How United Airlines, Pepsi and Sean Spicer Have Pulled Me from Despair…
A man, bloodied and slack, is dragged down an airplane aisle after refusing to give up his seat to oblige the airline, which has overbooked the plane and wants his seat. After the recording quickly goes viral, United’s Oscar Munoz, recently named Communicator of the Year by PR Week, issues a wholly unacceptable statement on Twitter that appears to characterize assaulting paying passengers as “re-accommodating” them. In this case, failure to comply with “re-accommodation” results in a significant concussion, a broken nose with sinus injuries that will require reconstructive surgery and two broken front teeth.
Pepsi, in a flagrantly tone-deaf and greedy attempt to co-opt and cash in on the growing resistance to the political status quo, releases a more than 2 ½-minute-long aspirational concept commercial where a wealthy, white model joins a protest-slash-ambulatory Coachella love-in, which is comprised of a living checklist of marginalized (but young and attractive) individuals, and it culminates in her handing a casual Friday police officer a chilled, carbonated beverage. Upon receipt of said beverage, there is much jubilation and, presumably, a fizzy framework for building world peace. Also widespread public disbelief and mockery. The expensive “I’d Like to Buy the World a Woke” commercial is quickly yanked and Pepsi issues a mea culpa.
Most recently, Sean Spicer, an individual quite familiar with gaffes — I’d call them embarrassing but I am not convinced that they are — throws himself into the mix because he is breathing and as long as he is breathing, that is what he will do. On Tuesday, Spicer feels the need to draw a distinction between Syria’s al-Assad and Hitler, sputtering that “Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” apparently forgetting that the gas chambers were lethal, weaponized chemicals, and, when asked for clarification, thinks it is worth pointing out that al-Assad’s chemical warfare was against “his own people,” as opposed to Hitler’s mass slaughter of German Jews, German homosexuals, German progressives, etc. as though even that makes an iota of moral difference. After an immediate public backlash, Spicer bungles his apology. (Trying again, he still messes it up.)
These three incidents, depressing and demoralizing as they are, have given me hope. Don’t get me wrong: Senseless violence against customers by monolithic corporations doesn’t give me hope. Nor does the crass attempt to cash in on a movement or the off-the-charts obliviousness of our current administration particularly infuse me with hope. What does give me hope is the public outrage, the passionate, engaged backlash, the “we-are-your-worst-PR-nightmare-and-we’re-not-shutting-up” response. A common thread that stitches together this sad trifecta is the abundance of clumsy, callous and out-of-touch entitlement. More significantly, though, we are seeing a similar trajectory in how these events play out on the public stage, when outraged citizens demand that responsibility be taken and some form of apology offered.
In the weeks following the election, like many people, I was filled with absolute, stomach-clenching fear and despair. Although I still have my very dark moments, I feel the discouragement lifting more and more every day; this last week, I’ve been feeling a kind of rush that is entirely new to me. This is very strange given the events described above but here is why: We have smartphones. We have social media accounts. More than anything, we have our creative, insightful voices, as well as our persistence and unwillingness to settle anymore. I sense that something is shifting. It’s too early to call but I think that we are moving toward a new normal.
Ultimately, these entities need our cooperation in order to continue a relationship that doesn’t serve us. The more we not only refuse to participate but actively and publicly hold them accountable when they mistreat us or behave miserably, the more we threaten to upend this innate power imbalance and wake others up to it as well.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump was a bracing wake-up call to many of us who didn’t think it could happen, but maybe if he weren’t in office, we would still be complacent. If he hadn’t gotten elected, would there be grassroots groups popping up in communities all over the country to hold our members of Congress accountable with round-the-clock phone calls and disorderly town halls full of embarrassing press moments? I am guessing that without the tipping point of the 2016 election, we wouldn’t have this burgeoning movement of engaged, passionate civic resistance.
This is not to say that everything will be easy street now; the Trump administration and overreaching corporations will undoubtedly test our resolve and commitment again and again. We have to be in it for the long game. From a cabinet filled with massive conflicts of interest and unqualified billionaires to the lack of media and activist attention on disappearing black girls and gay concentration camps in Chechnya, our voices, attention and unwavering engagement couldn’t be more urgent.
At its heart, this isn’t about avoidable public relations fiascos. This is about a public that is no longer willing to accept the relations offered.
Thanks to that and thanks to you, I am finally beyond despair.