Steven Heller | Essays

Being Sensitive to Insensitivity

One of the complaints from white voters during the last presidential election, which reflected opinions voiced by Americans for more than a couple of decades, was that America has become overly sensitive to insensitivity. Fiery protest and shame are triggered with push-button ease. Yet even before what is now derisively called an era of “political correctness,” righteous indigence had long been heaped upon people with malicious intent spouting racism, sexism and jingoism against others. Then again, in many instances malicious insensitivity (like racism, sexism and jingoism) has been tolerated and justified in this country as timeworn norms.

I was ostracized as a kid at one of the schools I attended for being Jewish. Although I was not prevented from attending the school, and my tormentors were punished because their actions went counter to the school’s professed policies, I suffered bullying in any case. Some, but not all, of my oppressors were actually taught to be more tolerant. Insensitivity is not, I learned, always intentional.

Last week President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons by asserting that even Adolf Hitler did not “sink to that level of warfare,” despite Hitler's use of gas chambers to kill millions of Jews. Was this insensitive, historically ignorant, both, or something more malicious? “We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said. “So you have to, if you're Russia, ask yourself: Is this a country that you, and a regime, that you want to align yourself with? You have previously signed onto international agreements, rightfully acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons should be out of bounds by every country.”

Ok, it was not only insensitive, it was downright stupid. He apologized, arguing he was trying to make a point that Assad was a very, very bad guy. So maybe Spicer's insensitivity was, like the road to hell, paved with good intentions. Given his communication skills, he has a tough road to hoe.

Despite Spicer's comments, Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner advertisement won the insensitivity prize of the week. But was this truly insensitive or silly exploitation? Or was it just the proverbial good intention that misfired?

Upon watching the commercial, flashbacks from the 60s and 70s flew by. One was the famous photograph by Mark Riboud of a teenager named Jan Rose Kasmir holding a flower in front of a National Guardsman’s rifle at a 1967 anti-Vietnam war rally at the Pentagon. “If you look at my face,” she told The Guardian in 2014, “I am extremely sad at the moment I realized how young these boys were.” The other was the 1971 “I’d like to Buy The World A Coke” television commercial, which was less authentic than the Riboud photo but nonetheless motivational. The Pepsi commercial was a confused juxtaposition of a sensitive issue with a celebrity and consumable that had nothing to do with either.

On the surface, Pepsi’s trope was almost a parody of the Riboud photo with a dab of Coke’s kumbya sentimentality. But underneath the concept was the attempt by a major brand to make a critical connection with its consumers that other brands have done without being criticized. Bennetton, Kenneth Cole, Ben & Jerry's, Tom’s of Maine, Gap, Patagonia and Dove have all also done so-called “cause advertising” as part of their brand story. Granted, some cause ads are more effective (read as authentic) than others. Dove focused on self-image in such a compassionate way that the viewer does not feel the heavy hand of product placement and Patagonia’s “Common Threads” actually encourages recycling their clothing to show strong, sustainable core values. Pepsi was not recruiting for the “resistance” but it was acknowledging its existence.

Pepsi’s failed attempt to align with Black Lives Matter, did not have a light touch, especially when Ms. Jenner, who transforms from super model to super marcher, offers a can of Pepsi to a policeman. Yet in the grand scheme of American exploitative tomfoolery it actually wasn’t as bad as was vilified on social media and in the press. Rather it was an ill-conceived yet mildly sympathetic message attempting to tie Pepsi to real issues. Yes, it proved a poor calculation. And yes, it was insensitive to the reality of how racial relations work in this divided country. But it was not malicious or hateful – just unfortunate given this moment in history. Truth and falsity are already in the balance. Pepsi is not going to tip it to one side or the other.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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