The ups and downs of talking about the “Incompleteness” of Progressive Messages
The range of responses to Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the 58th Grammy Awards follows largely the same recipe as the public reactions to other social statements that made it to the mainstream before it.
There are, of course, the indifferent. There are also the ‘color blind’ wondering why he or others are making a big deal. There are the conservative outraged. Then there are the liberal apologists who caution about a statement being too much, or too soon, or should have been done differently. We have the solid liberals to praise the bold, progressive statement. Some will deify it or its messenger.
The most interesting reaction to me, though, is the response of those progressives and activists that need to point out that a given progressive message is imperfect and incomplete. In that vein, Raquel Willis wrote a thoughtful piece about Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly back in April 2015. This is very important work: the court of public opinion has a short attention span and is limited in its ability to focus on broad, multi-faceted issues.
The reactions to Kendrick Lamar’s performance, to me, were somehow reminiscent of the reaction to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Roxane Gay’s essay on the book did a good job showing the broad range of responses. It also introduced me to a piece by Elizabeth Spiers on The Verge, responding to criticism of Sandberg’s work as ‘not applying to all women’, by saying:
Has anyone ever analyzed a business book made by a male CEO using the same criteria? When’s the last time someone picked up a Jack Welch (or Warren Buffett, or even Donald Trump) bestseller and complained that it was unsympathetic to working class men who had to work multiple jobs to support their families? When’s the last time anyone called Welch an elitist jerk for suggesting that his relationship with his family was not incompatible with work? And who reads a book by Jack Welch and defensively feels that they’re being told that they have to adopt Jack Welch’s lifestyle and professional choices or they are lesser human beings?
With zero scientific evidence, I think I can answer that. No one.
When a white man speaks, he is speaking for himself. When a black American man speaks, he is speaking for millions.
There is a tension between allowing Lamar to be a singular man who speaks his mind on some occasions to point out a subset of problems faced by him and others in the community, on the one hand, and the socially responsible tendency to explain to the public — by way of publicly disagreeing with Lamar — to look further, read more, and understand the real breadth of problems faced by minorities (especially at the intersections with other disadvantaged groups).
One concern is that the activists and progressives are still affected by the subconscious phenomena of seeing a member one group as representing that entire group.
What should those activists do, though, if they feel like an incomplete message is gaining national attention, other than exactly what they have done already?