This is the 21st century. You don’t need to justify yourself to anyone for anything.
The new Mercedes B-Class advertising campaign caught my eye – and my ear – in the cinema the other day. So much so that I grabbed my phone and made a note of the slogan above.
The 21st century. Justify nothing. To anyone. For anything.
If only it were that simple. You can see where the ad campaign is going. It’s about being the kind of person who can curate their own life and make autonomous decisions. Autonomy is the holy grail of the 21st century. Well in the West at least. In other, larger, younger, more populous parts of the planet autonomy is the poisoned chalice that is destroying whole communities. And when I say that, I mean the autonomy of the West, whether of the consumer kind or the ethical kind.
Yet the irony is that here in this 21st century of ours, which the Mercedes B-Class campaign is so anxious to tout – replete with architectural modernism and retro 70s Wes Anderson style colours -, we increasingly have to justify ourselves for everything to everyone.
Yes this is the 21st century, but what made you so certain that it would be a post-justification age? The opposite is in fact the case. The social media world that we inhabit is increasingly judge, jury and executioner. Mob mentality rules. If you fall under its wheels no amount of self-justification will redeem you. Everyone is looking over their shoulders.
We were assured that with the obvious demise of religion in the West in the 21st century then having to justify oneself to others would fall by the wayside. What we have discovered to the dismay of many, but to the glee of others, is that we’ve just shifted the goalposts.
There is a whole load of justifying to undertake despite what the Mercedes B-Class campaign asserts. And justifying ourselves takes on two extreme guises.
Jesus said take no thought to what you wear or what you eat for the pagans run after these things. And at one level this points a finger at mindless consumption, such as that that we see in the Mercedes B-class campaign. It’s the endless pursuit – and it is endless – of chasing after things, fuelled as it is by misdirected desire and worry, that Jesus points at.
Yet there’s another extreme also. Have we ever lived in such a time as this where every thing we buy or wear or eat is subjected to so much scrutiny by others? Where we are waiting the tick of approval from so many? Have we ever lived in such a time as this where our level of authenticity – our justification before a watching public – is determined by where are clothes were made or how are meat products were sourced?
We’re constantly having to justify ourselves to everyone about everything. And that is an exacting and exhausting process. And further to that, part of the process of self-justification is condemnation of the other. The two extremes are becoming louder and louder in our public square.
Have a look through the Mercedes campaign. It is, like so many similar glossy campaigns, trying to hold two worlds together. The world of conspicuous consumption and the world of progressive ideals. The driver of the Mercedes B-class is not stuck in a nameless office in a faceless building in a soulless city. It’s the new world we all want.
It’s all hipster dads with sleeve tattoos and babies in front-facing carrying pouches. And then there’s the professor bringing his grandson to class. The ad campaign brief puts it like this
…nobody has to justify anything any longer … either for decisions or for a personal lifestyle
Once again that’s just wide of the mark. The intention of the statement is designed to point to a progressive life in which we curate our own decisions. But all decisions come at a cost, including – most obviously – the decision to own a brand new Mercedes B-class.
Perhaps Mercedes, and its crass consumer pitch – is simply trying to piggyback off the progressive personal lifestyle agenda, smuggling in non-justifying decisions such as the car one drives with other now non-justifying decisions such as the person one sleeps with.
After all if you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone about who you sleep with or what sexual identity you are, why should you need to justify yourself to anyone about the objects of conspicuous consumption with which you surround yourself? That’s a logical conclusion right there. And don’t simply say that material consumption affects other people adversely without at least recognising that so does the sexual consumption we are given over to.
David Brooks writes in 2000 about a truly 21st century tribe he called BoBos: Bourgeois Bohemians. BoBos live the bourgeois lifestyle of the culturally conservative elite, but mix it with the Bohemian lifestyle of the sexual revolution; a heady cocktail of Justify Nothing, in which levels of personal autonomy among the BoBos are such that they need answer to no one for anything. It’s heaven on earth right there.
What BoBos spend and who they spend it with exists in a stratospheric level of autonomy towards which so many others reach and fail. It’s true self-actualisation and there are few that find it. Nevertheless it’s held out to all in advertising campaigns such as that offered by Mercedes. A paradise offered to us that we are never destined to reach.
And it’s all a lie of course. One day each of us will have to justify ourselves to Someone for everything, and a B-Class life won’t cut it.