Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Coca Cola Case

I haven't lived in Vancouver for half a year now, so I don't know if they're still there, but a fixture of my experience of living off Davie Street was seeing a cluster of animal-rights activists with placards and pamphlets - "KFC Tortures Chickens," that sort of thing - standing outside of the Kentucky Fried Chicken.

To be honest, I tend to have a bit of a prejudice against animal rights activists. It has nothing to do with animal rights - with the cause or the values at stake - but rather with the kind of people who are drawn to the movement. You'll be walking past a demonstration - surely this has happened to more people than just me? - and someone wants to thrust their information into your face; you politely say that you're engaged in something else - talking to a friend, on your way to work, what-have-you - but they'll bristle with indignity and self-righteous rage and make a snarky accusatory comment about your apathy and complicity. For all they know, you might be a vegan PETA member - you could be Peter Singer himself; you won't have made any more of a comment on their views or your own than saying "Sorry, I'm a bit busy right now" - but they'll presume that because you don't want to drop everything and talk to them just then, they've been slighted, and that they thus have the right to strike back. The last time I had such an encounter was in fact during one of my attempts to go vegetarian - something that I can never make work for more than a few weeks, but that I return to periodically - and the unfairness of whatever snarkiness got thrown at me probably did more to drive me towards my next burger than keep me on the straight-and-narrow. It's a sadly self-marginalizing universe such folks are trapped in - they might as well have "I am a personality-deficient asshole with a chip on my shoulder" on their placards, because in their confrontations with passerby, that's 95% of what they manage to communicate; by such aggressive tactics, they certainly aren't going to encourage non-subscribers to their views to want to join their club. They're far more likely to give their cause a bad name; however many reasonable and articulate animal rights people are out there, and however strong their case might be, if someone says "Animal Rights" to me, it's the nasty sting of such encounters that comes first and foremost to mind, and makes me bristle and guard myself.

To their credit, the KFC animal rights people were never insulting or harrassing to me as I walked by them. Not that I ever dared provoke them by going into KFC when they were standing out there (which I very rarely do; shitty food is shitty food, cruelly produced or not). But for protesters of the animal rights variety, they were generally fairly quiet and civil, enough so that on one occasion - having had a pamphlet offered - I paused to ask about their protest. This was a few years ago, and I didn't take notes, but it went something like this:

Al: So, uh - "KFC Tortures Chickens," eh? Let me ask you, though - are the chickens bought and sold by KFC actually treated any worse than any of the factory farmed chickens sold in Safeway or Save On or, well, any of the restaurants on this street?

Animal Rights Guy: Well, actually - no, they're not. But KFC are such a huge part of the market for chickens that if we can pressure them into making changes, it will have a massive effect on the industry as a whole.

To which - if I responded at all - I might have remarked something about it being kind of unfair to scapegoat one company for a practice that is widespread; it's in my nature, at that moment, to have felt kind of sorry for KFC, for being singled out for a protest when pretty much every restaurant on that restaurant-rich block was selling chickens raised and slaughtered in the same miserable conditions. That was certainly the thought that flickered in my mind at the moment. On reflection, I think a more significant objection to their highly localized protest, in fact, is that by picking one very visible target and ignoring the big picture, the protesters were doing something ultimately a bit misleading and counterproductive; because passerby might think that just because "KFC Tortures Chickens," they were morally okay to go have a chicken burger at Wendy's or Burger King or anywhere else, facilitating a general state of denial about the sort of conditions in which chickens are generally raised.

That's what scapegoating is all about - it's a variation of casting stones at the prostitute to ritually punish our own sins, a way of affirming our morality through the targeting of one particular "bad apple" in a system that is utterly rotten, which we continue to play ball with after having weeded said "bad apple" out. It doesn't matter if our shoes were made in miserable conditions in a Third World sweatshop, as long as they weren't made by Nike - that sort of thing. It is true that you have to start SOMEWHERE, in your attempts to change the world, but on some level, this sort of tendency to single out one company for abuse does more to maintain the status quo than it does to bring about change; a not-so-well-informed passerby might think that by lending his or her support to the KFC protestors and declining to eat at that one chain, s/he was making a meaningful contribution to the well-being of chickens, even while continuing to eat birds from factory farms and non-free-range eggs. They would be buying into a comforting illusion of moral improvement - an ill which might offset any good done by harrassing KFC.

Halfway through the NFB-co-produced The Coca-Cola Case, opening tomorrow at the Vancity Theatre, I started thinking about the Kentucky Fried Chicken protestors, and I started feeling kind of sorry for Coca Cola, for much the same reasons. It's an admittedly somewhat perverse reaction on my part - because, as the documentary convincingly demonstrates, Coca Cola has gotten its hands fairly dirty in the Third World, doing business, for instance, with Colombian bottling plants where management has been implicated in union busting, including harrassing and killing union organizers and activists. There is enough evidence presented by the filmmakers that there seems no question Coke deserves the bad publicity, and if the embarrassment caused by the film does anything to improve labour practices in the Third World, that's unquestionably a good thing. The problem that I have is, again, that it's my impression that the sort of behaviours that Coca Cola has engaged are in fact reasonably widespread throughout the world of globalized business, and that by singling one corporation out for abuse, we are unfairly scapegoating them as a way of blinding ourselves to the systemic rot - convincing ourselves of our righteousness in one ritual instance while closing our eyes to how we are complicit in injustice with a vast number of marketplace transactions. The Straight review of the film actually goes so far as to comment how the film will make Pepsi drinkers of all of us, but I would seriously doubt - based on instinct alone, mind you, and not any hard facts - that Pepsi's track record in the Third World is much better than Coca Cola's. However deep rooted and archetypal a cultural pattern it may be, it's a fallacy to think that by killing the scapegoat, we purge the community of sin; it's a fallacy we should guard ourselves against, and it seems to undermine the authority of this particular documentary - or at least it did for me.

It's an interesting film, though - reminding me of the Berlinger/Sinofsky film Crude, about Texaco in Equador, and the fight of Equadorians to find justice. It's fascinating that Colombians can have their case heard in the US; it's also interesting that in the name of drumming up support, hired-gun anti-corporate activists were brought in, the sort of mirror-image of the Pinkertons of yore, to generate negative publicity for Coca Cola and thus support for the Colombian cause. It would have been interesting if that aspect of the case had been treated with a slightly more jaundiced eye; it doesn't fit quite so well with the tone of the rest of the film, of a heroic quest to seek redress for the little guy, since at least some of what's done starts to seem a little cruel - a slur campaign, of sorts, about as emotionally manipulative as your average Coke ad, though considerably nastier (click the link above to see what I mean). Presumably people were well-paid for their labours, too; there's a cynical relish to some of the anti-Coke sloganeering that seems to be about a lot more than seeking justice for murdered union activists.

Anyhow, I probably should watch the second half of the film sometime, but I never much got past where I started feeling perversely sorry for Coke. It was such an unintended and unwelcome response to the story being told that it kind of interfered with my going forward; who knows, maybe by the end of the film, a more wide-ranging picture is painted of the nature of globalized labour and the problems we face. I strongly suspect that the filmmakers stick to their localized target. KFC Tortures Chickens, and Coca Cola Kills Colombians. In the end, all I know is this: whatever the solution to the problem framed by the film, switching to Pepsi probably isn't it.


Glenn said...

Choosing a target because they provide leverage to make change is different than selecting them as a scapegoat.

ammacinn said...

...which is a principle I in no way argue with above, nor disagree with. However, there's a problem if a critique treats one target's behaviour as a vast exception to the norm, when in fact it isn't. I'm not saying Coke shouldn't be criticized or analyzed or that they're blameless or such - but that they are by far NOT the only multinational corporation guilty of consorting with union busters overseas. If an analysis begins and ends with one bad guy - which is all to prevalent a pattern in our individualistic culture and does connect, I think, with the cultural practice of scapegoating - and never extends to looking at how institutions function, when it's the institutions that are at fault - that's a shortcoming, and worth noting. I found The Coca Cola Case somewhat guilty of this shortcoming, and wanted it to stop pickin' on Coke and look at how other companies behave in similar circumstances. Maybe you disagree, but like I say, if people emerge from this doc thinking that they can morally improve the world by switching from Coke to Pepsi, that's a bit of a failure to engage with the issues at hand. No?

ammacinn said...

Whoops! I too make spelling mistakes - that should read "all too prevalent" a pattern. Where's the "edit" button when ya need it?