Robert B. Simpson: Talk is cheap? Not always

October 5, 2013 

Five days ago, I'd never heard of Guido Barrilla. I had occasionally bought one of his products, but without being aware of who he was or caring to know his innermost thoughts.

Then Guido, in a puzzling move that seems to be part of a self-destructive pattern among some businessmen of late, shared some of those thoughts with me and the rest of the world. Chairman of the privately owned company that makes the well-known Barilla-brand Italian pasta, Guido unburdened himself in an interview on an Italian radio program. He said gays will never be used in any Barilla advertising, because his company treasures the traditional family and the woman's place in it, and that if gays don't like that, "they can always go eat somebody else's pasta." Apparently thousands of gays are determined to do just that, along with thousands more friends of gays, families of gays, and just ordinary folks who dislike needless, and heedless, inflicting of hurt.

In the time-honored fashion, Guido Barilla quickly back-tracked and offered a series of non-apologies -- you know the kind: "If anything I said offended anybody, I am sorry," etc. Public relations folks in his company, including the American branch, have offered their own versions of an apology. Whether any of this will reduce the ill will so unnecessarily generated remains to be seen. A great many people have expressed a combination of anger and regret -- anger at Guido and regret that they now feel honor-bound no longer to buy and enjoy what many consider to be one of the best brands of pasta on the market.

Neither my taste nor my culinary skills are so highly developed that I can tell that much difference in a plate of pasta. I can louse up the preparation of one brand as easily as another. That said, I can't swear that I won't buy some Barilla angel hair next week or next month, not because I'm in favor of bigotry and corporate stupidity, but because I'm not all that convinced that individual boycotts have much effect. I admit to ambivalence on the subject. Some things I refuse to buy and use for what I consider personal ethical reasons. But I think of that in the same way as someone not eating pork for religious reasons, and I don't expect it to have any effect on commerce, nor am I doing it to make a statement.

Not long ago, a member of the Cathy family, of Chick-Fil-A fame, made statements about same-sex marriage that offended many. Lots of people swore off eating the restaurant's products. Many others went out of their way to support the company. Unofficial word is that business has increased. In any case, I doubt that the temporary boycott could have had much effect on the Cathy family's bank accounts. Hired help, yes. Owners, not likely.

Conducting your daily life while playing hop-scotch around the personal beliefs and attitudes of industrialists, corporate leaders, and other prominent commercial heads is a tricky business and requires balancing gains against losses. Henry Ford was a rabid anti-Semite. John and Horace Dodge, for all we know, may have been even worse, but if so they kept it to themselves. So how did you decide between a Dodge and a Ford if your purchase was based on the manufacturer's personal beliefs? One member of the Cathy family may express beliefs you consider terrible, but his restaurants produce some really good chicken sandwiches. And owners of the chicken place next door may be worse.

The choice is yours, of course. But how much effect on the target or how much personal satisfaction will a personal boycott produce and at what personal sacrifice?

A separate but always tantalizing question: Why do leaders in enterprises depending upon public commerce feel called upon to express their personal opinions on subjects bound to alienate a segment of their patronage? We all have the right to think the most hateful, bigoted, racist thoughts in the world. The problems come when we feel compelled to announce them proudly to the rest of the world.

There's an old German saying I like: "Reden ist silber, schweigen is geld." Translation: "Speech is silver, silence is gold."

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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