Tuesday, February 4, 2014

One Language, Under Force

I watched the Super Bowl.  Well, "watched" might be putting it a bit strongly.  I watched the first part, a very short part, in which the Broncos seemed as though they might have had a decent chance to win.  After that, I watched mostly to see what other parts could fall off the Denver bandwagon.  Congratulations to Seattle; they thoroughly outclassed their opponents.

That left the halftime show and the commercials.  I have to say that I didn't even watch those very assiduously, though I find the idea that they aren't as good as they used to be to be about a step or two shy of yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off the lawn.  It's Cranky Old Geezer time!

But even through my haze of disappointment in the football game, I did manage to get a look at the Coca-Cola "America the Beautiful" commercial.

The one-minute spot consists of a sequence of short video vignettes of the broad span of Americana, against which is sung "America the Beautiful."  There's nothing at all contentious about that, as far as it goes, of course.  What seems to have gotten lots of people in a lather is the fact that, except for the first and last phrase, the song is sung in several different languages.  No doubt Coca-Cola wanted to evoke the idea that part of what makes America beautiful is the wide variety of people that make it up, and that's what the commercial does.  In fact, Coca-Cola went so far as to follow the commercial up with a tweet, just in case someone missed the point:

Apparently, that's not the message that many people got.  I imagine the reaction of Coca-Cola to the some of the retweets ranged from bemused concern to horrified astonishment.  (Or maybe they're more cynical than that; it's quite plausible.)  I don't have the patience to drag them all out, obviously, so I'll just link to a collection of some of them here.

As might be expected, there's also been a backlash against those reactions, lambasting them as racist or ignorant or condescending, or who knows what.  I won't attempt to characterize them one way or the other; as I like to say, people feel what they feel, and it's pointless to tell them they're "wrong" to feel that way.  But I think it is interesting to try to suss out just why they feel that way.  What is it about diversity, in what seems like such a harmless context, that spooks some people?  Is our sense of national pride so fragile that it relies upon the exclusive use of a language that was brought forth onto this continent for the first time not half a millennium ago?  I have no idea whether one of the languages used in the commercial was an Amerind tongue (maybe someone can tell me), but I wonder what the reaction to that would be.

The melting-pot metaphor used to be a point of pride for us; it's a central point of one of those Schoolhouse Rock shorts, for those of you who remember those.  I don't remember anyone lashing back at those a few decades ago.  Shall we say to those who object to singing "America the Beautiful" in anything other than English that they are simply being too sensitive?

In connection with that possibility, let me introduce another commercial, which aired last year (and was brought back to mind by a friend of mine):

Notice anything out of the ordinary?  I have to admit that the first time I watched this, I didn't.  Then, my friend pointed out, "Look at who's in the box."  My reaction to this was, "Oh, PoCs in a box," since the forward-thinking hotel guest (who incidentally spouts some meaningless marketing mumbo-jumbo, but that's neither here nor there) is a white male, and all the persons of color, along with a white male or two (for variety I suppose), are in the box.  Even the guy who thinks to venture out before scurrying back to the safety of the box is a white male.  (I must say that the look of relief on the woman next to him is hilarious.  She should get a Cleo for that.)

A "natural" reaction by some people, in response to such a comment, might well be "Oh, you're being too sensitive.  They had to put someone outside the box; it just so happens it was a white guy."  In isolation, that point might be arguable.  However, it happens too frequently for it to be just random chance.  The vast majority of business travellers I work with are white males, and it's not surprising that they (the primary target of the commercial, after all) would prefer to see someone like themselves as the hero of the story.

I see too frequently, however, the objection that people of color have an inferiority complex, that they play the race card too readily, that they are too comfortable in the victim role.  Does it really make sense that a group of people who are actually empowered would feel that way, that instead of doing what they're capable of, they would rather lie down and cry foul?  I'm not sure that there's been a significant group of people like that in the history of ever.  Regardless of whether that group is a victim of discrimination as they claim, or for some constitutional reason is less capable, or both, it's utterly implausible to me that they would rather blame someone else than have more power.  Blame may be a salve for what ails them, but equal power is the cure.  A small number of them might miss that, but not the whole group.

Could something similar be at work with the reaction to the Coca-Cola commercial?  Is it that people feel upset about the commercial because it represents a situation they have little or no immediate control over?  Undoubtedly that's part of it.  After all, the tweets are rife with threats to boycott Coke, but these threats would have essentially no impact on Coke's bottom line even were they credible.  As it is, I suspect the vast majority of those would-be boycotters will be back to drinking Coke before the month is out.  Inexpensive habits can be terribly hard to break.  And at any rate, Coca-Cola is here serving only as a proxy for what some evidently see as a distressing trend toward inclusiveness.

Isn't it provocative, though, that each side sees a given cultural portrayal as betraying an awful truth, and often speaks out vigorously against it—something that the other side views as oversensitive and tiresome?  And this may be the crux of the matter: that there is a kind of massive joint cognitive dissonance between the way that the various groups perceive the current cultural situation, and the way that the various groups think the situation should be.  This dissonance is made all the more contentious by the striking symmetry between the views.

There is one thing, however, that distinguishes the two cases, as exemplified by these commercials, and that is the distinction between equality and uniformity, something that has stuck with me ever since it was first explained to me in stark simplicity in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0b/WrinkleInTimePBA1.jpgWhat is at the root of the desire for uniformity (for I see no other way to describe, as succinctly, the demand that people sing this song in English) that the Coca-Cola tweets share?  It seems to me that it aims for a feeling of security, that if we only trust those people who cleave to the majority culture, then all will be well in this world gone mad.  But if that's so, is it necessary to demand uniformity?  Can't we feel secure without insisting on the elimination of the traces of other cultures?  Why not cut the middle man of uniformity out of the picture entirely?

I fear, though, that this is not likely until people see that this kind of uniformity not only isn't the end goal, but is actually counter-productive as far as any real kind of security is concerned.  I like to say that religion is a laser of the people, by which I mean that it moves people to behave and operate in unison, almost as though they constituted a single being, which can do certain things that the individuals couldn't do, separately.  But that same uniformity has a cost, because if all the individuals uniformly have a weakness, that weakness is passed onto the group as a whole, and is not amortized, so to speak.  I'm reminded of the old Aesop's fable in which an old man, near the end of his life, demonstrates to his sons the value of unity by tying together a bundle of sticks.  That bundle, of course, could not be broken by vigorous effort, even as the individual sticks were easily snapped.  It's ironic to think, though, that one could quickly slice through the bundle if one were to cut lengthwise.

The amortization of weaknesses is what makes diverse groups so robust.  It's why a farm made up of a single strain of high-yield crops is not a good long-term strategy.  It's why a diversified investment portfolio is safer than one that relies on a single kind of asset.  And why shouldn't the same kind of reasoning apply just as well to people as to crops or funds?  Yes, uniformity is good in moderate doses, for it enables feats that could not be achieved otherwise, but in doses large enough to dominate an entire country, it's dangerous.  It's dangerous not only because it makes the country more vulnerable, but also because it is such an appealing dogma.

Who knows if there will come a time when ads like Coca-Cola's will not produce such a strong negative reaction.  But if it does, it will be because people understand, viscerally, the value of diversity, and do not see it for the demise of national security.

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