Why I Won’t Boycott Barilla
As far as I’m concerned, pasta is pasta. No matter what the shape, size, brand or color, it all tastes like pretty much like spaghetti to me. I’ve never seen the point of making it fresh, so I always procure it from the pasta shelf of the local supermarket. And more often than not, I find myself buying Barilla.
I’ve never seen Barilla advertised on TV — or anywhere else, for that matter. The brand quietly insinuated its way into my consciousness because it was among the first to offer whole-grain pasta, which (at least according to our medical sages) is more beneficial to our bellies and our arteries than the refined stuff we used to gobble so recklessly in our youth.
In fact, it surprised me that Barilla is the world’s leading brand of pasta, with a gargantuan share of the market both in its native Italy and here on these shores. I first learned about Barilla’s 135-year-old pasta empire just a couple of days ago, when the social media started swirling with accusations that the company’s chieftain, one Guido Barilla, made some detestable homophobic remarks during an Italian radio interview. As a result, right-thinking progressives everywhere were calling for a boycott of Barilla products.
Homophobia is a nasty business, of course. For untold centuries, gay men and women had to endure the scorn (and worse) of the more conventional folks with whom they shared the planet. Many if not most of them lived in a perpetual state of fear. The recent strides made on behalf of gay rights are, on the whole, a good and long-overdue sign of social justice, and you can quote me on that.
But let’s look a little more deeply into Signor Barilla’s scandalous remarks. He was quoted as saying that he would never feature a gay family in his company’s advertising. Homophobic? I’m not so sure. Did Barilla issue his comment freely, as a slap in the face of the gay rights movement? No, his radio interviewer asked him point-blank if he would ever depict a gay household as the centerpiece of an ad for Barilla.
He gave a blunt and honest answer. He’s a businessman, not a civil rights activist. According to the U.S. Census of 2010, same-sex couples account for approximately one-half of one percent of all households. The figure is probably even smaller in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy. It would be sheer marketing madness for a pasta mogul to tailor his advertising to that demographic.
Earlier this year, Cheerios ran a commercial featuring a cute, pudgy-faced little girl with a white mother and a black father. In its aftermath, you could hear the howls of protest from below the Mason Dixon Line — along with the more refined howls emanating from American liberals in response to the howls from Dixieland. If, half a century after the Civil Rights movement, so many Americans still resist the concept of interracial households, imagine the potential uproar over a televised gay couple passing the pasta bowl around to the kids. To my knowledge, no major American advertiser has stepped forward to produce such a provocative scenario. So why pick on Barilla?
Why? Because, under pressure from the interviewer, the pasta king held fast to his unfashionable definition of a family – a definition that has reigned supreme in human society for, oh, about the last ten thousand years, give or take a few thousand. That he refused to champion the more contemporary and all-embracing definition was plainly unacceptable to right-thinking progressives everywhere.
Here’s the nub of the problem I have with so many progressive thinkers. Yes, it’s fine and even laudable to support broader rights for people our society has marginalized in the past. What’s not so fine and laudable is to excoriate and excommunicate everyone who doesn’t automatically get with the program.
Like the Good Lord in his Old Testament wrath, the more impassioned progressives seem intent on damning the heretics, breaking them and banishing them to outer darkness, where there will be eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth. If they don’t like an idea, or a renegade loudmouth, or an unenlightened company, they don’t simply criticize it — they marshal their collective energies in an attempt to destroy it.
I have to confess that their lockstep liberalism frightens me. It puts me in mind of Cromwell, Robespierre, the Bolsheviks, Chairman Mao (that grandfatherly mass-murderer), and other forward-looking individuals with zero tolerance for retrograde ideas.
Conservatives, for all their recent peccadilloes, seem to be a little more tolerant of dissent. You get the feeling that despite all the righteous opposition to their often venal schemes, most of them still believe in the free marketplace of ideas. (They almost expect to be disliked.) On the other hand, I get the impression that progressives feel impelled to stamp out dissent as if it were a colony of ants invading the sanctity of the kitchen.
Granted, Guido Barilla could have been a little more sensitive. Nobody forced him to voice his opposition to gay couples adopting children. But look at it this way: here was a traditionalist… a man who grew up in the era when “family” meant a husband and wife surrounded by copious offspring… a middle-aged Italian whose company image is built around the cozy slogan “Where there’s Barilla, there’s home”… and he actually came out in favor of gay marriage during his infamous interview. (Gay marriage is still illegal in Italy, by the way.) How many corporate potentates would have been so liberal just a few years ago? And now the forward-thinking world wants to see him and his company twist slowly in the wind.
When asked how his refusal to feature a gay family in his advertising might affect his business, Barilla answered with businesslike equanimity: if gays “like our pasta and our advertising, they’ll eat our pasta, if they don’t like it then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand,” Simple as that. He’s not dismissing his gay customers; he’s conceding that they’re entitled to make a free choice. As is he.
When the public outrage hit the fan, Barilla suddenly backpedaled and, like any corporate chieftain with a good P.R. staff and a healthy respect for the bottom line, attempted to restore his name with a dose of timely damage control. I always shake my head at these cringeworthy exercises in self-abasement. If you have convictions, have the guts to stand by them – or don’t express them in the first place.
The bearded, shaggy-haired Barilla pleaded with his customers to forgive him as he came to understand “the evolution of the family.” He was planning to meet with representatives of the community he offended. It wasn’t that he’s anti-gay, he insisted. He was simply trying to say “that the woman plays a central role in a family.” (Of course, he neglected to comment on households headed by two women.)
Barilla’s apology struck me as tackier and more embarrassing than his original comments. I don’t believe anyone should be forced to renounce deeply held beliefs through bullying or boycotts. Our minds are the last vestige of privacy in a notoriously invasive world.
Yes, we need to support fairness for the formerly marginalized. That’s their birthright. But we also have a right — and yes, even a responsibility — to question fashionable ideas that grate against our instincts. Some of us will naturally take longer than others to embrace the notion of a man referring to his husband or a woman to her wife. If our progressive friends are truly friends, we shouldn’t have to worry that they’ll send us into exile.
Until further notice, I’ll continue to buy Barilla whole-grain pasta regardless of Guido’s shaky opinions on what constitutes a family. I’m not especially interested in his opinions, anyway; I’m more interested in his pasta.