When I went to college in the mid-aughts, a peculiar phenomenon would happen: The language of campus activists — phrases like “social justice,” “safe space,” “anti-racism” — would quickly get absorbed into the bloodstream of more moderating forces in student government and the administration. They would parrot the same words but adjust them to support their own agendas. Ideas like intersectionality and anti-oppression would suddenly lose their weight and context, floating freely without histories or stakes, thus becoming something anybody could say.
This was just at the beginning of Facebook, and since then the language of the activist left — much of which is itself rooted in ethnic-studies programs in academia — has proliferated into a kind of lingua franca of social media. In the past few years, corporations have increasingly embraced various heritage celebrations, like Black History Month and Pride, as a form of rhetorical cover. This weekend, as protests against police brutality triggered disproportionate responses from law enforcement that only seemed to prove the point of the movement, the platitudinous word soup deployed from various brands online felt even more at odds with reality than usual. Companies wanted people to know that they were on the right side of history, regardless of their own histories: L’Oréal tweeted that they stood “in solidarity” with Black Lives Matter; Amazon did the same, releasing a statement that they “stand in solidarity with the Black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” The Target CEO said they are a “community in pain.”
The dissonance is mind-melting — the language of coalition-building contorted into a very immodest fig leaf brought to you by communications strategists. After all, it was just a couple of months ago when Amazon readied a smear campaign and fired one of its workers, Chris Smalls, for organizing for safer conditions in their Staten Island warehouse. Same with L’Oréal, which dropped model Munroe Bergdorf after she spoke out against the white supremacist march in Charlottesville in 2017. ViacomCBS sent an internal memo siding with the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously allegedly allowing the LAPD to use its studio lot to stop those very protesters. Obscured around the outrage of the looting of the Target store in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd is the fact that the company gave $300,000 to the police department’s surveillance operations.
The other word for this, of course, is hypocrisy. Even well-intentioned efforts like the Black Out Tuesday initiative started by two music-industry executives, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, spun out of control as record companies from Virgin to Atlantic to Interscope said they would suspend business for a day, coupling the hashtags #TheShowMustBePaused with #BlackLivesMatter. The empty black square became a meme that spread with celebrity amplification and clogged the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag with empty squares instead of potentially critical information for protesters.
While it seems major corporations didn’t learn the lesson of Kendall Jenner solving racism with a can of Pepsi, I’m not sure we did either. The legal enshrinement of corporate personhood since the Citizens United case in 2010 has extended to social-media accounts in which brands increasingly act like people (Steak-umm pounding 99 theses on the danger of misinformation during a pandemic), and in turn, we’ve come to expect that of them. Individual celebrities of various levels of repute act like their own corporations, lifting social-justice memes or language in a way that’s impossible to separate from their public personas — David Guetta doing a dance remix of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Gwyneth Paltrow posting Black Lives Matter on both her personal account and Goop’s. The personal is political is an opportunity for brand awareness.
Our fixation on celebrities, coupled with an absent government, has created a perfect storm for the very American sport of scrutinizing individual behavior: Bring out the guillotines! We parse statements for authenticity. (Go Chrissy Teigen! Cardi for president!) Ellen DeGeneres’s now-deleted mush-mouthed statement about the importance of “change” and “love” in response to the protests was roundly mocked; Lea Michele’s boilerplate language of supporting the protests opened her up to criticism from her former co-workers. Moreover, the tenor shifted, with people demanding actual receipts of financial contributions. You know what’s better than words? Money.
Fueled by an eat-the-rich spirit, social media has become the clearinghouse for an ad hoc socialism. Where the government fails, the internet becomes the public square where citizens can adjudicate, shame, and cheerlead people into a piecemeal form of economic redistribution. It’s a model of charity that has flourished in recent years; in lieu of universal health care, individuals make the case through GoFundMes for lifesaving operations. It’s this same logic that calls upon wealthy individuals or corporations to help patch together a social safety net that has steadily disappeared.
So as bail funds trended with everyday people donating around $50, celebrities joined in, too, under the mistaken belief that they’re just like us. Off-White and Louis Vuitton designer Virgil Abloh’s initial boast of a $50 “matching” donation to a bail fund has led to a gleeful roasting not only for his expensive binder clips but his comments that streetwear was “dead” and for purportedly ripping off another young black designer, Wole Olosunde. (Abloh has since stated that he donated another $20,000.) Ben Platt, star of the Ryan Murphy series The Politician, got caught in a nesting doll of celebrity tweets, started by Seth Rogen, where they each matched the same $50 donation. Platt was gently reminded that for a celebrity getting a check from Netflix, it was lip service at best; he deleted the tweet and apologized for “only [publicizing] the one chain donation.” (Rogen also added that he donated “much more” a couple of days later.) The pressing issue is not whether celebrities tweet the right thing or donate the appropriate amount of money but how much longer we must rely on their largesse, rather than restructure an economic system that has created such a wealth gap. Until then, we ask, is $50 all you can really give?
Meanwhile, politicians — particularly of the mainstream, Democratic persuasion, but Republicans too — adopt the same hollow language while deploying violent police forces across the country. They hide behind rainbows; they urge people to vote. During a press conference on Saturday, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s version of events was consistently at odds with footage circulating on social media. Regarding a video of an NYPD vehicle driving into a crowd, he said, “If those protesters had just gotten out of the way … We would not be talking about this situation.” The backlash was swift and immediate. Just hours earlier, he had tweeted his own empty gesture as a social-justice Mad Libs: “Structural racism haunts the lives of people of color. What we’re seeing is an overflow due to decades of injustices. I see my own privilege and can only understand so much. I know enough to say that for the Black community every day is pervaded by racism. We will do better.” And yet during a budget crisis and a public-health emergency, he has left the NYPD’s $6 billion budget virtually intact. Brain worms 2020.