Gay Person + Cake = News, Even If It's a Hoax

A likely fake incident becomes yet another culture war contretemps.


Source: Austin Kaplan, Jordan Brown's attorney

When the initial reporting hit the internet that a pastor in Austin, Texas, was suing over a baker at Whole Foods writing the word "FAG" on top of a cake he ordered, I immediately thought "hoax," and then attempted to move on. The whole thing just set off so many alarm bells. Why would that happen, at a Whole Foods no less? Why would a baker risk getting fired just to insult a customer like that? Why was the pastor holding a press conference?

Sadly, in the past decade or so there have been quite a few attempts to stage anti-gay incidents. Some have been more elaborate and much more disturbing than this cake case. Take, for example, the case of Nebraska woman Charlie Rogers, who in 2012 staged what appeared to be an anti-gay home invasion attack, where she claimed three men broke into her house, assaulted her, and carved anti-gay slurs into her body. The wounds turned out to be self-inflicted, and eventually she was charged by police with filing a false report and pleaded no contest in 2013.

That was another case where the elements that made the story the most newsworthy were also ones that should have inspired skepticism: Gay bashings are generally not so meticulously planned out—how did the attackers know who she was, where she lived, and that she was gay?

So it was a bit of a surprise to see the cake story blow up in the news the way it has. Whole Foods is calling Pastor Jordon Brown's bluff, releasing surveillance footage from the store to show that Jordan, despite claiming otherwise, has tampered with the box and insisting their bakers did not write the offensive word on his cake in icing. They're also countersuing him and his lawyer.

While the Rogers case from 2012 did get national coverage, this much less serious cake complaint has become a temporary national spectacle. It seems counterintuitive, but look at how much our media and social culture in just four years has started revolving around a cycle of outrage and conduct call-outs. Just yesterday Matt Welch took note that a major daily newspaper passed along claims with very little evidence that a baseball fans in St. Louis yelled racial epithets at a black player—so little evidence that's it's likely not true.

This manifestation of culture war fighting ends up ruining people's lives. If Whole Foods didn't have surveillance footage, what might have happened to that baker accused of writing a slur on Brown's cake? And that's just small potatoes compared to what's happening on college campuses. As Robby Soave has been reporting for Reason, we've entered an environment where accusations of sexual misconduct carry the same weight of actual evidence, and it is harming people's educational opportunities and their futures.

When a significant chunk of people embrace the idea that they are victims within a culture, this is not just an abstraction. Eventually cries of vague systemic mistreatment must ultimately lead to actual examples of identifiable people causing harm to others. There can't be a victim without an oppressor, at least not in the long term. That's what makes these fraud cases worth worrying about for libertarians, even those who feel as though they have no stake in the current left-right culture war oppression Olympics. Brown and Rogers made claims that could be potentially tracked down to identifiable people. Imagine if suspects had been arrested in that home invasion case. She could have ended up sending people to prison if police forensics hadn't discovered her fraud. College students are being denied their full defenses against accusations of criminal behavior by college administrators and getting kicked out.

Furthermore, it overrules any serious discussion over the extent that actual harms or victimization is taking place. There is so much focus on hyperbole in order to get attention that it's simply not possible to treat any data as credible. Accusations are treated as sacred truths. Fraudulent occurrences are used to indict entire movements. It's hard to actually evaluate the actual nature of risk, the extent that government intervention is necessary (or whether it's needed at all), and other rational responses to these cultural concerns because it gets in the way of the "us vs. them" scenario. Pointing out that there's no widespread conspiracy to deny gay couples wedding services that would make government intervention necessary is countered by memes about lunchroom counters from the civil rights era. Pointing out that rape suspects have the same right as every other crime suspect to be considered innocent until proven guilty is treated as an attack on the victim's integrity. Pointing out that there's very little verifiable evidence that men want to find reasons to get away with sneaking into women's restrooms for malicious purposes doesn't stop any fear-driven advertisements insisting the opposite.

And so, under these circumstances, a claim that somebody wrote the word "fag" on a cake is going to become national news. It hits everything about the current zeitgeist: the call-out component of the pastor actually holding a press conference about the incident; the current fight over what comes next for the gay, lesbian and transgender citizenry now that marriage recognition is settled; the outrage over the use of a forbidden word; the fact that many people simply believed what Brown claimed despite it seeming pretty unlikely; and even the fact that a cake was involved. That this incident doesn't actually help resolve any cultural conflict in any way, shape, or form is not relevant. It might even be the point.