I never thought we would hear the words “Mr. Potato Head” and “canceled” in the same sentence. For those unfamiliar with the backstory: two weeks ago, the toy manufacturer Hasbro announced, in the name of gender inclusivity, that it would drop the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” honorifics from its “Potato Head” line of toys. While Hasbro later clarified that the honorifics would only be removed from the “Potato Head” brand name and logo, and not from the individual toy characters themselves, the media was already running headlines along the lines of, “Mr. Potato Head Canceled.”
Ridiculous situations, like these, are the most revealing. For example, the “cancellation” of Mr. Potato Head epitomizes the left’s ability to quickly extract changes in the name of social justice that are superficial, if not problematic, in reality. For example, Hasbro, in addition to renaming the Potato Head brand as a step towards gender inclusivity, came out with “Ms. Monopoly” last year—a version of monopoly in which female players collect $240 when they pass “Go” while male players only collect $200. Hasbro’s gender-inclusive renaming of the Potato Head brand is perfectly reasonable, but creates change that is only superficial. “Ms. Monopoly” creates change that is not only superficial, but also problematic. Superficial and problematic change should be low priorities on any institution’s list, and are best considered after that institution takes more meaningful steps towards gender inclusivity.
Hasbro is not alone in its superficial and problematic actions. Consider the renaming of a part of 16th Street in Washington, D.C., to “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” or Quaker Oats’s renaming of the “Aunt Jemima” syrup line to the “Pearl Milling Company” syrup line, while adding the new phrase, “New Name, Same Great Taste: Aunt Jemima.” Regardless of how problematic, if at all, these superficial actions are, is this the change for which the left wishes, or on which it would like to spend its limited political capital? Consider also the censoring of six of Dr. Seuss’ books. While they may include hurtful imagery, and are read mostly by children, does this warrant their censorship? Off the top of my head I can think of two alternatives: continue publishing the books, just like all the other problematic art, literature and media that our society, children included, continues to consume; or publish the books with a preface or trigger warning that notifies parents and children of the hurtful content.
I believe the left’s capacity to not only effect but also support such superficial, if not problematic, social change is a product of its wish to deny, and resulting failure to understand, what it perceives as “other.” Take, for example, two of the left-leaning opinion pieces in last week’s edition of the Orient. One, titled “Collins, Nossel part of problem, not solution,” regarding the inclusion of conservative speakers in the College’s “After the Insurrection” speaker series, contrasts the “laudable” speaker series with “two figures [speakers] who offer right-of-center opinions.” The Federalist Society, an organization to which one of the conservative speakers contributes, is described as “a breeding ground for conservative justices.” Even worse than the unnecessary association of conservative opinions with brutish “breeding ground[s]” is the last sentence, and approximate title, of the piece: “I look forward to Collins and Nossel’s talks, but they are part of the problem, not the solution.” Whether it is the speakers or their talks that are viewed as “part of the problem, [and] not the solution,” the distinction does not matter much. What does matter is the denial of conservative viewpoints as part of “the solution.”
Imagine fixing a broken pipe. What is your first step? You certainly don’t cover it up with dirt or move to a different house. You first take a good, hard look at the pipe and then determine which part is broken. Once you’ve fixed your pipe, you work out how to prevent that part from breaking again. If the left does not take a good, hard look at what it perceives to be problematic, it will never be able to apply a meaningful fix. Instead of shunning conservatives—especially those few who actually condemned the attack on the Capitol—the left needs to work with them to understand what is leading to the conservative views that the left perceives as problematic.
The same reasoning applies to the second piece, “To be in community is to be loved,” which was about communal spaces and which performed a denial of the male. If the left only treats men as “cisgender, heterosexual… bros… [who are always] talking over each other [to mansplain],” without providing a more meaningful explanation of how the male works, the left will only be able to provide superficial solutions to problems involving men. As it so happens, men occupy many powerful spheres in society. If we want to fix society, we need to understand how men work without orienting identity politics against them.
The left’s wish to deny anything that seems to pose harm is understandable. It can be especially hard to avoid denial when so many on the right deny humanity to the left. Since the left has more “correct” ideas, though, and since the right has hardly any self control, it is at this point up to the left to do what is right, even if other options are more immediately appealing. In the realm of “cancel culture,” while some people’s influence certainly merits a disavowal, we need to avoid denying their existence. In the broader realm of politics, please do not contribute to the low-resolution, superficial or problematic rhetoric that encourages those on the left, on the right and on the boards of corporations to devote energy to Mr. Potato Head when we could instead be worrying about climate change, surveillance capitalism, nuclear weapons or the more important aspects of racism or sexism. If you are able, contribute instead to sober and practical solutions. Voters prefer these, it would seem, based on the high levels of support for President Biden’s current “American Rescue Plan,” the loss of Democratic House seats in the general election following heightened liberal rhetoric and the victories of two moderate Democrats in the national Senate races in Georgia.
Lorenzo Hess is a member of the Class of 2023.
Correction 3/20/2021, 11:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this article altered the intent of the author. The previous version stated, “regardless of how problematic, these superficial actions are, is this the change for which the left wishes, or on which it would like to spend its limited political capital?” This sentence now reflects the original wording of the author: “regardless of how problematic, if at all, these superficial actions are, is this the change for which the left wishes, or on which it would like to spend its limited political capital?”