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2020 may very well go down as the year everyone wishes they could erase from the calendar. Bushfires, global pandemic and more recently, riots and violence on the streets of multiple US cities.

US anti-racism protests in response to the death of another African American man at the hands of police in the US, have again highlighted the inequitable treatment of African Americans by law enforcement, but also racist attitudes in the wider community. 

US businesses, including those in the craft beer industry, haven’t escaped scrutiny,  with some being asked to respond to accusations of racism, and to reflect on their beliefs and practices.

Australia has also observed anti-racism rallies in most capital cities. These are perhaps more notable because protesters felt the movement was important enough to proceed despite concerns about the risks to public health in the midst of the global pandemic.

The question of whether we need to examine some of the remnants of our own history has now touched Australian craft beer too.

What went down?

After a number of complaints, many made even before the recent protests, Melbourne bottleshop chain Blackhearts and Sparrows, chose to no longer stock the popular brand Colonial Brewing Co (CBCo). 

According to an article on the website of Pedestrian TV, one of the first to report the story, Blackhearts & Sparrows gave the following reason for their decision. 

“Colonial is still a problematic word that speaks to a broader history of colonialism and colonisation that has caused irreversible harm to the First Nations people in Australia and Indigenous populations around the world.”

They also pledged to donate the profits from remaining stock to The Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, who, “played a pivotal role in the organisation of the massive Black Lives Matter protests in both Brisbane and Melbourne earlier this month,” according to Pedestrian TV.

The story quickly found its way onto social media and created a frenzy. Before long it was being reported by the mainstream media too. The story went from being about a business making a choice about which products to stock, to an issue of Indigenous rights and free speech.

The quandary

I am sympathetic to many of the concerns of the Australian indigenous community. They are overrepresented in statistics such as incarceration and infant mortality and do not live as long as non-indigenous Australians. The rate of indigenous deaths in custody is appalling. Successive governments have failed to address these systemic issues. Racism plays a significant part in the public’s desire to see it change.

I’m also a firm believer that attitudes, particularly negative ones, are shaped and re-enforced by the language we use. It’s important to constantly examine whether language is appropriate for the present day. Is it inclusive, and does it reasonably reflect the values of society as a whole, not just the majority?

I also sympathise with those concerned about fringes of the left, who may have lost sight of the bigger picture and seem to be motivated by a desire to out-woke each other. Do attempts to police language and pressure business on their political persuasions, as well as vandalising public property, do more for their own vanity or ego, than to promote progress on indigenous issues?

I recently saw this video by fictional British Political Correspondent, Jonathan Pie. I think it sums up the subject quite well.

The overall issue is extremely nuanced and complex.

What I do feel very strongly about, is that the only way forward is to discuss and listen to each other. Inclusiveness starts with listening to the other side and accepting that their feelings on the matter are valid. Whether we agree with them or not.

I have no issue with someone who has an opposing view to me. I relish the opportunity to converse on them, because I like to challenge my own beliefs and test whether they hold up. Discussion, the sharing of ideas, learning from one another, is one of the ways we evolve as a society.

The public response

It’s hugely disappointing to watch when topics such as this degenerate into some extremely ugly commentary online, with as little thought to presenting a reasoned, rational, cogent argument, as there is to how comments can affect others.

Ironies abound among the comments, with many blissfully unaware of their own contradictions. One standout comment implied that we should resist any opposition to the brewery’s name, because it goes to diminishing our right to “choose.”

Isn’t that what Blackhearts and Sparrows did? Exercise their own right to choose?

This goes to the ultimate irony of much of the commentary, which would seem to want to protect our rights to freedom, by attacking others for exercising their right to express themselves freely. It seemingly takes issue with those who seek to influence change by shouting at people, by shouting back at them.

Eventually people get carried away by the feeling of solidarity in the echo chamber of opinion which social media so beautifully cultivates. A right-wing Facebook group has already started a campaign to boycott the bottleshop and Facebook’s own algorithms have already kicked in to stem the abnormal number of reviews on the B&S Facebook page. No longer satisfied with venting their spleen, people quickly, and worryingly, move to action.

This was not helped by the attention the story gained in mainstream media. The majority of reporting was as worrying as the response on social media. Headlines like “Margaret River’s Colonial beers ripped from shelves over name controversy” and “Changing the name won’t stamp out the problem,” were as misleading as they were inflammatory.

Admirably, the ABCs coverage actually sought comment from a member of the Indigenous community, who told them, “discussions like this helped to spark a broader conversation about Aboriginal issues.”

Perhaps most disheartening, but maybe also true to form, one element of commercial media touched on the issue, through the conduit of “news” in a segment on Today. After opening the story with a reference to “cancel culture”, hosts presented the results of an online poll, which was about as meaningful as that pie chart which shows the percentage of the chart which looks like Pacman. Their view was quite obviously one that the name of the brewery should not be changed and that any question about whether it should be, was frivolous.

But the segment wasn’t all bad. CBCo’s Managing Director Lawrence Dowd, despite obviously being nervous and apprehensive, did an admirable job responding to questions. Even though the tone of the interview was somewhat lighthearted, his assurances the issue was being taken seriously, and that the brewery was approaching it with an open mind, were encouraging.

CBCo

The aforementioned interview is indicative of CBCo’s overall response. The company has been quick to acknowledge concerns within the community and affirmed it’s preparedness to listen. 

It’s a noticeable and welcome departure from responses to past controversies in the craft beer industry on social issues, where businesses have been loath to acknowledge the validity of views on topics such as sexism and homophobia. 

One notable exception to that was Ballistic Beer’s change to remove the word “Psycho” from one of its core beers, after considering the stigma around mental health. Although this move was met by its own, albeit smaller, backlash.

You could argue they are acutely aware of these past issues, but CBCo seem genuinely prepared to explore all issues while they consider the future of the brand. They’ve been widely commended for their response by the commentators within the craft beer industry.

Blackhearts & Sparrows

As for Blackhearts & Sparrows, well, things have not gone so well. The business has been widely criticised for its stance, on social media and elsewhere.

PR experts have suggested that the operators were naive to the possible repercussions of their decision. No doubt they did not expect the backlash to be so severe, but the question of whether it was wrong, is very much a subjective one. There’s something to be admired about any person or organisation that has the courage of its convictions, especially at the risk of profit.

If the outlet chose to stop stocking CBCo’s beer simply because it didn’t sell well, no one would have batted an eyelid. But because they chose to listen to their customers and staff, and make a judgement based on a shift in societal attitudes on the use of language and how it’s perceived by our first Australians, they have been pilloried.

It’s interesting to note how frequently people who complain about the prevalence of politics in commercial arenas only do so when it’s a view they don’t agree with. The louder the opponents of this move get, the more they reveal just how far Australia has yet to go.

The complainant

The source of the controversy has been widely attributed to one person. Initial reports referred to an Instagram post where the individual acknowledged his sustained campaign of communications with B&S about the brewery and its name.

It is however unlikely that B&S made their decision based on that person’s complaints alone. A report by The Crafty Pint would indicate otherwise. They wrote, “Paul says they first sat down with the brewing company back in February 2019 after customers and staff had said they felt a little uncomfortable with the name Colonial.”

Nonetheless, the freelance writer who posted on Instagram, an Indigenous Australian himself, has sustained a relentless attack online. He has been referred to by people as, “pest”, “muppet”, “turd in a shirt”, “whiney bitch” and far worse. His picture has been shared and ridiculed numerous times on various social media platforms.

And why shouldn’t they? Not satisfied with simply reporting the story, Andrew Bolt, in a grotesque segment on The Bolt Report, named and pictured the person on national TV, along with Blackhearts and Sparrows owners. This sort of report effectively gives everyone permission to continue the onslaught, and no doubt mobilises many others. This includes people with about as much interest in craft beer as Bolt himself, who would hijack any issue to further their own agenda.

This is what drives people to the edge. Despite numerous cases of people taking their lives after becoming the victims of vicious online attacks, this kind of behaviour prevails. It’s not only worrying, but also depressing. The “we’re all in this together” sentiment felt during the global pandemic seems to be disappearing quicker than the virus itself.

Knee Jerk

Despite being reported by many who ran the story, CBCo and Blackhearts and Sparrows’ history of open discussions around potential issues with the name is not present in much of the online commentary. Feelings seem to persist that the move was a “knee-jerk” reaction by the business with no consultation with the brewery.

This omission may indirectly allow the matter to go further. It’s possible that by feeding the myth that people are “triggered” into making decisions like this for emotionally charged reasons, opponents no doubt feel more justified in mounting their own emotionally motivated defence. Perhaps this would not be the case if it was more widely understood that there was thoughtful consideration that went into it.

Could it be that if we fail to acknowledge a collaborative process behind the scenes, it relieves us of our responsibility to do the same in our own discourse?

What if they do change?

In much of its recent communications, via public statements from the Managing Director, and an interview with communications and marketing manager Jenna Godley in an article in Australian Brews News, the brewery has pointed out that it was already considering its brand before this controversy broke.

“We were already going through a process of reviewing our name before the current circumstances were highlighted. We have an idea of how we want to move forward and don’t want to now make a reactive decision due to public or media forces.”

This raises the question, what will the advocates for “free speech” do if CBCo does change its name? How quickly will they turn their ire on the brewery they once so vehemently supported.

I’ve also seen numerous commenters online stating their sole motivation for purchasing CBCo’s beer is because they like it, and that politics doesn’t come into it. I wonder if their stance will change when it’s a move they no longer agree with.

I’d like to think that staunch supporters would stick with the brand no matter what happens. But now that elements outside the craft beer bubble are aware of it, they will be unlikely to let this fall off their radar. Some supporters of CBCo may find themselves on the opposite side of the right-wing crusaders that once gave their view mainstream publicity.

Where to?

After many of the words herein had already made their way onto the page and I continued to observe the ongoing conversation online, I began to question whether I should keep writing. The suggestion that issues like this only prevail if we give them oxygen is a fair one.

But there are bigger issues here. Not least of which is the question of whether social media is stifling our ability to make meaningful progress on social issues, and whether traditional media, now even more beholden to driving revenue, does much to promote it either.

Conversation is the only way forward. By acknowledging the validity of each other’s feelings on these topics, we create an environment where people are open to discussion.

I’ll watch with interest to see what CBCo does with the brand. My feeling is that, thankfully, most online rage is forgotten just as quickly as it flares, and that Blackhearts & Sparrows will see little to no impact to their customer base.

Craft beer inspires such passionate support. This won’t be the last time we see an outpouring of opinions on social media. I just hope that we can evolve to better incorporate social media into our discourse on sensitive issues, and people might learn to be a little more measured in their commentary.

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