Though Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana hastily scrambled to rectify their controversial remarks, the outrage over “synthetic children” isn’t going away. Celebrities like Elton John have refused to back down from their promised boycott, understandably slow to forgive the perceived dehumanization of gay families.
I have serious problems with Dolce and Gabbana’s narrow conception of family. Two dads or two moms have every right to raise a child, no matter what a couple of fashion designers think. I do not believe IVF children are in any way “synthetic,” and those who believe otherwise are deplorable.
But boycotts like this one — organized by the Hollywood elite and directed at unfortunate slips of the tongue — send a horrible message about activism that is counterproductive in the long term. Turning a politically incorrect faux pas into a social justice campaign does two things: It needlessly elevates minor injustices while trivializing major ones.
No one should have believed for a moment that two gay men actually thought IVF children were “synthetic.” It is true that in vitro fertilization is not the “natural” (or, perhaps, “ordinary”) way of conceiving a child, but this doesn’t imply anything about the value of that child’s life. It’s supremely unlikely that Dolce and Gabbana failed to understand this distinction, and it’s incredibly uncharitable to accuse Gabbana — who has said he underwent 10 years of therapy because of his sexuality — of homophobia.
Dolce and Gabbana are bad targets for other reasons. Elton John’s boycott does little to help the LGBT community and even less to help its most vulnerable members. Only rich people — like Elton John — can afford to shop at Dolce and Gabbana. Those most likely to participate in the boycott aren’t making a sacrifice of any kind — unless once counts not wearing Gucci as a sacrifice. This protest is as thoroughly one-percent and anti-populist as it gets. It signifies a gentle slap on the arm, nothing more.
Most of all, it trades substantive issues for rhetorical buzzwords. By repeating “synthetic children” ad nauseam, activists have ignored a less flashy but far more problematic idea espoused by Dolce: “I’m Sicilian and I grew up in a traditional family, made up of a mother, a father and children.”
The hegemony of this domestic ideal is a far greater impediment to LGBT rights than brusque comments about “wombs for rent.” Living in a nation quickly approaching full marriage equality, we forget the long-standing divide between issues of family structure on the one hand and gay rights on the other. Historically, accepting gay relationships did not necessarily imply a more expansive definition of family.
History was wrong. I believe — and I suspect Elton John does too — that embracing alternative family structures is crucial to ensuring lasting, meaningful equality for the gay community. So rather than launching a feel-good crusade against dumb slips of the tongue, why not engage seriously with Dolce and Gabbana’s traditionalism? Why not challenge the philosophical underpinnings of this view, which predominates in southern Europe and large swaths of America?
It’s more important for activists to correct the underlying context of offensive speech than it is to correct the speech itself. Instead of just decrying the insensitivity of two gay men with an aristocratic boycott, let’s tackle the insidious homophobia that produced their remarks in the first place.
Let’s tackle, for instance, the cultural conservatism still prominent in many Italian businesses, as evidenced by pasta maker Barilla’s controversial remarks last year that they will never showcase a homosexual couple in their advertisements. Let’s tackle the persistent failure of the Italian parliament to pass anti-discrimination legislation. Let’s address the claims of Ivan Scalfarotto, the first openly gay man in the Italian government, that “in Italy it is completely acceptable to say homophobic jokes.”
Grassroots campaigns leveled against these less visible but far more pernicious injustices would actually improve life for many people in the world. It’s much easier to criticize defamatory speech than it is to dismantle structural inequalities and bigotry around the world. Yet the latter objective matters far more than the former.
We can and should disavow Dolce and Gabbana’s remarks, because what they said was socially irresponsible. But, in light of their revisions and apologies, it was not unforgivable. Celebrity activism can make a real difference, but only if celebrities use some self-control and confront the most pressing problems facing the world.
So, instead of boycotting Dolce and Gabbana, let’s boycott armchair activism.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.