During Sunday’s Super Bowl, viewed by nearly a third of all Americans, Dodge aired an advertisement found wildly offensive to millions of Americans. The ad was a mashup of quintessential “American” scenes shown while the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr spoke passionately about the virtue of serving others. Dodge produced the ad in order to bring awareness to a campaign—called Ram Nation—that is meant to advocate for and celebrate volunteerism in local communities. In the ad, King reminds us that the desire to be great, to lead, and even to do good are wonderful instincts, but that “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”
The excerpt was taken from a speech King gave at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, a few months before his death, and is called, “The Drum Major Instinct.” In it, he discusses the human need to feel superior, and forcefully argues that in individuals this need leads to violent and unjust notions of white supremacy, while at the national level, “the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy,” and that America won’t stop “because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.” The content of King’s speech makes it very clear that he is presenting a new way to find meaning in life, and that new way is accessed when we use our power in order to serve those overlooked by powerful people. He goes out of his way to reject the idea that abject power and the accumulation of “stuff” (like a Dodge pickup truck, for instance) could ever hope to bring peace. I’m not here to defend or condemn the ad; instead, I think our response to it offers an excellent showcase of our tendency to get defensive when we encounter points of view that are different than our own.
Defensiveness destroys conversation.
I understand the instinct. For many white folks, at times it can feel as if we walk through a field of land mines when it comes to race and history, as if any misstep will cause an explosion. For many black folks, the constant demand to justify experience, to legitimize a point of view, is diminishing and exhausting. These common experiences can make everyone feel like their opinions are offensive, or as if they are only safe with “their kind.” This preference for similarity, combined with countless experiences of being misunderstood or even accused, can make us all defensive instead of patient and engaged when we encounter others.
I personally found the ad to be an attempt to appropriate a black cultural icon for the profit of a business. I thought it was in bad taste, as it commodified the words of King in order to sell a brand. Regardless of my perspective, I am fascinated as I watch the debate unfold. Friends who live and breathe the work of justice, who see America as King did—a mixed bag of courageous, democratic idealism and hypocritical, oppressive systems—are frustrated by the idea that a company could try to use King to make a profit. It smacks of a history laden with powerful folks using black labor and creativity to make profits. On the other hand, I have seen sincere folks begin by saying they were moved by the ad, only to feel attacked, and then react defensively by saying something like, “Am I not allowed to have an opinion? Everytime I even try to talk about Dr. King I end up getting yelled at for doing it wrong!”
While millions of people—black and white—have condemned the ad, millions more thought it was a moving tribute to King. Because defensiveness destroys conversation, we cannot have a productive discussion about why we might (dis)approve of it. Twitter rants about black sensitivity and white appropriation of King abound from every possible angle.
It goes something like this…
Tweeter A: What a moving ad, spot on. Thankful the words of Dr. King are being celebrated and remembered.
Tweeter B: Only white privilege could make you think that honors Dr. King in any way.
[Tweeter A either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in shame, unsure of why it is bad to celebrate Dr. King.]
Or like this….
Tweeter X: Of course a giant company thinks it’s okay to appropriate Dr. King to help them sell cars, they love black culture but won’t speak up for black lives.
Tweeter Y: You are impossible to please. Only you would complain that Dr. King’s words are being celebrated.
[Tweeter X either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in frustration, feeling unheard and misunderstood.]
Can't we do better than this? It strikes me that this particular ad, and our reactions to it, offer us a fabulous chance to LISTEN to the perspectives of others. Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for. We love him for his soaring oratory, for dreams he painted in our hearts, for his vision of collaborative respect, his insistence on the power of light, and above all, the centrality of love in the way forward. We struggle, however, to celebrate the part of him who argued majority culture was “more devoted to order than to justice”; we bristle at his critique of the man who “paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom”; we feel exposed by the man who said the church is in danger of being “dismissed as an irrelevant social club”; we take issue with the leader who proclaimed “we have no alternative but to protest.”
Our love of Dr. King rises over a society that has escaped what he called the “inescapable network of mutuality”, a society that struggles to hear and honor the hurt experienced by many people, a society so steeped in delusion that we actively work against our pledge to act “with liberty, and justice, for all.” Our response to the Dodge ad reveals the truth that King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people. Perhaps we would do well to listen to all of his words, and to reflect on our own defensive postures when we encounter disagreement. As this debate fades from the public sphere, notice how you listen, how you react, and how you appreciate the experience of others before defensively aborting the conversation.