Here’s the short answer: they’re not.
Recently, the corporation that owns the rights to Dr Seuss decided to take six books out of print due to their portrayal of offensive stereotypes of asian and black people. Personally, I have a pretty positive view of Dr Seuss as someone who had generally good intentions but made major mistakes. I own a collection of Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons and I will admit that it’s pretty hard to read a number of them with the terrors of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Japanese-American “internment” camps in the back of my mind. On the other hand, Seuss was a staunch opponent of fascism, racism, and authoritarianism. He was a proponent of literacy, environmentalism, and critical thinking. His legacy is complex and I can only say what I feel from my own limited perspective, but I’m not the type of person calling for his work to be cancelled.
None of this matters. This decision was not reached democratically, nor through a spirited debate and socratic discussion, nor was it achieved through any organized political pressure. Despite what I have seen columnists complain about in terms of “bullying” from the all powerful broke brigade, folks complaining on Twitter is not the same as a boycott or any other institutional effort to create change. The only reason why this happened is that Dr. Seuss Enterprises unilaterally decided to do it.
I have already written an article explaining this idea in terms of how it effects employees, but I’m really sick of people treating this trend as some sort of culture war when it’s really just basic economics. In a capitalist economy, businesses compete over market dominance. In order to achieve this, they are required to prioritize profitability and avoid being outcompeted. All of their decisions boil down to this bottom line: either they do what is profitable, or they will replaced by a company that does. I go into greater detail on this in my article on Agency and Power, but I hope the idea is not too controversial that companies which make decisions incompatible with the market forces that dictate their existence will get punished for it.
What kind of a market force drives a company to castigate themselves? Attention. Attention is everything. Attention funds Google. Advertising revenue makes up about 1% of the GDP of the United States and one study suggests advertising contributed 19% of the nation’s economic output in 2014. I wrote the title of this article in the hopes that it would be good at grabbing attention. Donald Trump to some degree won the presidency in 2016 because he mastered the use of controversy to focus attention on himself. The reason why conservative commentators like Ben Shapiro jump on these controversies is because it gets them attention.
I hadn’t thought about Potato Head or Dr. Seuss in years, but I’m thinking about them now, because they were smart enough to make decisions they knew would drive attention to themselves. This is a basic function of capitalism. Corporations do not make decisions that are moral or good for society. They make decisions that maximize profits.
If you don’t like the decisions companies make, I don’t think it makes much sense to blame a few angry people on Twitter. Maybe it makes more sense to look at the incredibly powerful, undemocratic economic institutions that have the power to dictate the lives of millions of people on a whim. Maybe their decisions have more to do with a system that prioritizes productive efficiency and consumption over ethical concerns. Either way, as a culture, we need to stop dodging the question behind all these discussions.
Can corporations limit our rights, or can they not?
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