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Tanishq withdrew its ad featuring an interfaith couple after it was trolled.afp (MINT_PRINT)
Tanishq withdrew its ad featuring an interfaith couple after it was trolled.afp (MINT_PRINT)

A practical reason why businesses should resist bullies

  • There is a general perception that the whole business spectrum is given to being pragmatic instead of idealistic
  • A single right way is clarity, a million wrong ways is confusion

One day a billionaire walked into a meeting of journalists. He guessed, correctly, that we were talking “something negative" and that we were, as usual, plotting the downfall of the government and the powerful. He then said, “Baniye ki moochh hamesha neeche hoti hai." For those who don’t follow Hindi, an English translation will have no meaning. He’s not of the Baniya caste; he was using the word figuratively to denote India’s business class. And what he meant was that merchants are by nature more practical than courageous; that they never antagonize the powerful.

There is a general perception that the whole business spectrum, which includes industrialists, entrepreneurs, merchants and salaried executives, is given to being pragmatic instead of idealistic, amiable with authority instead of being confrontational, and compliant instead of being bold. This is why in the past few days, Tanishq, a Tata-owned jewellery brand, received much understanding, even sympathy, from perhaps millions of regular people after it withdrew a commercial to appease a mob. The commercial showed a pregnant Hindu woman in a Muslim household getting along with an affable Muslim mother-in-law. A small segment of Hindus objected to the commercial, claiming to be offended, though it is not very clear what exactly offended them, apart from the detail of a Hindu woman being married to a Muslim man. You may think there was a semblance of an argument. All of us do get angry now and then, and we try to dress it up in “facts" and other farces. But in this case, there is nothing worthy of mention. I am certain that if it was a pregnant Muslim girl in a Hindu household, there would have been no rage, though I cannot substantiate this unless there is another ad with such a plot line.

In any case, what happened was that even though Tanishq had done nothing wrong and it had only made a lame film about human love, it capitulated to a bunch of trolls. The brand’s reputation is intact because corporations and the rest of the business class appear to have a moral right not to stand up to bullies. This is a perception granted by people in general because those people in general work for corporations and are acquainted with the usefulness of practical retreats. They think that fighting for what is right at the risk of losses is something only a certain type of artist, journalist or activist does. In reality, it is this notion that is impractical and an affront to the wisdom of capitalism. All too often, practicality is a masquerade for poor analysis.

It is not hard to understand why most people give corporations a long rope. Companies have too much to lose. A small group of inconsequential people can harm them in ways that are disproportionate to their individual powers. Most brands gain nothing by acquiring a controversial image. Most products are about happiness and no company wants to remind its consumers of the unpleasantness of life. It is no coincidence that rebellion is the nature of people in low-paying professions or with low prospects. This also explains why arts students agitate more than engineering students, and why sons of poor men are more likely to rebel against their dads than the sons of rich men. Also, while India’s refined imitators of the West may bloviate about “institutions’, the fact is they never built any in the decades that they had tremendous influence. As a result, there is little that protects Indians who take cultural risks unlike, say, American companies and public figures who have exquisite freedoms. Also, people who seek freedom of expression are usually those who earn their livelihood from expression—so idealists are just small practical entrepreneurs like writers and filmmakers.

Even so, there is a reason why businesses should exhibit more cultural guts, why it is wise for the entire business community to resist bullies, and why entrepreneurs should behave like artists.

We do not need the abstraction of morality to do the right thing. Logic can show what it is. In most situations, if not all, we indeed know what it is. Often, there is only one right way, and a million wrong ways. A single right way is clarity, a million wrong ways is confusion. Sometimes idealism is the clarity of the single right way.

Freedom of expression is not entirely about entertainment, nor merely about the right to offend. In a society where storytelling does not have wide cultural freedom, where a mob can regulate it by claiming to be offended, the kind of people who become powerful are largely useless, even destructive, to the economy. In India, it is far easier for someone to get attention by raking up pointless issues than through ingenious civic administration. For the same reasons, it is very easy for mediocre artists and activists to gain attention, even an international reputation, by annoying a small mob.

When the bar is too low for cultural and activist charlatans to succeed through facile gimmicks, society as a whole is impoverished.

Also, in a world where the successful, the smart and the happy feel that they have too much to lose by standing up to bullies, the very idea of rebellion has been taken over by the down-and-out and the dejected. Anarchy is the day job of people with very little to lose. Every time a corporation capitulates to a bully, it not only empowers a small mob of cultural guardians, it also empowers future disenchanted foes of capitalism.

And yes, a free society does make better cinema.

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