For me, this month in America in 2015 is representative of the dynamic nature of our historical and social location. Red Cups have become a point of discussion with respect to social change and respecting a sub-culture’s value system. Black Lives at the University of Missouri has become a point of discussion with respect to social change and respecting a sub-culture’s value system. And while the media presentation of both incidents has varied with respect to seriousness-levels, the incidents provide an interesting foil for conversations about race, social change, media, protest methods, and generational conflict in America.
Let’s begin with the red cups. On Nov. 5, Joshua Feuerstein, an Arizona evangelical Christian, posted a rant about the new cups on that paragon of clear-headed debate — facebook — and argued that red cups without snowmen, snow flakes, or wintery weather designs (all established Christian symbols, mind you) is representative of the current American culture’s war on Christmas. And as my buddy Issac brilliantly summarized — 15 million Facebook users viewed his rant, and therefore the media interpreted it as “The whole of Christendom spoke with univocal support of Mr. Feuerstein’s grievances, taking up arms in this war on Christmas.”
Except that the 15 million views did not correspond to the reality of the Church’s position on Starbucks. In fact, several Christian groups expressed emotions ranging from indifference, to apathy, to “get over it” at this corporate move. (Confession, my intern and I went to Starbucks yesterday and enjoyed some venti red-cups o tea).
So where is the disconnect? Consider that there is a generation of Americans who inherited a culture that was not necessarily homogenous in its cultural outlook and they worked hard to bring about cultural change:
- These Americans fought in World War II to bring about the end of racism in the form of Jewish genocide (You know, a similar racism that #BlackLivesMatter is trying to end.
- They worked to end of state-sponsored terrorism in the form of German occupation of Europe (You know, a similar terrorism that the world is dealing with in ISIS).
- Many of this greatest generation used political organization during the Eisenhower administration to add the phrase “under God” to the pledge of allegiance (You know, the same political organization method employed by #ConcernedStudent1950 this week).
- This is the generation that views Christmas (and to some extent Hanukkah) as a national holiday time when businesses should close their doors to promote community, family, and friendship (You know, like REI is trying to do with Black Friday).
This generation also raised their children (Boomers) and their grand children (Gen-Xers and Millennials) to utilize their methods of social change and to embrace their cultural values. Furthermore, a small pocket of American culture still holds the values (and I suspect that Mr. Feuerstein is part of this pocket of Christianity). So, we should not be surprised when this small pocket of American culture utilizes methods (media protest) to raise awareness of their private value system (winter is for Christians, not for generic holidays).
So let’s all just RELAX (copyright Aaron Rodgers) and say this together for the umpteenth time on this blog: We recognize that in a tolerant society, everybody is entitled to express their opinions on how culture should operate. By that same token, just because someone has an opinion doesn’t mean everybody in America is compelled to get on board.
It is with this latter statement that I suspect that many people became up in arms. There is a tone in Mr. Feuerstein’s rant that seems to expect everyone in America to get on board with making Christmas a national holiday. It is to this tone that I must reeducate my readers on the reality of our context. The Greatest Generation (largely Christian in religious orientation) died to secure freedom in America. And that freedom in American has resulted in various religious and non-religious identities making their way into our national fabric and existing during this month in 2015. And Starbucks knows their market well and is merely attempting to market to a religiously diverse customer base. End of reeducation.
What does this mean? It means that war-on-Christmas Christians have legitimate beef with the current trends of American culture relative to our historical past. But I would also remind us that not everybody in America shares Christian values or an awareness of our immediate history. I would encourage my war-on-Christmas friends to simply keep both of those tension points in mind as you make your coffee purchases this week.
From red cups, we move onto Black lives. If you are unfamiliar with the timeline of events, ESPN.com has provided a helpful one. Essentially, several racially-charged incidents have been reported (in some form or fashion) over the past few months and the administration of Mizzou has consistently failed to act in a manner that satisfies the reporting system and the concerned student body. So, in response to this inaction, one graduate student Jonathan Butler, went on a hunger strike to raise awareness of the simmering issue. Mr. Butler would not eat again until the university system president Tim Wolfe resigned his post. Impacted by his witness, members of the Mizzou football team refused to play in an upcoming match against BYU — the implications of which would have meant the university taking a million dollar loss. At this point, the system president resigned and Mr. Butler (thankfully) began eating.
Again, take note of the similarities of the red cups and the black lives at Mizzou:
- A customer of an organization holds a personal value system (people should be treated with respect, regardless of race, etc…)
- Said customer (or customers) finds personal value system violated by the organization’s leadership decision (In this case, failure of the administration to act on reports of racism).
- Customer uses media to help bring attention to the violation of value system. Customer also recruits other like voices to generate added momentum for the cause.
- In response to the media storm, some people are offended and other people are offended that people are offended.
But there is one major similarity that has not been addressed in media coverage. It is the one thing that I think explains much of the confusion over the issues. Mr. Butler and Mr. Feuerstein are both Millennials born between 1980 and 2000. And here is the thing about millennials and social change — Millennials want change and do not feel that they need to wait around and earn their dues before bringing it about (a feature of previous generations of social change). It is this aggressive forcefulness of organization that often incites the most backlash, largely among Boomer and Gen-Xer (Born 1965-1979) commentators. I wonder how much of the red cup controversy and the #ConcernedStudent1950 movement is about disagreement in methods of social change due to generational values as an extra layer on personal value system. My suspicion is that generational values are setting the pace for these kinds of events and that this pace is uncomfortable and unsettling to many a Boomer and X-er.
One additional note. Millennial plans often lack an end game to their social change protests. Compare the Mizzou protests with that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King had a Biblical narrative in mind as his shaping reality. His end was clearly stated – that kids of all colors could one day live in unity and harmony. No doubt, his view of Biblical heaven is what drove his movement. His view of Biblical heaven on earth is what formed his end game. It gave his movement an identifiable metric. So back to the Red Cups and Black Lives. What is the end game for Mr. Butler and Mr. Feuerstein? Does Mr. Butler want a permanent space for students of color to be able to dialogue and pray about race in America? Does he want a whole new board for the Mizzou system? What defines a long term win for Mr. Butler’s movement? This remains unclear to the public (although it may be clear to him). And to Mr. Feuerstein? What is his end game? That Starbucks would embrace Christianity as the official holiday of winter? That Christians would unite against coffee? Again, the end game is unclear. But with both gentlemen, I have to ask the larger question — what narrative is driving your movement? Dr. King let the Bible drive his movement, and look at what took place.
Now onto the important differences.
- Americans are in disagreement on whether Christianity should be a privileged religious system in American culture. However, Americans are largely united in the belief that racism is bad. So when a millennial tried to bring about aggressive social change on an issue of disagreement, he can expect to A: not see much social change and B: see a disproportionate backlash of dissent. Mr. Feuerstein saw conservative Christians, moderate Christians, liberal Christians, non-Christians, Jews, Atheists, and other religious groups disagree with his cause. Mr. Butler, on the other hand, could rally the entire nation to his cause, since everyone basically agrees that racism is crappy behavior and needs to go away. Thus, the only pushback Mr. Butler and his movement saw on the cause itself was from a student 100 miles away in another town. Oh, and that student was arrested.
- Starbucks is not a residential community. Sure, a coffee shop might be the third space between home and work. But it is strikingly different from a university setting where students live in university housing and attend classes on university campuses, and eat in university cafeterias. There are official student organizations dedicated to maintaining a healthy atmosphere of collegiality on campus. There is an entire organizational layer of administration dedicated to student retention. So an offended customer at Starbucks is different enough from an offended customer living in a residential community. If the roles were reversed and starbucks heard consistent complaints about racism in a particular store. Would the CEO step in to deal with it? Would he step in more quickly than the system president of Mizzou? I would hope that the president would act more quickly, since it is a residential community. But my suspicion is that a CEO or GM would step in more immediately due to concerns about profit. Or if Mizzou decided to move towards a generic holiday messaging on campus and did not single out Christmas as a preferred holiday? If christian students complained, would the system president act quickly? And what would he do? He would probably make sure there was a space among equal spaces to recognize Christmas without disrespecting Hanakuh, Diwali, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, etc… Thus, here is the big difference. Starbucks has to lead towards the collective customer base. Mizzou has to lead to the individual customer base.
- Black Americans are disproportionately discriminated against in American culture. In so many areas. Just google search it. You will be heartbroken at what comes up. Discipline in public schools, law enforcement, cultural norms, you name it. And so understand this: black students who attend universities (the vast majority of which are disproportionately white in student makeup) already go to university having experienced some layer of discrimination for most of their lives. And then they arrive at a campus — a place that is supposed to be an environment of learning with an administration that supports and secures their learning environment — and they experience a continuation of racism. I am not sure that white Americans will ever understand this phenomena. I hope that white americans can respect this reality and help work towards change.