Let’s call it Cheerio-gate. It starts with a simple commercial by Cheerios featuring a cute little girl and her parents: a black man and a white woman. Next thing you know, ugly and racist comments are being made on YouTube, General Mills has to shut comments off of the video, and now everyone on the Internet is referring to the “controversy”. Think I’m exagerating? Google it. I’ve even seen several Facebook friends angrily state that anyone who has a problem should just defriend them now, and so forth and so on. The anger is justified, of course, but do these people really believe that there is even a significant minority of Americans out there who have a visceral antipathy to mixed-race families? I want to be clear at the outset that this is not a post that argues that everything is perfectly fine in America as far as race goes. That’s so obviously not true it should go without saying, but I said it just in case. Instead, I just want to do my best to try and dissect what is really happening here, and why–overtime–it is a perfect model for American political stupidity.
I’ll proceed in phases.
Phase 1 – Trolls and the Inciting Event
We all know pretty much how this works. There’s a Cheerios commercial, or a Mexican-American kid sings the American national anthem and then, out of the woodwork, the trolls pound. A troll, in Internet terms, is someone who likes provokes other people for attention. Funny and annoying trolls provoke fights about Mac vs. Windows or Playstation vs. Xbox. Really disturbing trolls, however, go for race, religion, sexuality, etc. However, the troll is not first and foremost a true believer in bigotry. The troll is a true believer in being anti-social. They don’t represent political beliefs. They represent immaturity and sociopathic tendencies. And, like mosquitoes and fleas to the outdoors, they are endemic to the Internet.
Phase 2 – Liberals Respond to the Trolls
Things go from bad to worse when the allies of the insulted person are taken in by the troll. Rather than perceiving the hateful speech as antisocial, they view it as sincere bigotry. Presently in America, social liberals are far more likely to identify themselves as being allies of minority communities, and so the incident becomes politicized, and the troll’s speech is held up as an example of all that is wrong with American, frequently with pointed attacks on social conservatism. This is understandable, since the trolls use that rhetoric to best effect. They wouldn’t be good trolls if they didn’t. This is what this phase looks like.
Phase 3 – Conservatives Respond to the Liberals
So the allies, generally liberals, have responded to the troll but to some degree have targeted conservatives in their response. That’s a bad move, and conservatives then compound it. You would think that the smart thing to do would be for conservatives to distance themselves from the trolls, but that doesn’t work very well because it’s in the best interests of liberals to demonize their opponents. Some liberals want it to be true. Well, conservatives naturally don’t like being called backward, racist, bigot homophobes (or whatever), and so there’s a short-term angry reaction. But there’s also a long-term cumulative effect. When you’re a conservative, you know that as a general rule if you something that could be construed as racist, it will be. Maybe you have completely sincere political disagreements with President Obama, but that doesn’t matter. As far as liberals and a big section of the mainstream media goes, you don’t like him because he’s black and your racist.
This fosters a simmering resentment on the part of conservatives that eventually leads to some of them saying intentionally provocative things that are not actually bigoted (by their judgment) but which are designed to push all the same buttons. The purpose is to demonstrate that liberals are just intentionally seeing bigotry where there is none, and to validate their belief that liberals are conformist thought-police.
Phase 4 – Liberals Respond to Conservatives
However, the pseduo-bigotry of the conservatives, while intended as a form of political protest, is taken by the liberals as proof positive of their initial suspicions. Rather than accept that the provocative language is less-than-overtly bigoted because the person has another objective in mind, the mere fact that you’d even say something similar to bigotry is taken as being “soft on bigotry” which is, itself, evidence of bigotry. Liberals therefore feel justified in transferring their righteous indignation at the original trolls (who, by now, have wandered off to find someone else to harass) onto the conservatives who have rashly decided to seop into the spot the troll once occupied out of some kind of devotion to principle.
Phase 5 – All Hell Breaks Loose
This is basically the state we all live in every day. Individual controversies rush through the phases on a micro level, but on a macro level we’ve already been at Phase 5 for years. The problem is that at this point the fight is basically self-perpetuating. Conservatives delight in provoking liberals and then accusing liberals of being thought-police, narrow-minded, and conformist. Liberals take these provocations as proof that conservatives really are secretly bigoted, and that any further statements by trolls can be assumed to be coming from genuine political conservatives.
The sad reality is that both sides are right. For conservatives to be willing to engage in hurtful rhetoric that targets a group by association (even if technically not bigoted) is, itself, a kind of discrimination. They are using other people as a means to an end. That’s not the same as the flagrantly abusive bigotry you get from the trolls initially, but it’s still unacceptable. And liberals really are far too happy to engage in sloppy reasoning to prop up a stereotype of conservatives that they obviously want to be true. Their haste to climb shoulder nuance aside on their path to the moral high ground invalidates their occupation of the summit.
Also, and this is really important, because we’re already in Phase 5 all the time, the chronological outline of this model isn’t reflected in practice. (That’s why it’s just a model.) With the Cheerios “controversy” (bunny quotes because I can’t bring myself to think of it as honestly controversial), the initial reactions that provoked the charges of racism were a mixture of Phase 1 (trolls) and Phase 3 (resentful conservatives). Because black husband / white wife biracial couples are very rare, some conservatives took this commercial as intrinsically liberal commentary and were reacting to the perceived political agenda. Stupid? Yes, but my point is just that in practice the phases aren’t separated cleanly. Just as, in practice, some human beings are actually trolls and political, even if the political pose is just to attract an audience and make money. The model is simpler than reality, but it conveys the escalation from trolling to perpetual political feuding over things that really have no business being political.
How do we stop this?
Well, conservatives ought to stop being cold-hearted jerks, for one thing. Liberals ought to stop being judgmental idiots, for another. The real enemy here is trolls, which is to say: inhumanity. Trolls treat other people as objects for their own amusement, and that’s fundamentally reprehensible. In refusing to see each other as they really are, conservatives and liberals both end up getting sucked into the same basic sin. I’m not suggesting tolerance for bigoted language, but I do think separating immature attention-getting provocation from genuine racism, sexism, or bigotry is important. Not because either one is acceptable, but because understanding the difference can begin to defuse the politicization of human decency.
Because, honestly, there should never be anything political about treating everyone else with respect and kindness. That’s not a Left or Right issue. I’d really love to see Democrats stop pretending that it is, and Republicans stop enabling them in that mirage.
It wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it might create an environment more amenable to problem solving.