Heineken: The Beverage of Choice for Self-Congratulatory Progressives

There has been a lot of social media buzz around a recent Heineken ad. People with diverging viewpoints offered to stay and discuss calmly their differences over a beer.

The message is simple: society is divided because we’re not willing to talk over our differences. The solution is to create opportunities to do so.

There is no sense of the emotional hardships that participants may experience, and we are as viewers emotionally invested in the relationship between participants after seeing them interact. There’s a creeping sense that if one were to refuse to have a beer in the ad, they would be painted as unreasonable by viewers.

In our day-to-day interactions, marginalised groups frequently get blamed for refusing to educate others about their realities. Leaving is seen as losing a debate and as evidence that we don’t have strong support for our beliefs. The moral innocence of the oppressor is preserved by these pernicious attitudes. Blame is shifted to the oppressed though we may have very good yet invisible reasons for refusing to engage in dialogue.

I was once paid to talk one-on-one with someone who wanted to learn more about trans realities. As I was eating in front of the entrance to the library before the event, a group of people decided to loudly debate whether I “was a dude”. I put my head down, hiding my face with my hair as I tried to finish my sandwich as quickly as possible. Their goal was clearly to intimidate me. Not liking getting ignored, four of them decided to approach and sit right next to me, staring threateningly. Scared, I went to hide in the safety of the library. When I exited an hour later, they were still there. They talked loudly about something but I couldn’t hear very well whether it was about me. As I exited as quickly as possible, two of them outside stared at me. As soon as I passed them, they kicked the soccer ball hard enough at me to make me wince when it hit me. Afraid of being assaulted, I picked up the pace and made my way to a bus stop far from the library. Once home, I cried my eyes out.

Those people would have benefited from talking about trans realities in a humanising context. But we’re too afraid of them to engage. Too many of us are assaulted each year in similar situations. I was lucky not to be.

I cancelled the second event scheduled for the following week. To them, I was probably just another oversensitive trans woman who wasn’t willing to do her part in educating others. I know I am perceived that way by countless Facebook commenters. From my perspective, I am the girl who developed anxiety and fears from people threatening and invalidating my existence. Staying to educate can mean having to miss weeks of class despite medication.

The Heineken ad presents discussions as symmetrical and safe debates. Outside the sanitised frame of the ad, they are neither. For the transphobic man in the video, the debate is abstract and there is little stake in the debate. For the trans woman, it is a concrete debate about her basic human desert. The stake is being able to live in a society which has only been violent towards us. The positions don’t sit on the same level: toleration of intolerance is not a virtue, however much we may sometimes praise freedom of speech.

There are psychological and emotional costs to engaging. People are scary. To those of us who aren’t immediately read as trans, the dread of being outed or outing oneself is a close relative. Too many of us have experienced violence, and we’ve all experienced people spouting insults at us and faced daily dehumanising comments. Just on the day of writing this piece, I’ve had the chance of hearing “we’re lost, what a society!” and an “it’s a trap!” joke by two different groups of people. Many of us experience trauma and develop various mental health and trust issues as a result. Engaging willingly with people who don’t think we deserve respect and consideration after experiencing those daily invalidations is taxing.

Educating others and talking over our differences is emotional work of the priciest kind. In all but rare situations, it’s also unpaid. By inculcating us the belief that talking it over is the solution and that we are blameable for not wanting to engage, the ad buys into the bootstrap myth, discounts minority stress, and shifts the responsibility away from oppressors onto us despite the fact that we already face economic, social and psychological precariousness.

We already get blamed for not engaging in debates. Too frequently we see people who leave recast as having lost the debate, as being irrational. The Heineken ad is just one more tool people can use to guilt-trip us into staying or to blame us for leaving.

Despite all this, many of us do choose to take on the emotional labour of educating. But dialogue requires a certain level of goodwill. It requires a willingness to change one’s mind, not to hold oneself as a final authority on the topic, and to be respectful in our responses. Yet our interlocutors rarely satisfy those conditions. While upholding themselves as more rational than us, they foreclose the possibility of change and too frequently devolve into interrupting and insulting when challenged.

Dialogue is impossible in these conditions. Our humanity shouldn’t be on trial in the first place, and opinions that seek to deprive us of it do not deserve being heard. But making us feel bad for our oppressive opinions doesn’t sell beer. Despite all the articles saying it put Pepsi to shame, the ad’s just repeating the same “why don’t we all just get along” feel-good progressivism of the Pepsi ad.

Engaging with our complicity in maintaining systems of oppression doesn’t feel good. Until our humanity stops being on trial, talking over our differences is but a myth.

Initially published by The Body Is Not An Apology on May 20th, 2017. The author would like to thank Tiger Zheng for his help with hashing out the text’s main points.