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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | Wokeness isn’t an attribute that businesses need to bandy about

Opinion | Wokeness isn’t an attribute that businesses need to bandy about

Companies should focus on fair policies instead of getting swayed by the demands of social media

HUL announced that it will drop the word fair from its skincare product Fair and Lovely (Photro: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)Premium
HUL announced that it will drop the word fair from its skincare product Fair and Lovely (Photro: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

About a year ago, the US-based Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of corporations by emphasizing that shareholder value was not their only, or even primary, concern. Delivering customer value, investing in employees, dealing fairly with suppliers and serving the community were added to the list.

Any corporation that tries to fulfil all the five corporate goals will probably fail, for few have the skills needed to do so many things simultaneously. If we also factor in the additional reality of shortening corporate life cycles—the average longevity of Fortune 500 companies has fallen from 60 years in the 1950s to 20 now—we are talking of an impossibility. Expanding a business’s range of objectives will make it more like an NGO, and this kind of role can only be played by super corporations with enormous monopoly profits to bankroll their social objectives.

Many corporations have now begun to pay obeisance to passing social fads or liberal wokeness, swayed by loud demands aired on social media and elsewhere. Advertisers are pulling out of Facebook as they have been told that it provides a platform for divisive forces and hate speech, while neither of these categories has been defined. In India, fairness creams have come under attack for indirectly promoting the idea that fair skin is better than dark. Demands have been made on social media for companies to ban actors and models based on their political predilections.

Very often, frightened companies comply without knowing why they are doing so. What, for example, is divisive? A lack of consensus on social and economic objectives can lead to divisiveness. This led UK voters to leave the EU, for example. Those left behind by globalization and technological progress voted Donald Trump in 2016. So, did the divisiveness relate to Trump the person, or the iniquitous situation left unaddressed by global elites?

Also, what constitutes hate speech? For US campus “liberals", a mere invitation to a conservative voice equals backing “hate". Statues of Columbus and Cecil Rhodes are being brought down in the current bout of American self-flagellation over racism, to applause by liberals in India, after the death of an African-American at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Yet, it was liberals who were tut-tutting the bringing down of Karl Marx’s statues in Tripura, even though Marxist ideas caused more human misery in communist states than any other, barring Nazism. Companies risk getting dragged into such inane political quarrels once they start responding to wokeness.

Today, if one were to quote B.R. Ambedkar’s tracts on Pakistan or Hinduism without naming the author, most liberals would probably call that hate speech too. What was free speech under colonial rule is often considered blasphemy in “democratic" India.

Voices in India are screaming “racism" over fairness creams, and corporations are responding by changing product names. But let’s dig deeper. If a person thinks that developing lighter skin will help him or her get a job, or a better life partner, is it right to deny them the exercise of such a choice? Don’t fair-skinned people seek tans? Don’t people with prominent noses opt for plastic surgery? The answer is that social attitudes do not change as fast as the “liberal" elite would like, and when companies are asked to comply with woke demands, some of them resort to dog-whistles to satisfy their customer. If Fair & Lovely is not acceptable, it can simply be relabelled Glow & Lovely.

Also, how ethical is it for fair-skinned people to tell darker people that dark is lovely when the latter feel they are at a competitive disadvantage? This is like India’s English-speaking elites wringing their hands in despair over the decline of regional languages even as they themselves abandon their mother tongues.

The problem for corporations is simple: How far do they accommodate wokeness and social fads without damaging their businesses or commitments to broader fairness rules? Also, when an idea obtains high traction on social media, how can they distinguish between passing fads and truly broad changes in social attitudes?

Corporations should focus on broad, sensible policies of non-discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual or political preferences, offer fair wages, curtail excessive pay for senior management, comply with environmental and accounting laws in letter and spirit, and make regular contributions to the community from their profits. If they truly want to do more, they should invest in automation that enhances the skills and productivity of labour, rather than replacing it.

The tradeoff between responsible behaviour and the profit motive should be obvious from this small example. Nike has pulled out ads from Facebook for alleged hate content, but has also warned of job cuts post-covid. How is withdrawing ads over alleged hate speech socially responsible at a time when jobs are being cut? In any society, there is almost nothing more divisive than a scarcity of jobs.

Corporations may come to regret wokeness and the expanding scope of corporate social responsibility. It is unlikely to last another decade.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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Published: 21 Jul 2020, 08:05 PM IST
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