The tricky task of winning hearts and minds


The Daily Show took aim at the Freedom From Religion Foundation that had sent a letter threatening legal action to the owner of a small restaurant Mary’s Gourmet Diner that offered a 15% discount to patrons who prayed before meals. As a result of that letter, the owner of the diner dropped the promotion. The show interviewed Dan Barker, co-president of the FFRF, about why he did this and although he was articulate and clear, he did not come off well.

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The FFRF has issued a statement explaining their side of the story. There is nothing technically wrong with that statement nor what Barker said on the program. He was right that offering this discount was an example of discrimination against nonbelievers and likely a violation of the Civil Rights Act. But he erred tactically in drawing analogies between this action and much more serious issues like genocide, because one should avoid as much as possible analogies that are too extreme. Doing so makes atheists sound like the religious crazies who say that not being allowed to display nativity scenes on public property is like being the victims of the Holocaust. It is just too over-the-top and invites ridicule.

What about those cases involving bakers, florists, and photographers who refused to provide their services to same-sex couples at weddings? Is Mary’s action similar to those? Yes, in principle. But the response to discriminatory actions should be proportionate to the action. Those were far more serious infringements of rights that deserved to be challenged legally since those businesses were refusing to serve someone based purely on their sexual orientation, and such actions were part of a wider effort to discriminate against members of the LGBT community and deny them basic rights. So too with refusing to serve black people at lunch counters during the civil rights struggle.

That is not the case with atheists currently. There is no similar wider movement to deny atheists basic rights, although there are many random petty infringements. This diner case is not part of the wider church-state separation struggle where even minor encroachments of that separation could be used as a beachhead to further violations. The level of discrimination we face is nowhere close to what the LGBT community faces now and our response to these kinds of petty discriminations should be proportionate.

In this case, a more gentle letter to the owner of Mary’s Gourmet Diner pointing out that her actions might make nonbelievers feel unwelcome may have been a more appropriate measure and could well have had the effect of opening her eyes to the fact that what she may have seen as merely a nudge towards remembering to be thankful for one’s food could be could be perceived as discriminatory towards those who were as thankful but not religious. If she refused to change, then a more serious letter could have been sent. But whatever one does, one should not invoke analogies to horrific events, even if the analogies are technically valid. It is not good tactics.

I also think that one should, as much as possible, ‘punch above one’s weight’ as the saying goes, i.e., take on institutions and people who are more powerful than you, because ordinary people tend to be sympathetic towards the underdog. Workers at McDonald’s fighting for a living wage are more sympathetic than those battling the local bakery who might be struggling to stay in business. Workers battling Walmart for better working conditions are more sympathetic than those fighting the owners of the local hardware store. You have to be careful to position yourself as the sympathetic party in a struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders did this brilliantly with Rosa Parks and choosing to confront Sheriff Bull Connor who they knew in advance would go berserk and do things like unleashing dogs, beating people, and directing fire hoses on women and children.

FFRF was right in principle but made an error in tactics. In this case, Mary (even if she is much more hostile to nonbelievers than she appears) will be seen as the underdog and FFRF will be seen as the bully. Even though Jordan Klepper is an atheist and it is pretty clear that Jon Stewart and much of the cast of that show are skeptics, even they thought that Mary was the sympathetic one and that the FFRF had gone too far in threatening legal action against her.

Comments

  1. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    As much as I agree that FFRF made a tactical error here, I couldn’t help but feel like TDS was being far too credulous of Mary’s sweet little old lady act. She claimed it was just about “showing gratitude” but she didn’t call it the “gratitude discount” or the “moment of silence discount,” she called it the “praying in public discount.” To me that wording sounds like someone with an axe to grind about the current pushback against public prayer i.e. in schools and city council meetings.

  2. brucegorton says

    The letter they sent didn’t make any mention of a lawsuit and was exactly the sort of letter you said they should send.

    Further if you read the FRFF’s response to the episode you will note that they explain exactly why they go after these sorts of cases – there in fact is a pattern of this sort of thing happening.

    Further still, even with all of that the basic gist of the Daily Show’s piece was “If you discriminate against atheists in your pricing, we’ll paint you as an extremely nice, sweet person. If you are an atheist and complain about it, we’ll call you dicks. Oh, by the way, we’re the fucking liberals on TV.”

    No, sorry there is no defending the Daily Show on this. They actively support discrimination against atheists, they are not our friends, they’re not our allies, they can get into the same fucking sack as Bill O’Reilly.

  3. Holms says

    Yes, while I agree the FFRF guy strayed into hyperbole territory, it also seemed to me that there was a strong dose of credulity regarding the ‘not religious at all’ price discount. The interviewing editor has huge power to make the interview skew one way or the other, and clearly didn’t think much of the FFRF claim.

  4. Matzo Ball Soup says

    what she may have seen as merely a nudge towards remembering to be thankful for one’s food

    That’s the problem. You can’t reward people for their private thoughts, because it’s impossible to determine what they are. That one guy said he got the discount for saying ‘thank you’ to the chef (or something?), which would make it more of a politeness discount (though this wouldn’t explain why it was called a “public prayer discount” on the receipt). But even if that were all it was, there would be problems: you’d run the risk of accidentally discriminating against introverted people and foreigners.

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Those were far more serious infringements of rights that deserved to be challenged legally since those businesses were refusing to serve someone based purely on their sexual orientation, and such actions were part of a wider effort to discriminate against members of the LGBT community and deny them basic rights. So too with refusing to serve black people at lunch counters during the civil rights struggle.

    Dear Muslima? Something worse is happening to another group, and so it’s not ok to point out in a private letter to someone how they’re engaging in illegal discriminatory action?

    Does Mano have another point?

    That is not the case with atheists currently. There is no similar wider movement to deny atheists basic rights, although there are many random petty infringements.

    And so we should sit idly by while people break the law by illegally discriminating against atheists, and let them start a social movement around it? Right…

  6. Holms says

    And so we should sit idly by while people break the law by illegally discriminating against atheists, and let them start a social movement around it? Right…

    Good thing that wasn’t his point then. It looked to me much more along the lines of ‘there are worse infringements than this, therefore don’t go crazy with the hyperbole on this one lest you look ridiculous’.

  7. A Masked Avenger says

    ‘there are worse infringements than this, therefore don’t go crazy with the hyperbole on this one lest you look ridiculous’.

    I think that’s valid. Even “Dear Muslima” would have been on target if Rebecca Watson had, in fact, said or implied that the elevator incident was on par with genocide. Which she didn’t. But if she had, Dawkins’s response would have been understandable.

  8. ShowMetheData says

    What was not mentioned were the usual targets of the FFRF. The FFRF are usually facing the powerful in the community where atheists are joyfully discriminated against. And often, the wider community piles on with hate and death threats. FFRF made an large error in hyberbole, accentuated by the relative lack of power that a small business has in comparison to the governments that FFRF usually tackles.

    A letter was a reasonable act. A policy of discrimination is to be questioned.

  9. Katydid says

    The savior of the faith that Mary says she follows is very, very clear about NOT praying in public. Why is Mary tempting her customers into breaking a law that her faith is very clear about, in the first place?

  10. Ed says

    I think this type of case can be very consciousness raising, because it`s probably easy for people who have been socialized to be accommodating to sweep under the rug. If I was eating at a diner and noticed this policy, I’d be embarrassed to say anything, especially if no one else cared.

    But this is part of how discrimination works. All sorts of little messages that the target is inferior; maybe not always intentional hostility towards anyone from the discriminator`s point of view because they lack the awareness that members of the out-group could be present, or the sensitivity to realize that constant reminders of how one doesn’t fit in are hurtful. Of course some of them realize these things very well and are just being assholes.

    This is something that a lot of Christians, especially evangelicals do in inappropriate settings(whether innocently or intentionally flaunting privilege). Saying or doing things that imply that they assume everyone nearby is one of them. “What a terrible storm; let’s all pray to Jesus that we get home safely.” It’s a set of memes that survive because it often feels rude to object.

    A discount for prayer or proof of church attendance at a restaurant is like giving a discount for being a straight, married couple.

  11. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Yeah. I’d like to see a few muslims from the area face mecca, do their prayer (without interfering with the business in any way) and then ask for the discount.

    I’m pretty sure that would cause the reaction they really want….

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