectrum of consumer bargains we all strike every day. To my instructor, it’s just a really good song. We each have to draw our own lines in the sand. On one side live the ideas and people we value, on the other, the practical implications of living a pragmatic life. I don’t have answers, here, but I do know this: There’s no room on my fantasy roster for Big Ben.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.