“The need to let suffering speak,” Theodor Adorno once wrote, “is a condition of all truth,” and, I think we should add, we who mostly live in privilege must learn to listen to suffering – to those speaking in many different languages.
Learn to listen.
Adorno wrote, with Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in 1944. They theorized that popular culture was similar to industries that produced goods for popular consumption and that cultural commodities, which today would include social media as well as movies and television, were produced to manipulate society into contentment and passivity.
They believed that mass-produced culture was dangerous and interfered with the pursuit of such basic human rights as freedom, happiness, and justice.
Today, the suffering are learning to speak both truth to entrenched power and learning to acquire power on their own terms. They are turning the cultural commodities once used to oppress them into instruments of confrontation and enlightenment and they are resisting the appropriation of their language and images for use as cultural commodities.
They are struggling to find their voice – and those with privilege must learn to listen to those voices.
Learning to speak has power.
Power that’s today being used to confront corruption, injustice, and appropriation.
Power that has just been successfully mobilized to confront such a tone-deaf corruption of social commentary as model Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a law enforcement officer as a peace offering.
Pepsi’s commercial, visually modeled upon imagery we’ve recently witnessed in confrontations between BlackLivesMatter (BLM) and law enforcement, trivializes both the power of protest and the history of BLM as a voice attempting to speak on behalf of a community that sees itself as being historically marginalized and disenfranchised.
And in that trivializing Pepsi’s ad contributes to oppression.
Kendall Jenner didn’t join a protest. She joined a street fair with no seeming purpose other than for a bunch of good-looking, multicultural, young people to have a good time waving “Peace” and ”Love” signs. She joined a cello player and a hijabi photographer at an artificially-sweetened Pepsi party.
And she gave a cop a Pepsi – and everyone cheered.
Aaaah, if it was only that easy.
Protests are about justice, not about feeling good. Protest happens when people feel they have little left to lose. Protest happens because people are suffering.
And today suffering is speaking to us.
Let’s be clear – there was nothing creative, uplifting or inspiring about the Pepsi commercial. It was ordinary, derivative, and stupefyingly banal.
As I watched reality-TV celebrity and model Jenner whip off a blond wig and flip it to an unsmiling, seemingly faceless black woman to hold for her (go back, my friends, and watch that moment) so that she could join a march without a cause – and in the process switch Cinderella-like from mylar dress to trendy denim – three recent images – of three strong women, came to mind:
I remember seeing Jasmina Golubovska, a political analyst and project coordinator at the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, applying lipstick in the reflection of a riot policeman’s shield during protests in Skopje, Macedonia in 2015.
I remember seeing the lone figure of Ieshia Evans facing down a phalanx of riot-gear attired policemen just before she was arrested in 2016 in Baton Rouge LA – an image perhaps to which Pepsi was paying homage.
And this week I’m inspired by the image of sassy Saffiya Khan contemptuously facing down English Defence(sic) League (EDL) protesters who had threateningly encircled a Muslim woman in Birmingham, England.
I’m inspired by such women, their refusal to be intimidated, their stillness, their presence.
In such images we witness the dignity of resistance – the ability of one person to make a difference. We witness the possibility of mobilizing community against injustice and oppression.
The solidarity reflected in those images is irresistible. They rest upon the indomitable spirit and urge for freedom, creativity, happiness – and justice – and rests within all of us.
Indeed, they rest upon the very foundational principles that founded this nation.
So, I believe, when such imagery is trivialized, appropriated and exploited it should be resisted.
That power, once realized, should not be relinquished or diminished.
Too many times this nation has turned its back on issues of justice. In recent history we turned our backs on John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and on Muhammad Ali when he protested the Vietnam War.
Today, protesters rise to resist privilege.
Next week at least six members of the Super Bowl LI-winning New England Patriots will boycott a visit to The White House.
Unlike much of America they learned to listen.
Remember how Beyoncé stirred an alt-right ire-storm(sic) when she performed “Formation” during the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show, with its references to the mostly black victims of Hurricane Katrina and other historical references to white racism?
How patriarchy and privilege responded?
It’s always been a struggle.
Frederick Douglas wrote, “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
This time the people rose up and made a demand – truth spoke to privilege – Pepsi listened, apologized, and canceled the commercial.
This time the people won.
Suffering spoke. People listened.
Adorno wrote that “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” I believe today that for people who no longer believe they are free in their homeland protest becomes a place to live.
Protest. Suffering spoke. People listened.
It’s a beginning.