Two ways I track the culture war are my Facebook feed and memos about changes to higher education. One recent conflict was the Great Light Beer Battle of 2023. For those unfamiliar with this significant and world changing battle, TikToker Dylan Mulvaney received a custom can of Bud Light featuring her face and did a short promo spot. Since Mulvaney is a trans person, there was a reaction from many on the right.  Kid Rock added to the discussion of corporate marketing tactics by purchasing boxes of Bud Light and shooting them with a submachinegun. For those unfamiliar with gun laws, it is legal to own automatic weapons—you just need to navigate your way through the legal maze and pay the appropriate fee. Others limited their rage to words rather than bullets. This is but one example of some on the right being outraged by “woke” companies. As with all other battle, we will move on as memory fades, and they find something new.

Those who know me know I have long argued in favor of a broad and deep conception of free speech, largely stolen from J.S. Mill. People have the right to freedom of expression, through this is limited by the principle of harm. While there are gray areas of harm that can be debated, following Aristotle’s guidance about virtues, I prefer to err on the side of freedom. As such, I hold that harm needs to be meaningful and significant to justify restricting expression. Offending someone, even deeply, is not a significant harm—although the line between offense and harm can be fuzzy. This view entails that people have the right to condemn companies they disagree with, 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 appear the  fool. 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 the “wokeness” is being willing to have a trans person do a promotional spot for them.

On the face of it, few (if any) American corporations are woke (in the non-pejorative sense). That is, they are not committed to social and economic justice. Their primary function is making money. This is not to deny that people, even those in high positions, might hold socially liberal views. When a company takes a stance on a social issue, this is almost always done when the stance enjoys popular acceptance. At the very least, they calculate that taking this stance will generate more revenue than not doing so. They can miscalculate and suffer a loss—as can happen with any marketing strategy or product change. In the case of Bud Light giving Mulvany the custom beer can, they made what probably seemed like 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 what appeared to be a smart play: for a small cost, they signal that they “believe” what most American consumers believe. This play did end in a fumble, as Bud Light sales are down, according to a detailed analysis of the Harvard Business Review.  But the parent company has not gone broke and it is worth considering that the causal factors include more than just the culture war factors.

While people enraged by such “woke” behavior have a moral right to express their rage, their reaction is not morally commendable. In general, the culture war rage at companies tends to focus on expressions of a pro-inclusion stance. In the case of the Bud Light episode, the company signaled a trans tolerant viewpoint, recognizing that trans people buy beer and gambling that since most Americans are at least tolerant of trans Americans this would be a smart marketing move. Before that, many companies (including other beer companies) have expressed other types of tolerance, such as towards gay people, women, and people of color. These were also met with rage. The anger usually seems focused on an expression of tolerance, perhaps because when capitalist corporations use tolerance signaling in their marketing, it marks that conservatives have lost that fight and will need to move on to hating someone or something else. This signals the right that they need to get back into that fight to signal that sort of tolerance will not be tolerated.

A good example is the reaction to Cracker Barrel recognizing 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 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 revealed their values.

A degree of anger could have been warranted if Cracker Barrel had decided to replace its meat-based sausage with plant-based sausage. I, too, have been mildly annoyed when a business has replaced a product, I like with one I don’t. But Cracker Barrel did not take anything away, it added an option. The meat-lovers could still get their meat, while people who wanted a meatless option could have that. So, the rage at Cracker Barrel was for giving people more choices, not less. As such, a reasonable explanation for the rage would be a dislike of people who prefer to eat plants (at least some of the time). This, one assumes, is due to prejudices against and stereotypes of vegans and vegetarians. Plant-based meats are also seen as connected to concern about climate change and animal cruelty and some on the right dislike the (alleged) politics behind it. But adding plant-based sausage to the menu does the meat eaters no harm since they can still have their meat, so their anger seems unwarranted. 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 and wish them no harm.

Those who dislike trans people can, of course, make the usual argument that trans people are a threat. Hence, they can claim they are right to be mad at Bud Light because they are expressing tolerance of allegedly 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 to be condemned.