So, unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably seen or heard about the new Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick. You’ve probably also seen the absolute frenzy it has caused both on the left and the right. This whole controversy is a perfect example of the problems with outrage culture and how it encourages both sides to angrily shout at each other rather than actually try to understand each other and solve problems. So in the interest of breaking that trend, let’s examine where the left and the right are coming from on this.
Basically, this is a clash of two narratives. The narrative on the right is that America is the greatest country to have ever existed and is worthy of respect and reverence for progress it has spearheaded in regard to human freedom and economic prosperity. Furthermore, the narrative says that there is a sustained effort from the media, and the American left to undermine people’s belief in America’s greatness and to instead paint the country as an oppressor responsible for much of the world’s problems. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this is the narrative that I subscribe to.
The narrative on the left is that America is a land of oppression especially in regard to black Americans. Proponents of this narrative will often cite things such as black people being shot or otherwise mistreated by the police, disproportionate prison sentencing, discrimination in housing loans, as evidence of this. Some proponents of this narrative will also insist that the issue is racists holding positions of power and enforcing policies in a racist way rather than any particular policy being the problem. Finally, this narrative presents white people, particularly Republicans, being if not racists themselves, at least willfully blind and dismissive of any oppression of black people that might be occurring.
Now, these two narratives cannot both be completely true as one basically paints America as a force for good in the world, while the other paints it as a force for evil. It is the ongoing war between these two narratives that inspires such visceral reactions over the Kaepernick ad. In a vacuum, the Kaepernick advertisement holds no real importance. It’s just a former athlete getting an ad deal. When you frame in the context of this culture war, however, it’s easy to see why it is perceived to be important. In this context, Kaepernick’s protest was a shot fired against the people who believe in the right’s narrative about America. Adherents to that narrative, myself included, get very frustrated at someone claiming America is currently an oppressor or that there is still significant oppression going on here because as far as we can tell that simply isn’t true. Whereas adherents to the left’s narrative cheered Kaepernick as it was bringing their narrative in front of the eyes of millions of viewers who just wanted to watch a football game in peace. So Nike making ads featuring Kaepernick with the line “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” is seen as Nike accepting and pushing the left’s agenda in this culture war. To the left, this means that Nike supports their fight against oppression, to the right this means that Nike is cool with trashing America. The right is offended that the country has been insulted, while the left is offended that the right is turning a blind eye to perceived racism.
Obscured by this culture war is the fact that to an honest observer must admit that both narratives have some degree truth to them. When the right says that the left believes America is an oppressor nation, they are correct. When the left says that the right is dismissive of claims of modern claims of oppression, they are correct. When the right says that America is a great nation that has been responsible for much of the economic and political progress in the last few centuries, they are correct. When the left says that America has oppressed and mistreated a lot of people, they are correct. Now there are many caveats that make some of those truths less relevant, but both narratives at least to some extent make valid points even if the narratives as a whole cannot coexist. The left thinks the right is racist and the right thinks the left is anti-American. This makes having a productive conversation about the underlying issues difficult because each side is suspicious of the other’s motives and arguably rightly so. As a result, there is little honest evaluation of the statistics about police shootings, sentencing patterns, and crime statistics which needs to happen if what we want is to actually see if there is a problem here and if there is, how we can fix it.
Instead what we have is pointless virtue signaling on the left, met by outrage on the right, which is in turn met by more outrage on the left. This continues infinitum in a vicious cycle. This keeps happening because it takes much less effort to make an angry social media post, kneel during the anthem, or burn your shoes than it does to actually evaluate the facts and implement workable solutions. The process of honestly analyzing facts, ascertaining a solution, and putting that solution into effect is an arduous process that most people either don’t want to go through or feel is so difficult as to be impossible, especially the implementation portion. So to feel like they have agency over the situation, people post on social media, virtue signal, and get outraged before moving on to the next news item to get outraged about. It’s easy to get outraged about something you think is asinine, as I admittedly am about the Kaepernick ad, but at some point we have to put that aside and do the hard work of actually trying to solve problems rather than perpetuate this vicious cycle of whining on social media, virtue signaling, and outrage.