Woke Beer Destroys World
Readers of this blog will know that I have long argued in favor of a very broad and deep conception of free speech, largely stolen from J.S. Mill. The idea is that people have the right to freedom of expression, and this is only limited by the principle of harm. While there is certainly a gray area of harm that can be debated, following Aristotle’s guidance about virtues, I prefer to err on the side of freedom and the harm needs to be meaningful and significant. Offending someone, even deeply, is generally not a significant harm—although the line between offense and harm can also be fuzzy. My view also entails that people can use this right to condemn companies they disagree with, and this condemnation can obviously take various forms, including posting videos of the execution of offending products with a submachine gun. From a practical standpoint, I do think that buying a product to destroy it in protest seems unwise—the company is profiting from the protest, and it can make a person look foolish. But I am known for my frugality, so it might merely be my dislike of waste. Perhaps such a gesture can be effective by showing that the person is so committed to the protest that they will, in effect, burn their own money to make a point. In the case of Bud Light, the rage is directed at the brewer for being “woke.” In this case, for being willing to have a trans person do a promotional spot for them.
As many have argued, American corporations are almost without exception not woke in the non-pejorative sense. That is, they are not committed to social and economic justice. They are, after all, businesses whose primary function is making money (mostly for upper management and shareholders). This is not to deny that specific people, even those in high positions, might hold socially liberal views. When a company takes a stance on a social issue, this is almost without fail done when that stance is already popular. At the very least, they are calculating that this stance will generate more revenue than not taking that stance. They can, of course, miscalculate and suffer a loss—just as can happen with any marketing strategy or product change. In the case of Bud Light giving Mulvany the custom beer can, they made a sensible marketing move: Overall, a 64% majority of Americans favor policies that protect transgender individuals from discrimination in jobs, housing and public spaces such as restaurants and stores, including 37% who strongly favor them. A much smaller share (10%) oppose or strongly oppose these policies, while 25% neither favor nor oppose them. While Americans are more divided over matters such as bathroom bills and transgender athletes in sports, hostility towards trans people is limited to a minority of Americans. As such, Bud Light made a smart play: for a small cost, they signal that they “believe” what most American consumers believe. While perhaps not planned, the predictable rage from the right has put Bud Light into the public eye and given the company free advertising. As would be expected, there have been claims that the company fired its marketing team and that since Bud Light went woke, it is now going broke. But neither claim is true: the marketing team was not fired and Bud Light sales have not been hurt. This is hardly surprising given that the enraged folks are but a sliver of the population (who might also be buying the beer to destroy it in protest). I would not be at all surprised if companies are intentionally exploiting the culture war as a means of generating free publicity. They know how easy it is to push the buttons of the enraged right and that doing so gets them national attention.
Folks on the right presumably think that they represent what most Americans think; in part due to the cognitive bias that causes people to believe that their beliefs are also held by most other people. There is also the isolation bias: people with polarized political views tend to not know many people with different political views, thus they engage in a Hasty Generalization when they think that their circle of acquaintances and friends represent the general population. This is the same thing that occurred when people said that Biden could not have won the election because they do not personally know anyone (or many) who voted for Biden. As Trump supporters, they would tend to know mostly other Trump supporters. So, the right would expect that most people would react as they did and when they do not, it is up to deceitful sources to tell them it did (presumably hoping to cash in on advertising dollars on their sites). Most beer drinkers probably simply do not care about the culture war and their buying behavior remains the same.
While I do think that people enraged by such “woke” behavior have the moral right to express their rage, their reaction is not morally commendable. In general, the culture war rage at companies tends to focus on incidents in which a company expresses a pro-inclusion stance. In the case of the Bud Light episode, the company expressed a trans tolerant viewpoint, recognizing that trans people buy beer and that most Americans are at least tolerant of trans Americans. Before that, many companies (including other beer companies) have expressed other forms of tolerance, such as towards gay people, women, and people of color. These were also met with rage. Much of the anger seems to be focused on this expression of tolerance, perhaps because they realize that when capitalist corporations are using something in their marketing, it marks that conservatives have lost that fight and will need to move on to hating someone or something else.
One interesting illustration of this is the reaction to Cracker Barrel recognizing that there is a profitable market for plant-based meats. When Cracker Barrel added Impossible Sausage (a plant-based sausage) they were met with rage from the right and accusations of being woke. That was all nonsense, Cracker Barrel just wants to make money selling people what they want to stuff into their sausage port. While the meat folks had every moral right to rage against this decision, their anger nicely revealed their values.
I would have understood some of the anger if Cracker Barrel had decided to remove its meat-based sausage and replace it with plant-based sausage. I, too, have been mildly annoyed when a business has discontinued a product I like. But Cracker Barrel was not taking anything away from them, it was merely adding an option. The meat-lovers could still get their meat into their meat port, while people who wanted a meatless option could stuff that into their plant port. As such, there was rage at Cracker Barrel giving people more choices, not less. As such, a reasonable explanation for the rage (at least for those who knew the facts) would be a dislike of people who prefer to eat plants (at least some of the time). This, one assumes, is due to the usual prejudices against and stereotypes about vegans and vegetarians. There is also the fact that plant-based meats are also seen as being connected to concern about climate change and animal cruelty, hence some on the right dislike the (alleged) politics behind it. But adding plant-based sausage to the menu does the meat eaters no harm, so their anger seems unwarranted, and they seem to think they have the right to deny other people their choice of sausages simply because they dislike that choice. The same would seem to hold true in the rage at Bud Light: while trans people cause them no harm, they seem mad that they exist and that most people at least chose to be tolerant.
Those who dislike trans people can, of course, make their usual arguments that trans people are a threat. Hence, they are right to be mad at Bud Light because they are expressing tolerance of dangerous people. However, as many have pointed out, trans people are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. This is not to deny that people can feel threatened by the notion of transgender people, but this is rather different from trans people being a threat as trans people—as opposed to the true claim that any type of person could also do harm. In closing, while people like Kid Rock have the moral right to express their rage at companies engaged in marketing by appealing to broadly accepted values, the rage against inclusion is not moral.