"OMG Stop Freaking Out!!!" is a Bad Response to Right-Wing Freak-Outs
If you can't say something principled, don't say anything at all
It is my firm opinion that the fuckability of M&Ms is not the most vital issue facing our nation. Honestly: It might not even be in the top five. But you’ve probably heard that an uproar around character design has led Mars candies to discontinue their M&M characters. That news ripped across yesterday’s Discourse like it was the Kennedy assassination; if Twitter was a newspaper, then this would have been yesterday’s edition:
To summarize the issue for any Neanderthals who haven’t been following the news: Last year, M&M’s announced a “makeover” for their “spokescandies”. Though nobody asked, Mars, Inc. explained that the CGI M&M’s who hawk B-grade chocolate on TV were being changed to be more “inclusive” and “reflective of modern society”. In a Gandhi-esque turn of phrase that surely brought a tear to the eye of anyone across the globe who yearns for justice, the M&M’s press release declared: “As the world changes, so do we.”
Which is to say: The Green M&M would no longer wear fuck-me pumps. In fact, she was now just “Green” — no longer “Ms. Green” (was she married to the guy from Clue?) — and she and the other female M&Ms would team up as a “force supporting women, together throwing shine and not shade.” It’s unclear to me what came of that project — if the M&Ms succeeded in, say, reducing the prevalence of female genital mutilation, I am unaware of such progress.
The changes didn’t end there. Mars informed us that Orange, the M&M that the press release described as “anxious” even though his fear of being eaten alive is completely rational, was to be made even more anxious. I don’t know what that would entail; perhaps Mars envisioned a future ad in which Orange encounters Santa and spontaneously defecates. Regardless, Mars explained: “Orange is one of the most relatable characters with Gen-Z, which is also the most anxious generation.” All of these changes were made as part of a campaign called #ForAllFunkind. Which makes sense, because what’s more fun than being asexual and anxiety-ridden!?
Predictably, the right freaked out. Fox News talking heads and British tabloids loudly denounced the “woke” M&Ms. The overreaction was absurd, but as an ex-writer for a left-leaning comedy show, I can’t be too critical. After all: For years, I considered goofy missteps from my ideological opponents to be manna from comedy heaven. I remember when Trump tweeted “Covfefe” — that day, all the writers wrote five jokes and then knocked off early, because Top of Show had just written itself.
This month, M&M’s — much like the Kids in the Hall character who chokes on a kabob, is rescued, and immediately eats another kabob and chokes again — announced another campaign. This was it:
The campaign included a press release explaining that the packs are meant to “celebrate women everywhere who are flipping the status quo." The press release — which I assume was issued by Mars’ Office of Not Knowing When to Stop Digging — went on to announce that the campaign was about creating “purposeful connections,” and that a portion of profits would go to organizations that are "uplifting and empowering women".
Guess what happened? That’s right: Right-wing media shit a brick/had a cow/passed some other large object through some other small orifice. As I wrote just last week: Right-wing media is built to light their hair on fire. The American right is no longer an intellectual force; it’s a group of hecklers getting their jollies by gleefully shitting on all they observe, sort of like an unfunny, nativist Statler and Waldorf.
Mars responded to the outrage by announcing an “indefinite pause” for the spokescandies. Their statement explaining the move dripped with incredulity — they wrote: “We weren’t sure if anyone would even notice [the changes we’ve made]. And we definitely didn’t think [they] would break the internet. But now we get it — even a candy’s shoes can be polarizing.”
I think that the disbelief in Mars’ statement would be completely reasonable IF THEY HADN’T HELD THEIR STUPID CANDIES UP AS THE LINCHPIN OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT TO BEGIN WITH! TWICE!!! Nobody put a gun to their head and made them try to shoehorn their CGI candies into the fight for social justice. They’re the ones who called their campaign “purposeful”; they’re the ones who acted like their knock-off California Raisin characters are the second coming of Susan B. Anthony. Mars could have just made changes and not issued a press release, but they clearly launched this campaign thinking that it would be met with a bunch of cheap yas-queen/girlboss rah-rah bullshit. Only now that it hasn’t been received that way are they saying “Gee, we didn’t think anyone would notice.”
This seems to be representative of a pattern that I’ve noticed recently:
Someone on the left over-steps.
The right freaks out.
Many on the left respond with “Wow, can you believe what the right is freaking out about now?”
The third response is legitimate, but I also think it's incomplete. The problem is that it fails to note that the thing that the right is freaking out about is, indeed, pretty harebrained.
This just happened with gas stoves. A Consumer Product Safety Commission official said that his agency was considering banning the sale of new gas stoves. For reasons I explained in way too much detail here, I think that would be terrible policy. The right had a field day, and I think it’s fair to say that they overreacted — a lot of people took the opportunity to score cheap political points. Democrats are correct that gas stove bans are not around the corner; the White House and even the CPSC itself oppose a ban, and the most any locality has done is to ban gas hookups in some new buildings, which is a very different policy from what the CPSC official floated.
Nonetheless, I found much of the “OMG can you believe we’re even talking about this?” rhetoric on Twitter to be obtuse. Because let’s be fair: We’re talking about this because an administration official told a reporter “we’re considering this”. And hatred of gas stoves is a thing in some lefty circles. It can be true that the right lives to get their panties in a twist and also that the object of their outrage is usually something legitimately dumb. Leaving out the second part is a missed opportunity to let people know where you stand.
Another example of this dynamic was the Green New Deal. The GND’s proponents initially hailed it as a vital step to save the planet; Ed Markey said the measure “isn’t just a resolution, it’s a revolution,” and the Sunrise Movement called it “the best chance we have to fight climate change.” But as soon as it became clear that the GND was a Jupiter-sized political liability — which took about 24 hours — the talking point became “This is a non-binding resolution that’s not going to pass anyway so oh my God everybody stop freaking out!!!”
One more example: Critical Race Theory in schools. This was a big issue during the off-year campaigns of 2021, and the official Democratic talking point was that Critical Race Theory was not being taught in schools. Which was technically true, but it ignored the fact that there was some weird lefty garbage seeping into curriculum; I parodied this semantic dodge in an article called We Are NOT Teaching Post-Funk Techno-Industrial Nü-Metal In Schools! We Are Teaching Funk-Infused Synthetic Post-Punk Neo-Metal. Voters did not did not appear to buy Democrats’ cheeky linguistic sidestep, perhaps because many apostles of the Racial Reckoning framed the movement as the most momentous event since the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. You can’t tell people that your movement is crucial and important and urgent and broad but also no big deal OMG you are being, like, SO DRAMATIC!!!
I think that this is what it appears to be: Some people on the left have some very goofy ideas. Sometimes, one of those ideas will seep into the mainstream and immediately become the object of ridicule. At that point, the person’s posture quickly shifts to: “Haha jk y’all I fer reals can’t believe u think that I thought that!”
But I think that there’s something else going on here, and I think that my people — normie liberals — are at fault. People like me often focus on the right’s histrionics because we don’t want to confront silliness coming from “our side”. The left, of course, is not a homogenous bloc; in fact, historically, “united” is the absolute last word that anyone would attach to the left (we love to splinter!). Normie liberals like me are embarrassed by lefty idiocy, so we sometimes act like it doesn’t exist. When the right devolves into hysterics over some culture war bullshit, we pretend like they’re reacting to nothing, even though…it’s not usually nothing, is it? Most Fox News freak-outs are in response to a thing that is, in fact, quite dumb, if also completely trivial and not representative of opinions held by most people on the left.
Liberals can also be selective in our disdain for culture war bullshit. When the right freaks out about M&Ms, Mr. Potato Head, Dr. Seuss, or a Twix commercial, we dismiss them as unserious. But it’s not like the left never obsesses over cartoons and dumb kiddie bullshit — we focus on that stuff all the goddamned time. It’s hypocritical to start a conversation about how the female rabbit from Space Jam is insufficiently “empowered” and then mock those who prefer the thirst trap bunny from the ‘90s. We can’t invent the widely-despised word “Latinx” as part of a relentless language-policing campaign and then dismiss Sarah Huckabee Sanders as frivolous when she bans the word immediately after becoming governor of Arkansas. We need to be consistent; either all of this stuff is a dumb culture war sideshow, or none of it is.
Many liberals are familiar with the anti-anti-Trump phenomenon. This is the dynamic in which Republicans who think that Trump is an embarrassment and a liability focus exclusively on Trump’s opponents on the left. Anti-anti Trumpers have been known to deride “Trump derangement syndrome”, the undeniably real tendency of some on the left to overreact to Trump’s also-undeniable unsuitability for office. Focusing myopically on Trump’s critics allows anti-anti-Trumpers to keep their partisan allegiances aligned; they remain on the right, punching left. It also minimizes the risk of driving Trumpists out of the Republican coalition. But it comes at the cost of ignoring the rank idiocy emanating from their side.
The left’s “OMG stop freaking out!!!” impulse seems to be the mirror image of the anti-anti-Trump phenomenon. We have some extremely embarrassing people on our side, but we don’t want to talk about them, and we don’t want to risk driving them out of our coalition. So, instead of saying “Yes, thing x is stupid, but the overreaction is also stupid, and we should try to focus on what’s important,” we skip the first part and talk exclusively about Tucker Carlson. It’s an incomplete narrative engineered for political purposes.
I think that politically-convenient narratives compromise a person’s credibility with fair-minded people. Sharp people recognize the shell game; they notice the effort to sweep idiocy from one’s own side under the rug. It’s also reasonable to wonder if a person who won’t denounce idiocy from their own side is, in fact, on board with the idiocy. Did they think that the dumb thing was awesome and cool only until there was a backlash, at which point they feigned incredulity out of self-preservation? Was the dumb thing actually a trial balloon, and the only thing preventing the dumb thing’s spread is outside resistance, not some limiting principle from the in-group? If you won’t comment on the dumb thing — if you won’t say “yeah, that thing is dumb” — then these are fair questions.
For the record: I still think that all of the M&M’s are sexy as hell. Discontinue them all you want, Mars — that will only increase the public appetite for the erotic M&M drawings I sell in my Etsy store. But aside from windfall that I’m about to reap from this unexpected constriction in supply, I don’t care about M&M’s. They are neither champions of social justice nor harbingers of civilizational decline, and I think that anyone who doesn’t know that badly needs to get a grip.