Where does one draw the line between reasonable conversation and the end of compromise?
This is a question that has been on my mind a lot lately. I recently ended contact with some people who’d been in my life a long time because I had reached the end of compromise on certain issues. But then I turned around on social media and advocated for diplomatic solutions to diametrically opposed political and social stances. How do these thoughts coexist? Can they?
My answer is yes, but with caveats that require unpacking privilege and identifying context.
In defense of bad advertisements
Social beverages, like soft drinks and beers, have recently decided to enter into the public conversation of social discourse, with mixed results. Pepsi and Heineken have both received a lot of free publicity by both enraging and encouraging the consuming public with recent advertisements. Pepsi with a cringe-worthy, tone-deaf, white-washed ad of stunning incompetence meant solely to cash in on the lives of victims. It was universally regarded as awful. Heineken followed suit with an ad that ostensibly posed the question about whether or not people with diametrically opposed political views could enjoy a beer and talk about their differences. While met with different responses, it has been (rightfully, in my view, but more on that later) criticized for also being tone deaf and irresponsible towards victims.
Full disclosure: I liked the Heineken advert. It spoke to that place within me that yearns for diplomatic responses to seemingly insurmountable differences and wishes very much I could be the kind of person who engages people in reasonable conversation and (if I’m being honest) emerges the hero by changing minds with my wit and charm and ability to connect with other humans.
It’s important to note, however, that I’m not particularly victimized by opposition to my ideological stances. I’m a white, middle-aged, straight, (nearly) middle-class, able-bodied, (mostly) neurotypical, English speaking, American cisgender woman. I mentioned in my original analysis on the commercial that people who are victimized or even marginalized by their social/economic/biological position are under no obligations to respond diplomatically to their oppressors. I believe that strongly. As a woman who has been silenced most of her life by patriarchal views on my “place” in society, I am in favor lashing out when backed into a corner.
On wielding a sword
In my personal life, I recently reached the end of my rope trying to deal with relatives who hold opposing ideological views and insist that we share reasonable and “respectful” conversations about it. I’d had about as many quiet, diplomatic conversations as I could have with someone who used those conversations as a tool to further their agenda without actually listening to mine. Who brow-beat me with the idea of “respect” where respect meant I couldn’t express my anger or hurt or disappointment that they would espouse – and more importantly vote – for policies that actively threatened my loved ones.
So I got angry. I yelled (or at least used the caps-lock equivalent), I stopped validating their perspective, and I definitely stopped sandwiching my criticism between affirmations and compromise. I pulled out my firebrand persona and let loose with the sort of vitriol that I felt was absolutely called for when facing viewpoints that maintained a status quo of oppression and bigotry. In the end, they offered to never communicate with me again, and I gratefully accepted. I was and am convinced of both the rightness and appropriateness of my response. A response that is about as far from discussing our problems over a friendly beer as one can get.
The cognitive dissonance dance
The most conspicuous criticism I’ve seen against the Heineken ad was that the premise gave equal credence to unequal premises. In other words, the sort of false neutrality that the alt-right is famous for advocating, and, not coincidentally, why I recently cut off family members.
So, why did I advocate for representation of a diplomatic response? And a clumsy, ill equipped one, at that? Context, for one answer, and privilege, for another:
I’m not disadvantaged in the way that so many of my friends and family are. I’m not going to be immediately, physically threatened by the presence of an anti-trans bigot, or a climate change denier. Given my numerous other privileges, I’m not even particularly threatened by an anti-feminist blow hard. When I superimpose myself onto those positions by giving in to the manipulations of a 3 minute advertisement, it creates a context that makes it easier to imagine being able to talk about it. It lightens my burden of self-examination and transports me to setting where real danger isn’t happening to real people.
The problem, of course, is obvious. And while the commercial may have been targeting people like me, it was speaking for people who are regularly victimized by their ideological opponents. The result was a statement on the irrelevancy of those victims, and it stung those who recognized it right away. It should have done the same for me. As a friend put it, a company with the economic resources of a multinational beer distributor had the ability to not make that statement (intentional or not) and should have done better. The fact that so many people find themselves analyzing the content (and, I dearly hope, their response to it) should be a strong indicator that if a company with that sort of reach wants to weigh in on social issues, it had better get it right the first time. The idea isn’t enough. The execution matters. Context matters. Privilege matters.
Speaking for myself only, I am privileged to be in a position where I can talk to dissenting people with a reasonable expectation of safety. A better context for Heineken’s intention would have been to put someone like me in a room with the anti-trans person and let us drink and talk. Those are ideological differences. An actual transperson or feminist woman of color is not going to feel safe in real life sitting across from someone who denies their right to exist and who is also diminishing their inhibitions with alcohol. (That part was weird to me from the start.)
I vehemently disagree with the assertion I’ve seen circulated that it’s “stupid” to like the Heineken ad. It’s not stupid to advocate for diplomatic solutions to ideological differences. It’s how politics work, it’s how we manage to not murder our neighbors, and how we keep from becoming totalitarian societies. Taking the ad at face value, however, is imperceptive at best, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here. Diplomacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Criticizing Heineken’s failure to acknowledge the real dangers inherent in some of our differences is appropriate and necessary, as is identifying the dangers of promoting solutions that begin on false equivalency. But since progressive liberals don’t seem poised to unleash a violent revolution, a framework for discussing tenable, peaceful solutions to resolving those differences also seems appropriate and necessary. At the very least, Heineken’s wishful thinking advertisement pointed out that the lack of such leaves a void many of us would like to see filled.