Magazine August 11, 2014, Issue

Hold the Self-Regard

In May, Burger King announced it was dropping its 40-year-old “Have It Your Way” slogan. The new tag line for the fast-food company is “Be Your Way.”

What does “being your way” have to do with burgers and fries? The company said in a statement that the new motto is intended to remind people that “they can and should live how they want anytime,” that “it’s OK to not be perfect,” and that “self-expression is most important.”

Oh for crying out loud. Still, it’s fascinating that an advertising firm was able to sell corporate giants on the idea that encouraging mediocrity, stagnation, and unbridled narcissism in consumers would somehow make mass-produced burgers more appetizing.

The late comedian Bill Hicks had a bit in the early 1990s about the ultimate ad, the one executives really wanted to run. He described it as beginning with a shot of a beautiful woman’s face. The camera would slowly pan out to reveal the woman in all her naked glory. Nothing left to the imagination. And the only words would be “Drink Coke.” The joke worked in part because advertisers hadn’t yet gotten so lazy and uninspired that they failed to even mildly obscure their attempts to cater to our basest fantasies and impulses.

Hicks’s routine was representative of a time when the counterculture was a real force that was obsessed with the idea that corporate advertisers were trying to manipulate society. Even more terrifying was the idea that corporate advertisers would sneakily control the people by co-opting the counterculture. Years ago, National Lampoon had an extended parody about Che Guevara’s endorsement deal with Timex. The hands on the watches Che was selling would run backwards, so they could be advertised as “counterrevolutionary.”

Now we don’t give a second thought to the pandering. We probably won’t change our fast-food choices, but it’s not like we’re offended at the company’s rejection of the need for people to overcome their faults.

There’s no question that much of American society has embraced the idea that people “can and should live how they want anytime.” But what a departure that is from traditional Jewish and Christian values. Those systems of belief begin with the premise that man is not basically good, that man’s nature is in fact deeply problematic and that working to become virtuous is more important than self-expression, if you can imagine it.

It’s not just focus-grouped marketers who sell the message of self. Last year my husband and I were at our neighborhood street fair for artists. One booth was called “E.Y.A.Y.A.” This stood for “Embrace Yourself as You Are.” My husband called it “the terrible-advice booth.”

Precisely no one should embrace himself as he is. We can’t possibly hope to make a good society, much less a good family or good life, if we aren’t aware of our flaws and don’t work to overcome them. Ted Bundy had a lot going for him, but he had room for improvement as well.

Conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager is fond of saying that how you answer the question “Is man basically good?” shapes nearly all your moral, social, and political views. If you believe that man is basically good, you look for outside influences and factors to explain why people do bad things. You suspect that robbers are moved to lives of crime because of poverty. You’re drawn to economic or social explanations of terrorism. You fear a powerful government less, since it will be run by good people. Since children are born good, you place a lower premium on intact families to do the hard work of inculcating good values.

Never mind that wealthy people steal just as easily as the poor do and that the vast majority of the poor don’t rob. Never mind how privileged the 9/11 terrorists were. Never mind the constant drumbeat of stories about government waste, fraud, and mismanagement — much less corruption. Never mind the reality that children are little tyrants unless given love and consistent instruction.

My husband and I were visiting a street fair in Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood last year. (We like street fairs. Sue us.) Everyone there had adopted and internalized the “be your way” ethos.

Community groups were advertising their services and politics. We saw a beautiful booth with pro-adoption messages — all about growing one’s family and serving those in need. At some point I realized it was about pet adoption. There was a parade down the middle of the street, led by Occupy protesters, calling on people to vacate their houses and live outside — and to turn their houses into houseplant sanctuaries.

I was finding it progressively more progressive as I moved down the street from activists for Communism to same-sex marriage to Planned Parenthood and NARAL. But one booth actually left me stunned.

There, on a sage-green tent held up with perky poles, was the sign: “Thank you for not breeding.” Somehow it made perfect sense that the march down the street would end with the population-control crowd. Being your own way turns out to be a dead end.

If outside forces don’t explain why people do evil, they do provide a source of hope for our fallen world — whether it’s the birth of new life, selfless acts of service in behalf of others, or receiving forgiveness for the many things we’ve done to harm our neighbors. But none of those things are really about being your own way.

A culture that tells whoppers in order to sell Whoppers isn’t a healthy one.

– Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at the Federalist.

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