Diet Woke: The Depoliticization of Student Activism

by Andrew Ridgeway on July 7, 2017

Pepsi Cola’s disastrous 2017 “Live for Now Moments Anthem” commercial depicts actress and model Kendall Jenner spontaneously walking off the set of a photo shoot to join a group of ethnically diverse protestors who are marching for an unspecified reason. The commercial features Jenner, a Kardashian fashion model, resolving a confrontation with police officers by offering a handsome cop an ice cold can of Pepsi.

The public’s reaction to the commercial was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Panned as “diet woke,” Pepsi was accused of appropriating imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, the decision to cast a member of the ultra-wealthy Kardashian clan as the leader of Pepsi’s “social movement” was seen as a whitewashing of contemporary struggles for social justice.

These observations are certainly accurate, but they risk missing the forest for the trees; casting a black actress (in lieu of Jenner) wouldn’t have made Pepsi’s commercial a more “authentic” expression of political solidarity. While the racial demographics of Pepsi’s political fantasy are undeniably distressing, equally problematic is the political fantasy itself—specifically, how Pepsi depoliticizes social justice issues by conflating activism with consumption and enjoyment.

Pepsi’s “Live for Now” commercial is a perfect illustration of what Slavoj Zizek describes as interpassivity. Interpassivity refers to people’s habit of delegating their beliefs to some external third party (like a famous celebrity or a brand of soda) which proceeds to express those beliefs on their behalf. The person’s direct involvement is rendered superfluous. As Ilan Kapoor explains in his book Celebrity Humanitarianism: the Ideology of Global Charity, interpassivity operates such that “not only do others believe for us, but through this transference, we no longer need to believe.”

Zizek uses the example of a Tibetan prayer wheel to illustrate how interpassivity operates: religious devotees put written prayers into a rotating wheel, which prays on behalf of the believer. As long as the wheel continues to spin, the religious adherent is “objectively” praying—even if his or her mind happens to be completely fixated on obscene or violent thoughts. As Kapoor observes, “it is as though by watching we are doing.” In the context of political interpassivity, activists are encouraged to feel good about their “commitment” to social justice while they outsource their activism to a can of Pepsi or a celebrity spokesperson.

It’s tempting to read Pepsi’s “Live for Now” blunder as a clumsy attempt at social commentary, but the most interesting aspect of the commercial is precisely what it doesn’t say. The protestors in the commercial are holding cardboard hearts and signs imploring onlookers to “Join the Conversation”—but which conversation are they referring to? And what should we say? Does it even matter? Pepsi appropriates the form (of protest) as a hollow signifier, without any reference to its specific (political) content.

Capitalism has produced many miracles: cigarettes without tobacco, beer without alcohol and now, not simply a protest without politics, but a protest without controversy or antagonism, without goals, without strategy, without a theory of social change or any understanding of history. Jenner’s spontaneity betrays a commitment to what Zizek calls “pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate’, to mask the nothingness of what goes on.” Remember: there’s no reason to assume Jenner’s character knows what Pepsi’s “social movement” is about when she decides to become part of it. Pepsi’s “protest” is little more than a depoliticized celebration of the status quo capacity to resist; a fantasy of political activism that conspires to leave everything exactly as it is.

Is there not something disturbingly familiar about this fantasy? Pepsi’s conflation of activism with consumption and enjoyment seems reminiscent of the endless parade of dance marathons, silent auctions, pancake breakfasts, prize raffles, pie eating contests, charity carnivals and benefit concerts that encourage us to interpret our consumption—and our enjoyment—as both an ethical and political imperative.

Similarly, Pepsi’s call to “Join the Conversation” is redolent of the steady stream of politically flavored hashtags, blog posts, tweets, status updates and videos imploring millennials to take action by becoming part of the conversation about whatever social justice issue happens to be getting media coverage at the moment.

Such frenetic conversations about social justice tend to emphasize depoliticized participation, individual empowerment, self-expression, the importance of ‘raising awareness’ and the urgency of acting now instead of taking time to critically examine the problem at hand. This emphasis on individualism and immediate action “crowds out” more radical opportunities for grassroots activism and calls for institutional reform.

“Awareness Raising” as a Failed Political Methodology

Many student-led social justice campaigns on college campuses across the country, including the Tunnel of Oppression, The Clothesline Project and “It’s On Us,” emphasize the importance of raising awareness about social problems like racism, sexism and economic inequality. This emphasis on making people “aware” of problems appeals to university administrators, who won’t be required to rewrite existing university policies or redistribute resources to address institutional issues like racist hiring practices, wage discrimination or the lack of affordable on-campus childcare for students and faculty.

The problem with “awareness-raising” as a political methodology is two-fold. First, social problems like sexual assault, racism and global warming aren’t caused by information scarcity or an overall lack of societal awareness. As cultural critic Neil Postman observed in his 1992 book Technopoly, “there are very few political, social, and especially personal problems that rise because of insufficient information.”

Second, strategies that stop at “awareness-raising” allow would-be activists to experience the pleasure of political activism, while simultaneously outsourcing the labor, risks and responsibilities of direct action to some unspecified third party. Crudely put, the situation of an activist committed to an “awareness-raising” strategy is not unlike that of the individual who seeks to mitigate the offensiveness of a bodily odor by publicly acknowledging it and waiting for it to dissipate of its own accord.

Neglecting Structural Analysis

It’s important not to confuse contemporary “awareness-raising” strategies with the consciousness-raising efforts of second-wave feminists and the Black Power movement during the second half of the 20th century. Consciousness-raising, as a methodology, helped individuals connect personal problems and local issues to larger political and economic structures to generate new forms of collective action and grassroots activism.

Awareness-raising, in contrast, tends to neglect both the personal and structural dimension of the problem being discussed, in favor of decontextualized information; statistics without history, without strategy, without critical theory or any reference to class or social location. The result looks something like Pepsi’s commercial, which pays lip service to multiculturalism but fails to offer anything in the way of political substance. Jenner’s (white, economically privileged) character could be complicit in the creation of the very problem she’s protesting and it wouldn’t matter—she’s already upheld her ethical-political duty to “join the conversation.”

A good example of how “awareness-raising” is both depersonalized and divorced from structural analysis is The Clothesline Project (TCP), a nationwide campaign hosted annually on many college campuses across the United States to address violence against women. TCP invites survivors and allies to share their stories by decorating t-shirts and hanging them on a clothesline for other people to see.

According to the official brochure, TCP seeks to “bear witness to the survivors as well as the victims of the war against women” and “educate, document, and raise society’s awareness of the extent of the problem of violence against women.” While TCP sees itself as intersectional (“everyone can participate!”) the bodies of victims are rendered absent; TCP’s preferred medium (t-shirts devoid of bodies) make it difficult to examine factors like class, race, gender and sexual orientation.

There is an active erasure of difference (especially race and class-based differences) that simultaneously depersonalizes sexual assault and forecloses any kind of localized structural analysis of the problem. Naturally, this shifts the discussion away from racial or class-based collective action as a means of responding to violence against women and towards methodologies that emphasize individual self-expression and the importance of bearing witness. Such a response might offer a form of catharsis, but it doesn’t do much to solve sexual assault—at least insofar as its possible to engage in acts of violence while wearing a TCP t-shirt.

Power Versus Self-Empowerment

The overall lack of structural analysis and emphasis on “awareness-raising strategies” means student activists are rarely encouraged to think of the university as a site of production, much less see themselves as participants providing the physical, intellectual and emotional labor that creates and sustains higher education. Instead, students are encouraged to think of themselves primarily as consumers who contract with the university for the right to pursue an education.

In fact, when students refer to their rights as students, they often explicitly reference the fact that they’re paying tuition; in other words, they claim the rights of the customer—not the rights of the laborer. This emphasis on students as consumers devalues both paid and unpaid student labor by eclipsing the loose network of teaching assistants, interns, student leaders, tutors, student employees, college athletes, research assistants, student lecturers, work-study participants and student volunteers who perform the physical, intellectual and emotional labor that ensures the university’s continued existence.

The devaluation of student labor has serious implications for student activism. It prevents students from experiencing any sense of ownership with regard to the university. When students attempt to leverage the institutional clout of the university—for the purpose of addressing social issues, for example—they tend to think of the university as a private entity that answers to itself, rather than a tool for organizing and advancing the collective interests of the student-body.

A student pays the university for the right to perform (intellectual) labor; the university profits from that labor and the student receives compensation in the form of an education. The intellectual labor a student performs in the classroom is actually far more valuable than the paltry sum of money the university collects by charging students tuition, because this labor serves as a precondition for all other forms of revenue. A university derives both its institutional identity and its reputation for academic excellence from the work students perform as part of the curriculum. It’s possible to have a university without buildings, without administrators, without an athletics program. It’s not possible to have a university without students.

Students have a choice: they can view the university as a place they passively inhabit or learn to see the university as a group of equals pooling their collective physical, intellectual and emotional labor for the greater good of the community. The latter interpretation fosters a sense of ownership; students see themselves as political subjects who actually create the university through their labor. I am speaking literally: the university is a constellation of individuals—the vast majority of whom are students. The university does not exist outside the labor that must be performed in order to produce it.

Student activism tends to produce political interpassivity when it obfuscates understanding the university as an assemblage of individuals engaged in various processes of production. Educators and university administrators are complicit to the extent they support toothless social justice initiatives designed to conflate power with empowerment.

Empowerment involves self-affirmation; it speak to an individual’s ability to construct and maintain a positive sense of self. Power is the ability to remove obstacles which prevent people from getting what they need or want. Empowerment manifests internally, but a person with power exerts influence over their external environment. Educators with a vested interest in preserving the status quo work hard to cultivate an academic environment where students are simultaneously empowered and removed from power.

As Ilan Kapoor observes, “we sometimes act, not in order to change something, but rather in order not to change something.” Students who spend the semester producing social media videos encouraging other people to “join the conversation” about social justice are less likely to challenge unjust university policies or push for a more equitable distribution of the university’s resources.

Pepsi’s “diet woke” moment is the logical extension of a political paradigm that conflates consumption with political activism—the same paradigm that makes people think they can recycle their way out of global warming or alleviate poverty by purchasing a pair of Toms. It’s the same political paradigm that inspired Verizon actress Milana Vayntrub to capitalize on the Syrian refugee crisis by filming a cringe-inducing fourteen-minute video reminding people they “can’t do nothing.”

This political paradigm is dangerous because it replaces the reality of long-term struggle with the promise of short-term satisfaction. It’s easier to recycle plastic bottles than lobby for a carbon tax. It’s easier to purchase a pair of shoes than start a labor union. It’s easier to “join the conversation” by pointing out we “can’t do nothing” than it is to explain what it is we should be doing.

Beneath Pepsi’s caricature of the social justice movement is a very sincere attempt to conflate political activism with personal consumption. In other words, the real problem is not so much that Pepsi’s commercial misrepresents the struggle for social justice, but how many people subscribe to a political fantasy that actually reflects what Pepsi was attempting to depict.

Andy Ridgeway is a graduate student studying English literature at the University of Vermont.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

SocraticGadfly July 7, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Interpassivity — slacktivism on steroids!

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