Wilco's Bold Cancellation, Indiana's RFRA, and the Idiotic Concern Trolling to Come

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For those who haven’t heard, Wilco announced on Facebook that they were canceling a May 7 show in Indianapolis in response to Indiana’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“We are canceling our May 7 show at the Murat in Indianapolis,” the band wrote. “The ‘Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act’ feels like thinly disguised legal discrimination to us. Hope to get back to the Hoosier State someday soon, when this odious measure is repealed. Refunds available at point of purchase.”

As background, Indiana’s RFRA was passed last Monday by the state’s House of Representatives, and signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence on Thursday. It’s nominally a “religious freedom bill,” and while a federal RFRA was passed in 1993 and several states have passed similar laws, Indiana’s version differs in that it extends “religious freedom” to private businesses. Essentially, according to LGBT activists (and many others), the law offers legal protection to companies that want to discriminate against customers on a religious basis. The implications aren’t totally clear, but there is now a possible legal shield for private corporations who refuse service to gay customers.

The Atlantic does a great job outlining how Indiana’s law differs from the federal RFRA and versions passed by other states. There, Garrett Epps also notes that the motivation for Indiana’s statute may well have been a 2014 New Mexico case where a “same-sex couple sued a professional photography studio that refused to photograph the couple’s wedding.” The studio tried to use a state RFRA as a defense, but the state supreme court ruled that it didn’t apply in cases where the government wasn’t involved. What the Indiana RFRA does is extend this ‘religious freedom’ protection to cases involving two private parties.

Now, I don’t want to get into a huge debate about whether Indiana was right to pass this law. By my tone thus far, you can probably interpret how I feel without much trouble, but I’d rather bang my head against a wall at the Indiana House of Representatives than get sucked into the morass of an Internet political debate.

What I want to talk about instead is Wilco’s decision to cancel its Indianapolis concert, and the concern trolling that has broken out on the band’s Facebook page—passive-aggressive whining that will undoubtedly begin to spread.

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There are many definitions for the term “concern trolling.” The generally accepted version goes something like this: Pretending to take the side of a certain argument while expressing doubts or concerns about some aspect of that side’s agenda, with the ultimate aim of undermining them completely. As a simple example, imagine a Hillary Clinton supporter in the 2008 primaries visiting a Barack Obama message board and writing this:

“I’m a huge fan of Obama and I support all his policies, and I agree that in a perfect world, he’d be the ideal candidate. But I’m concerned that our country will never elect a black president, and I’m wondering if it’s smarter for everyone to rally around a more traditional candidate just to make sure the Republicans don’t win.”

That person would be a concern troll—sowing fear and doubt into Obama’s supporters in an attempt to sabotage his candidacy.

As you might imagine, the term gets abused by those who want their adherents to follow in lockstep with every tenet of a certain agenda. Going back to the theoretical Obama ‘08 website, a legitimate supporter might say, “why won’t he take a concrete stand on gay marriage?” That person might get shouted down as a ‘concern troll’ when the truth is that he or she might be legitimately concerned. It’s not always easy to differentiate between the two, but typically, it’s not rocket science.

Back to Wilco. After the announcement, the concern trolls came out swinging in response. Here’s a sample of the typical arguments (there are now almost 6,000 comments on the post):

1. So what do your fans or the venue have to do with the law that was passed? Now you’re just alienating people who have nothing to do with nothing.

2. I was saved by rock and roll, too. I get the solidarity stance, but fail to see how denying music lovers the chance to get saved for a couple of hours solves anything.

3. So, in order to show it is “against discrimination” (but not very good at critical thinking), Wilco is now refusing to honor a contract and provide music performance services to an entire state, thus discriminating against Indiana.

4. Then you should also cancel all your shows in the 20 other states with the same/similar laws including tennessee…this is not a new law. Just saying. This seems like more of a publicity stunt by this band.

5. So you want to punish your fans. What a ridiculous gesture. Your fans didn’t write the legislation and your absence will have zero impact. Your support otherwise could perhaps have made a difference. Way to go.

Let’s take these point by point.

All you’re doing is punishing the fans!

Nope. By drawing attention to Indiana’s law, and showing that it will have consequences for the people of the state, Wilco is increasing the already significant pressure on Mike Pence and the politicians of Indiana. It’s also magnifying the pressure on the state’s citizens to push for reform. Any attempt to make Wilco look like the bad guy is just diverting responsibility from where it belongs. Indiana lost this concert because of its government, not because Jeff Tweedy hates his fans.

The fans are innocent bystanders!

As far as I know, Mike Pence and the Indiana House of Representatives didn’t take power through a violent coup d’etat—I feel like I would have heard about that. They were elected by the people, and like it or not, the people are a reflection of their elected leaders. Believe me, I know this is a tough pill to swallow — I live in North Carolina — but it’s the truth.

You’re discriminating just like they are!

It’s hugely disingenuous to lump together a state government that is actively offering protection for private businesses who want to deny service to a certain group of people, and a band that chooses to cancel a show in protest. In the 1970s, Americans boycotted Polaroid because the company did business with the South African apartheid government. Would you ever have said that the Americans were “discriminating” against Polaroid the same way that South Africa was discriminating against its black citizens? Nobody’s arguing that Indiana has reached the level of apartheid, but the philosophical illegitimacy of the argument is the same. False equivalency is a hallmark of the concern troll.

Why aren’t you boycotting all the other RFRA states?

We’ve covered how the Indiana statute differs from those that came before, but the truth is, even if their RFRA was identical to its predecessors, this is still a toothless argument. The reality is that Indiana has taken center stage, and if the opposition adopted the attitude of, “well, it’s already happened, so I guess we should just let it slide,” it would give carte blanche to other states to pass similar legislation. This is a classic concern troll tactic—the implication that something offensive should be excused because it happens to be status quo. The fact that a stand should have been taken years earlier doesn’t diminish the importance of taking one now.

This won’t make any impact! It won’t solve the problem!

Wrong. It’s already made an impact, and a pretty big one, publicity-wise. Reasonable people can disagree about the long-term effects—maybe this will rally the conservative base more than it riles up the liberal opposition—but Wilco have successfully drawn more attention to Indiana’s RFRA, and increased the pressure on Mike Pence. Yet again, we see a quintessential concern troll stratagem: You’re not going to change anything, so why bother speaking up? The idea that it’s not a worthwhile stand since it won’t singlehandedly revoke the RFRA is similarly short-sighted and troll-ish—even though he guest-starred on Parks & Recreation once, Jeff Tweedy is not an Indiana politician. Within his purview, he’s done everything he can. It’s not his job to be Political Superman.

When you reduce the concern troll tactics to their baseline absurdity, this becomes a very simple issue. Wilco doesn’t like Indiana’s RFRA. Wilco took a stand by canceling a concert in the state. The cancelation drew more attention to the law, and proved that there are repercussions to its passage—even if those repercussions are limited to one concert by one band. They know, though, that change isn’t enacted in one dramatic, sweeping moment, but by an accumulation of consequences. By jumping in with both feet at the start of the process, Wilco might prove to have a bigger impact than anyone expected.

Even if that snowball effect never comes to pass, and Indiana businesses proudly assert their legally protected right to turn away LGBT customers for decades to come, the failure doesn’t belong to Wilco. Standing up for your beliefs is the right thing to do, even when you lose.

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