For five long minutes I gave serious thought to donating to Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Ind. — just enough to cover a slice or two, and maybe a soda. Don’t get me wrong: I have no particular affection for Crystal O’Connor, the hapless young co-owner who told a TV crew she wouldn’t cater gay weddings, but I have no love, either, for bullies, and in this case — as all too often these days — the bullies were us. I’ve been in the media for 20 years, so I know how easy it is for a dogged reporter to find someone — anyone — to say whatever their editor is looking for that day. Here, the sacrificial lamb was O’Connor, speaking off-the-cuff, and without fully appreciating the ways in which the toxic stew of social media and self-righteousness would turn Memories Pizza into a national byword for prejudice — and, just as inevitably, a cause célèbre for social conservatives. Naturally, we were outraged afresh to discover that our original outrage had backfired, helping Memories to secure more than $800,000 in donations from sympathizers.
All of this, of course, served to deflect attention away from the politicians — the real villains — and though Indiana did indeed modify its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it was more likely due to pressure from that great beacon of civil rights, Walmart, than our furious storm-in-a-teacup debate over whether a skanky pizza joint should be forced to cater gay weddings.
So I have a question for those pizza-loving equality warriors who tied up Facebook and Twitter for days with their indignant tirades: What is it about Crystal O’Connor that makes you care so much? She may be a terrible woman, or ignorant, or unhappy, or deeply religious, or even a self- hating lesbian, but whoever she is, absolutely no one outside of Walkerton, Ind. (pop. 2,247), needs to know or care about her views on any subject, much less LGBT equality. Doing so gives those views weight they never deserved. We all know people—relatives or neighbors, maybe—who might say the same thing in an unguarded moment. Until a few years ago, even our progressive president didn’t support gay marriage (a fact he seems eager to have us forget), much less catering one, so what makes O’Connor the lightning rod?
The truth is that it was our choice to care, but if we insist on that path we’re going to spend an awful lot of time getting pointlessly angry. I felt the same way in 2013, when the Internet exploded in a froth of fury because the chairman of Barilla, an Italian pasta maker, made a point of saying he would not include gay families in the company’s advertising (though he was in favor of gay marriage). Gosh, what a slap in the face that was! GLAAD quickly issued a statement encouraging people to switch to “more inclusive brands like Bertolli,” while the veteran campaigner Michelangelo Signorile announced that, henceforth, he’d make his own pasta. Good for him — homemade pasta is delicious — but most of us had been eating spaghetti quite happily for years, without ever wondering why Neil Patrick Harris and his adorable kids weren’t smiling back at us from the box. I’m all for LGBT-friendly advertising, but I can’t help feeling that our growing hysteria — the cry of the mob — is the sound of the formerly powerless fetishizing their victimhood.
All minorities are acutely sensitive to being belittled and disparaged, and rightly so, but in the febrile world of the Web, it’s easy to take umbrage at every passing slight. We begin to care too much about whether our pasta is too conservative, or if a pizza maker will cater a hypothetical wedding in a state that until just recently didn’t even have marriage equality. We act like petty tyrants exploding in anger whenever someone says something that falls foul of approved policy. Increasingly, of course, the targets of that anger are other LGBT people, because that is the way tyranny works — the enemy eventually becomes anyone who is not on exactly the same page, exactly the same word, at exactly the same time. It makes us less compassionate, less generous. Is gay-friendly macaroni and wedding pizza really worth that?