The Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert – was it worth getting so angry?
Capitalistic exploitation of suffering, or just a simple mistake?
Last week social media erupted in tempestuous hysteria yet again. Surprisingly, for once, it was not over Donald Trump’s fallacious comments, but over something one would initially regard as far more inconsequential: a Pepsi advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Many claimed the model’s use of the fizzy drink to quash racism and police brutality commodified the struggle of minority resistance movements. Others were outraged that Jenner – a white, privileged woman – deposited her possessions into the hands of a black women, further reiterating the stereotype of black female servitude.
It could be argued that this exploitation of historical protests was rather misguided within today’s social milieu: protestors aren’t all smiling models and police are certainly not abated by a can of Pepsi. Yet, although a middle-class white male with little need to protest, I query as to why there was such vehement animosity towards it.
The frenzied retort is something regularly witnessed in Cambridge, where some may argue liberalism and fear of offending minorities is stifling legitimate debate. For me, the entire point of university is to be confronted with new, and potentially radical and controversial thoughts contradictory to one’s own, instead of places of conformism where anyone who dissents from the decreed viewpoint is shunned. Take, for example, the university-wide abhorrence of right-wingers and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Pembroke’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ themed bop, cancelled last year for reasons attributed to ‘cultural appropriation.’ As ever, there are blurred lines – was it racist or simply an appreciation or cultural diversity? Either way, it could be argued that its cancellation perpetuated a lack of freedom to express oneself and a succumbing to extreme political correctness.
It furthermore evokes the response to Germaine Greer’s visit to the Union in 2015, in which she suggested that trans women aren’t women because they do not know what it is like ‘to have a big, hairy, smelly vagina.’ Although I completely disagree with these views, and, being cisgender have never experienced transphobia first hand, I would argue that CUSU LGBT+’s decision to boycott Greer on the basis that inviting her back would ‘condone her transmisogynistic…hate speech’ was misguided. It is unrealistic to think that we won’t, at some point, be exposed to views that we disagree with, and when this happens, we can’t just deal with them with a thick-skinned refusal to engage. Voltaire once wrote, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say to say it’: Greer’s views are her views to have, and we can disagree with them: not by censorship, but by proving her wrong in debate.
I must make clear there is a difference between Greer and the majority of students in Cambridge. People should always be respectful, but where political correctness has gone too far is when people are afraid of hurting others’ feelings when they mean no harm themselves. Obviously, political correctness is essential to ensure the progress made against the ostracism of minority groups continues. However, we must be careful not to create a narrow dogma in which only one opinion can prevail.
After all, a university banning free speech is equivalent to a charity giving up caring for the underprivileged: a neglect of its very reason to exist.