It should first be said that the decision by Chick-fil-A demonstrates the power that these controversies and protests can have and with pressure, despite the convictions of its owner, such policies can be overturned. However, the larger effect is going to be to create a powerful disincentive for other individuals and business with public prominence because they see how damaging such a controversy can be. The power of protests is often more in changing incentive structures for the future than it is accomplishing the specific goals of the moment, but in this case if getting the donations to anti-gay groups revoked is considered a goal, then mission accomplished.
The comments made by Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy were, one has to admit, not particularly egregious in the context of the political sphere. Somewhere around half of Americans and one of the two main political parties is against gay marriage; the initial comments were not even particularly egregiously stated. Nor is Chick-fil-A's owner of any special prominence over any number of other public figures - such as Mitt Romney who also claims to be against gay marriage - so that they would be held to some higher standard of scrutiny. In fact, it is not really clear why this particular statement at this time by this person manages to spring to such prominence and controversy.
Compare this to the protest throughout much of the Muslim world at an anti-Muslim film that follows similar protests over Danish cartoons, Terry Jones Koran burning and Salmon Rushdie. Comments against Islam, much like those against gays, are made daily in the west. Only a select few ever jump out into such a huge controversy, and one of the most difficult things for those of us in the west to understand is why this film - which seems like such a minor and unknown film hardly representative of America - sparks such a ridiculous level of protests that have resulted in deaths.
Much of the explanation for this is relatively random. Once a story gets some level of critical mass, whatever the reason, momentum carries it forward into something vastly larger than is justified by comparison to similar stories. For example, when the leader of Hezbollah condemns the video, this build the level of protests around it since he is such an important figure but he would only have commented if the story is already sufficiently big for him to bother commenting on it.
We can specify some conditions, however, on what it takes for an issue to balloon as these two did. Firstly, the story needs to be sufficiently noteworthy to pass a threshold by which it gets actually noticed. Most murders, for instance, are only noteworthy enough to get local news attention, but some small subset, like the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of Zimmerman, are sufficiently interesting in some way to get some attention. If it doesn't pass this threshold, the story just dies.
Secondly, and more importantly, it must fit into some latent narrative in society that people can use this particularly story to express in terms of a larger existing conflict in society that people can use to present this story as an example of. In the case of Chick-fil-A, the larger conflict latent in society is about accepting gay marriage and the opportunity was taken to decry the far too persistent homophobia that is common. On the other side, while some defended Chick-fil-A because they also oppose marriage equality, the major defense was a defense of freedom of speech, so it became a conflict between condemning a bigoted statement and action contrasted with the freedom to allow such an action. Because the conditions existed to have positive feedback based on this latent conflict, and because it was sufficiently noteworthy to pass the threshold so it got noticed, the story ballooned out of control.
Likewise do the protests in the Muslim world. Rightly or wrongly, it is simply a fact that there are large portions of the population in the Middle East that believes that America is Islamophobic, that it does regularly insult Islam, and takes numerous foreign policy actions that can be see as attacking Islam. Of course, while one can be very critical of US foreign policy in the Middle East or of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West generally, such a crude characterization is clearly ludicrous and the idea of protesting such a minor fringe view seems ridiculous. Nonetheless, the sentiment does exist and so when the movie managed to spark past the threshold, the protest gained mass so quickly because it entirely fit into this latent narrative, and allowed the protests to be an outpouring of much more generic anti-Americanism much as the protest of Chick-fil-A represents a much more generic defense of gay marriage than criticism of the original comments that sparked the controversy.
A particularly egregious example has been the blow up over Obama's "you didn't build that" comment, which Republicans have blown up into being the biggest attack tag line against Obama for months now, devoting an entire day of their conventions to the line. It is egregious because the comment is entirely taken out of context and was meant to mean something very different than it was taken to mean. Initially it was ignored, but gained prominence on some right wing blogs before it snowballed into a big "controversy". However, part of the reason for this is that the misinterpretation fits entirely into the latent Republican narrative of Obama, namely that he somehow hates business and doesn't believe they can do anything without Big Government. A such, regardless of the veracity of the "you didn't build that" comment, it has this powerful reinforcing mechanism and after it passed the threshold of gaining attention it blew up into the comment it did.
Another example was Slutwalk. This originated from a silly comment from a Toronto police officer regarding rape and dressing slutty. There is a strong sentiment in modern feminism that is trying to normalize the idea that being "slutty", for the lack of a better word, is entirely acceptable and, at the very least, should not result in one iota of blame if a rape occurs. This is, for the most part, a good movement. However, at least to my knowledge, while this sentiment had been brewing for sometime there had yet to be a big protest specifically on that issue of exonerating women who dress slutty and get raped. The timing was right, and the cop's comment lit the fuse and shortly afterwards there is the international protest that was Slutwalk.
We can not hope to have any ability to predict these things in general, and it is hard to say when a only moderately egregious comment by a relatively unimportant person will result in some form of mass protest. The best we can do is not the various conditions, such as passing a threshold to get noticed and fitting in to some latent narrative, that they ought to have in order to be able to snowball the way that Chick-fil-A or Slutwalk or the anti-Islamophobic video protests did.
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