Here is a snapshot of a series of truly ridiculous things that happened in a small New England town this week, followed by an extended examination of how it represents a deep societal pathology.
In Winooski, Vermont, a small town northeast of Burlington, a restaurant was awarded a sign placement for its participation in a beautification project. Proud of its bacon (among other things, I’m sure), Sneakers Bistro chose a sign that said “Yield for Sneakers Bacon.”
A Muslim woman, fond of neither pork nor free speech, complained online, garnering a sufficient contingent of busybodies to pressure the restaurant to take down the sign.
The restaurant caved. The sign is gone. The restaurant and town officials sound very pleased at how this has all worked out.
They could not be more wrong. This story is horrible at every level. Let’s begin with our offended resident.
Religions may have whatever dietary restrictions they wish. Adherents may follow such limitations as strictly as they choose. But when a person of faith runs across a display indicative of the habits of others, there is no basis for objection.
Something truly bizarre has happened when someone sees imagery related to other people’s choices and hears an inner voice saying: “That is not my choice. But not only do I seek to make choices in my own life, I seek to inhibit the expression of those who choose differently.”
That brand of obnoxiousness must be civilly but firmly contradicted whenever it arises. In the case of the restaurant, it is not run by people who seek to correct the presumptions of local townspeople. They just want to sell food.
Perhaps this is why they folded like a cheap suit. “We are here to serve people breakfast, not politics,” they wrote in a willful online surrender. “We removed the sign that was located on public property as a gesture of respect for our diverse community.”
Well, let’s talk about respect. Did our aggrieved resident show “respect” or “tolerance” for her fellow citizens who might want to order up a strip or two of bacon in the midst of living their own lives? Decidedly not. As such, it is not only asymmetrical to bend over to accommodate such objectors, it is patently harmful in its encouragement of such mischief.
So thumbs down to our intolerant lady and a finger-wag as well to the restaurant in its capitulation to her bullying.
What should they have said? Imagine seeing this on their Facebook page:
“It has come to our attention that a local citizen objects to the reference to bacon in our sign. We respect all citizens and the choices they may make in their diets. In turn, we hope all citizens will respect what we choose to offer in our business. We are pleased to welcome customers of all beliefs. We understand that not everyone will patronize us, but we are proud of what we offer and will continue to inform the public about it.”
Isn’t that uplifting? It is the sound of rationality, a display of respect mixed sublimely with defense of individual liberty. The restaurant’s decision to give in is an unfortunate encouragement to any other troublemakers looking to interfere with the freedoms of others.
But then comes a nauseating final chapter. City manager Katherine Decarreau tingled with glee as she celebrated the stifling of free expression on the altar of contrived offense. "The cool part of living in a diverse community is that it's not always comfortable,” she said. “It’s a fascinating place with lots of opportunities for conversation.”
Funny thing is, her words were true in a way she cannot fathom.
The “cool” part of living in a diverse community is indeed the creativity of navigating its challenges. But it is highly uncool for boorish behavior to be rewarded by undeserved accommodation. Far cooler for individuals to respect others and subjugate the poisonous selfishness that would lead them to dictate what others may say or do.
Such differences do indeed provide “opportunities for conversation.” I am intrigued by the preferences and practices of people whose lives differ from my own; I am enriched and enlightened to know such things about the people I share a town, a nation or a planet with.
But the moment someone of a different stripe seeks to shut down my right to make or express choices that are within my purview, the conversation will start with my genial suggestion that the offended party mind his own business.
So the Winooski Bacon Story is wrong heaped upon wrong heaped upon wrong. The Muslim woman should have kept her beef about pork to herself; the restaurant should have politely declined to be strong-armed; and city officials should encourage residents to discuss and work out their differences rather than inviting fascist suppression of anything that might rub a sliver of the community the wrong way.
When Vermonters and 300 million other Americans uniformly learn these basic lessons, we will be mentally healthier, societally stronger and truly respectful and appreciative of each other, by virtue of promoting understanding and broad-mindedness rather than peevish tantrums.