Christmas Controversies 4.0

A commentary on this year’s Christmas controversies.

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I do have more to say about China, but since Christmas is rapidly approaching, let’s talk about Christmas. Every year, I’m curious as to what Christmas controversies will erupt. In past years, Starbuck’s Christmas cups spurred controversy and this year seems to be no different. According to The Washington Post, this year’s debate is the same as 2015.  There are claims that Starbucks is not embracing Christmas. The coffee giant said it wanted to “look to the past” for inspiration. It seems there are some people who think the coffee giant’s cups lack Christmas symbolism and thus is an attack on Christmas. Starbucks seems to be ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t.’ I can’t help but think of the idiom, “You can’t please everyone.” The truth is, you will never please everyone, so why bother. Maybe that is the approach Starbucks is taking.

The Guardian has an article, Iceland’s Christmas TV advert rejected for being political, about a controversial ad in United Kingdom. Here is the ad:

A supermarket chain in the United Kingdom, Iceland Foods, pledged removal of palm oil from all its own-brand foods. Habitat loss in countries such as Malaysia – a major global producer of palm oil – has contributed to the orangutan endangerment. The supermarket says, “this is a huge story that needs to be told.”  Iceland Food’s Christmas commercial, about the plight of the critically endangered orangutan, was banned from airing on television.

The ad was pulled from TV because it breached political advertising rules. Ads are prohibited if it is “directed towards a political end.” My question: Was the ad too political because it was affecting sales of palm oil products? The supermarket was merely trying to educate people on the plight of the orangutan. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours (see UN Environment Programme). That is alarming! The world needs to be educated, but if people know this truth they may stop buying palm oil products—therein lies the politics—thus affecting profits. That applies to many products. This isn’t so much a controversy about Christmas as it is about keeping people ignorant. The reality is, for the corporate world, making money is more important than saving the environment or endangered species. There is a so-called Native American saying, “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.”  I fear this may become truth.

Black Pete Character

Another interesting controversy is taking place in the Netherlands regarding Black Pete or Black Peter—Zwarte Piet in Dutch—a companion of Saint Nicholas (the Dutch say Sinterklaas). On the feast day of Saint Nicholas, celebrated December 5 in the Netherlands and December 6 in Belgium, this character can be seen.  The character’s depiction typically accompanies Sinterklaas, involves covering the skin in black makeup, wearing black wigs, large earrings and  distributing presents to children. Many people in the Netherlands dress up as Zwarte Piet as well.

Traditions surrounding Zwarte Piet have been controversial since the late 20th century. Opponents to the Black Pete character argue that he stems from Dutch colonial heritage, in which black people were submissive to whites, in other words, enslaved. The Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863.  National Geographic reports,

The character [Black Pete] was popularized in a mid-19th century children’s book written by a man who was very interested in the Dutch royal family members, “one of whom bought a slave in a slave market in Cairo in the mid-19th century,” says Joke Hermes, a professor of media, culture, and citizenship at Inholland University. This slave, Hermes suggests, may have helped inspire the character of Zwarte Piet.

Others reject the stereotypical black features of the figure, such as bright red lips, curly hair and large golden earrings. Some argue that it’s a way the white Dutch people remind black Dutch people that they are tolerated but not yet fully accepted citizens. National Geographic reports that white supremacists raised Nazi salutes at the Sinterklass parade in the Dutch city of Hoorn, and flew neo-Nazi flags at the one in Zaandijk. In Eindhoven, an estimated 250 white extremists chanted racist slogans and threw eggs and beer cans at people peacefully protesting the parade.

Now the question is: Should this tradition continue or should it discontinue as it promotes racism or at least keeps alive a racist past? Many argue that Black Pete is harmless fun. Which is more important, tradition or preserving peace? We are living during a time when racism seems to acceptable and even encouraged by some politicians. If black Dutch people, whose ancestors were slaves, are offended, then the tradition is unacceptable! Any traditional Christmas character that prompts white supremacists to raise Nazi salutes needs to be rejected.

The biggest Christmas controversy of 2018 surrounds the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a popular song written by Frank Loesser in 1944. It is a duet in which a host, usually performed by a male voice, tries to convince a guest, usually performed by a female voice, that she should stay the evening because the weather is cold and the trip home could be problematic. While the lyrics make no mention of any holiday, it is popularly regarded as a Christmas song due to its winter theme. If you’re unfamiliar with the song—I was—here it is.

Why is an old song causing so much controversy to the extent where it is being refused to be played on some radio stations.  CBC News explains that the song is offensive because of the man’s refusal to accept the woman’s “No” for an answer. It says many modern listeners view the song as “coercive and problematic.” For an in-depth analysis of the lyrics, see Vox.

Ironically, recently on my Facebook feed, was a post that forcibly argued that this controversy was ridiculous as people know that the song was written in the 1940s, and must be interpreted in light of the times. I doubt young people know this. In the 1940s it was considered a romantic, innocent song. This individual argued that there are worse things, like violent video games, that we should be concerned with rather than an old Christmas song.

Even though the author made some valid arguments, we must be sensitive to the fact that we now live in a #metoo era. The Me Too (#MeToo) movement is a crusade against sexual harassment and sexual assault. This year has been filled with numerous women coming forward with sexual harassment and assault allegations against celebrities, coaches, and politicians, all people with money and power. The current resident of the U.S. Whitehouse has had several accusations lodged against him. This is an issue not to be taken lightly.

A global rape prevention organization known as, No Means No Worldwide (NMNW), has a mission to end sexual violence against women and children. According to this organization,

Globally, an estimated 35% of women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. In Africa, that percentage increases to 45%. According to the UN Population Fund, almost 50% of all sexual assault victims are girls age 15 or younger. In the slums of Nairobi, where our programming started, 1 in 4 girls are raped every year.

This organization teaches a preventative program. In other words, when a woman, child, or man for that matter, says NO, then they mean no. In the song, the female declares her intentions, “I simply must go.” The male’s response, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” She declares her intentions again, “The answer is no.” The guy’s response, “Ooh baby, it’s cold outside.” Later in the song, the guy plays with her emotions (my interpretation) saying, “What’s the sense in hurting my pride,” and “Baby don’t hold out.”  Now I can see why people would take offense to this song. The male character in the song doesn’t respect the female’s answer of no. No doesn’t mean no to him. It means maybe, hopefully, try harder and so on.

An article titled, What Nobody Wants To Admit About Rape Culture, says,

One of the most common occurrences when a woman has been raped is that her entire sexual history is brought up and used against her. The point of this attack is not that rape is okay, it’s that she’s a slut so she must have consented, right? Therefore it’s not rape. When guys are told “When a woman says no, she means try harder,” it doesn’t mean that rape is okay. It means that a woman is still consenting even if she says no. Therefore it’s not rape.

Does this song promote the rape—legally known as sexual assault—culture? Seems to. Should a song that is a traditional Christmas song—even that is open to debate—that may preserve a rape culture  be aired on radio because ‘it’s traditional? No. Should radio take this as an opportunity to teach about the objectionable parts of the song? Yes. Just because a song is a traditional Christmas song doesn’t make it acceptable. W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, and lecturer, once said, “Two basic rules of life are: 1) Change is inevitable. 2) Everybody resists change.” Sometimes Christmas traditions have to change. Airing of this song may be one of them.

When Lydia Liza heard the song, she was offended. She disliked the song so much, she recorded her own, “consensual” version with fellow musician Josiah Lemanski, in 2016.  In other words, she disliked the traditional version, so she changed it, and that is okay. I’ll end with Lydia’s version.