Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Going to Extremes: Coke Commercials, Diversity, and Why We're More United than We Think

The Golden Rule - Norman Rockwell
Why is it that the most spirited public debates in this country seem to revolve around pop culture and processed food? We've had dust-ups over Chick-Fil-A, Miley Cyrus, Duck Dynasty, and now it's a Coke commercial aired during the Superbowl. The commercial features people singing "America the Beautiful" in many different languages, and that got some folks pretty riled up. Sure, there are wars and massive human rights violations going on around the world, and the NSA is still vacuuming up every piece of personal data it can find about us, but somehow those things just don't spark our interest as much.

Still, the fact that there are bigger issues out there doesn't necessarily mean these commercial controversies are trivial. Gay rights are an important issue, despite the rather circus-like atmosphere of the Chick-Fil-A and Duck Dynasty debates. The Coke commercial controversy is about a real issue too, because it shows the divisions in our views about what the United States of America, culturally speaking, is and ought to be. I thought the ad was kind of beautiful, though I try not to let myself get too moved by commercials. But others disagreed, and some of them showed a really hateful, xenophobic side when they did. Apparently these hateful tweeters don't realize that the actors and singers in the commercial are Americans, many of whom were likely born in this country and speak perfect English, in addition to their other languages.

So, I came down squarely on the liberal side regarding the commercial, but I found I can't fully agree with either side when it came to the debates about it. Obviously, I couldn't agree with the conservative view. I kept seeing people talking as though "American" and "English-speaking" were somehow inseparable, and who seemed to think that singing "America the Beautiful" in any other language should be taken as a deliberate insult. That point of view completely mystifies me. Maybe somebody singing that song in, say, Arabic really does think America is beautiful? I know Americans who could sing the song in English or Arabic, and they would mean every word of it in either one.

Then I noticed a guy, who didn't approve of the commercial, talking about all the things he thought liberals hate about America. That was a little confusing, because I'm a liberal, and I don't hate America, and I don't know any other liberal who does, either. Yes, we're more likely than conservatives to acknowledge the country's flaws and failings, from slavery to arrogant foreign policies, and we're more likely to disagree with the idea that our country can do no wrong. But that's not remotely the same as hating America. Liberals (and many conservatives) tend to reject "my country right or wrong" thinking. We think more like the German-American senator and general Carl Shurz, who said, "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." And we love our country.

But then I noticed that it's not just conservatives accusing liberals of hatefulness. The same guy who said liberals hate America also kept making the point that liberals were always calling him a racist for his conservative opinions, such as thinking all immigrants should learn English. I don't know if he's a racist or xenophobe or not--lots of people who hated that commercial obviously are--but he's got a point in this case. Thinking it would be a good idea for everyone in a country to have a common language is not racist. In fact, I think it's a good idea, too, just because it would help people understand each other and help the country function more smoothly, not because I think there's anything particularly sacred about English. I'm sure many immigrants agree with me, too. But I also think it would be a tragedy if people didn't pass on their other languages to their children.

I do think liberals are too quick to accuse conservatives of hatred and racism. Yes, some of them are hateful and racist (and so are a few liberals). But many of them aren't, and I don't blame them for being frustrated at being called something they aren't. I know I don't like being told I hate America. So, maybe we should reserve terms like "hatred" and "racism" for the real things, instead of throwing them around every time someone disagrees with us. There's plenty of real racism and hatred we still have to deal with, after all.

This phenomenon, where both sides think the other is more extreme and hateful than they really are, is well known to psychologists. Oftentimes, what's really extreme is not the opinions of those we disagree with, but our misjudgement of what they really think. In one important study, psychologists asked people across the political spectrum to fill out a questionaire about their moral beliefs. Then they took self-described liberals and conservatives and asked liberals to fill out the questionaire as though they were a "typical conservative", and asked the conservatives to fill it out as though they were a "typical liberal". The results were amazing. Not only did people think typical or average members of the other party were more extreme than the actual averages, they thought they were more extreme than actual self-reported "extreme liberals" and "extreme conservatives". In other words, liberals think the average conservative is farther right than most people on the actual far right. And vice versa. Not only that, but people think the average on their own side is more extreme than it really is. No wonder we're always accusing each other of being extremists, even though most of us aren't.

Of course, there are real extremists and truly hateful people out there, and that Coke ad flushed some of them out. But any fool with a computer can post on Twitter, so in a country with 300 million people, it's no surprise that you'll be able to find some nasty haters out there. We all knew they were out there, didn't we? What we have to stop doing is thinking a few extremists are typical of everyone on that side of the spectrum. They aren't. If we want to heal the divisions in this country, maybe the first thing we should do is realize we aren't as divided as we think we are.

No comments:

Post a Comment