There is an interesting controversy out of Winooski, Vermont over a sign for Sneakers diner. As part of a city program, Sneakers helped beautify its street with flower beds and in return was allowed to put up a sign. The diner featured its favorite dish with a sign that read: “Yield For Sneakers Bacon.” However, a Muslim woman who was also a vegan objected that a sign with the word bacon was offensive to her due to her religion’s ban on eating pork products. The diner responded by immediately taking down the sign and personally apologizing to the woman. That accommodation has led to a backlash from others who feel that the diner is yielding to ultra-sensitive individuals and encouraging such demands from others who may be offended by any number of food references and dishes.
The woman who described herself as “a vegan and a member of a Muslim household” made a complaint that called the sign offensive and that led owner Sneakers owner Marc Dysinger to take the corrective action.
It is not clear if the objection was motivated by the woman being a vegan or a Muslim. Regardless of whether this objection was from the perspective of a Muslim or a vegan or a Muslim vegan, there remains the question of whether there can be too much accommodation of such views. While tolerance is greatly (and correctly) valued in our society, there is a countervailing concern over a type of self-censorship where words and signs are increasingly eliminated to satisfy every sensitive group or individual. On a large scale, the Redskins debate has focused on this issue when a board ruled that it did not matter if a small group found a name offensive to be stripped of its trademark protections. The question is whether, despite our desire to protect values of pluralism and tolerance, we also have to protect pluralism in free speech and to resist pressure for common denominators in messages that remove every term or phrase deemed offensive to someone. There is a tendency in a tolerant society to say simply “well, what is the problem? If something hurts someone’s feelings, just change it.” However, in our world of mass communications and messaging, most messages could be deemed to have offensive elements. It requires judgment and certainly creates the danger that you will be viewed as intolerant. However, a reference to bacon — even “yielding” to bacon — would seem to all into a category of unoffensive speech by any objective standard.
This is obviously just a single small sign of a small diner in a small town. However, it is an interesting context to explore the limits of accommodation in speech and the dangers that it presents to the free exchange of ideas, tastes, and viewpoints. We have seen a comprehensive crackdown on the West on free speech under some laws combating hate speech, discriminatory speech, and even disruptive speech. While the first amendment only deals with government action, we have to be concerned about the chilling effect of private action over speech. For example, we have discussed the controversy involving Yale University Press. In a shocking decision, Yale University Press published Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons That Shook the World” (on the cartoons that led to riots and over 200 killed in protests worldwide). However, Yale removed the the 12 cartoons from the book so not to insult Muslims. Thus, you could read the book but not actually see the cartoons themselves. It was a decision by Yale University Press that is still discussed as anti-intellectual and cowardly in academic circles.
It is unclear how this person in Vermont goes through life surrounded by pictures of pork, including advertisements. The appearance left by these stories is someone who sees bacon in a sign that then stews (presumably vegan stew) for hours and days over the reference. A better lesson for her might have been for the owner to politely say that the sign was not meant to insult her but that she should consider whether she is overly sensitive as a person living in a pluralistic society with many different views and tastes. Tolerance includes the ability to walk through society and understand that you will be exposed to the expression of many things that you might not like. However, we protect your right to live your life as you choose. That does not grant the additional expectation that others will conform to your preferences in their own speech or expressions. It is hard to say that the diner should not have taken down the sign since it seemed to care little about the content of the sign. Yet, the action reinforces a view that businesses and people should yield to such objections regardless of their objective merit.
We cannot have a society where terms, words, and expressions are banished by any objection of any group. That course will drain away the vitality, diversity, and spontaneity of speech in our society. It requires not an act of intolerance but a commitment that there must be tolerance of speech and images in a pluralistic society.
What do you think?