The gold standard of persuasion as a field of inquiry was presented by Aristotle in 335–322 BCE in his treatise, Rhetoric. In it he defines rhetoric as “the use of all the available means of persuasion.” Aristotle insists that human beings have a predilection to migrate toward truth and mostly arrive at truth on their own.
In America and around the world today, social justice has become an ever-present rhetorical enterprise. There was very little in last week’s DNC convention that was not framed in a social justice mantel. The careful observer comes to realize that social justice is a term of assumed meaning and most frequently defined by what it is not—negation—instead of what it is or should be. This is why Thomas Sowell gave it a more accurate moniker—“cosmic justice” in his book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice.
Evan Sayet’s new book, The Woke Supremacy: An Anti-Socialist Manifesto, doubles down on the idea that being “Woke” and ridding America of discriminating rational thought is somehow the way to end our nation’s inequities. Corporate America is making a diligent effort to join the ranks of wokedom.
Where once corporate America ignored such demagoguery, it seems a groundswell of change is now underway. For example, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy recently shined the shoes of a Black rapper on stage to make a point about fighting racism and repenting. This comes after Cathy was disparaged in the media in 2017 for stating his religious belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Many of his customers are now less than impressed.
Like many of you, I have noticed over the past year that the vast majority of TV ads have become conspicuously inclusive. This year’s U.S. Census reveals that African Americans only comprise 13.4% of America’s population, but my informal survey indicates that about 60% of national ads feature black actors. Hispanics constitute 18.5% of the population but inhabit 35% of the TV ads surveyed. Asians are now 5.9% of America’s population and are featured in about 20% of TV ads. The U.S. Census also indicates only 10.2% of married couples in America are interracial, yet 39% of TV ads now display them.
While I applaud this equal opportunity tip of the hat to minority actors, like many of you, I wonder why this overrepresentation of minorities in national product advertising is taking place. What actually is corporate America trying to accomplish? The straightforward answer is virtue-signaling, but does that even work? Kenneth L. Marcus, formed Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights believes it doesn’t and may even make matters worse, “In today’s socialist [Black Lives Matter] movement, it is hate for a fictionalized version of America created by the socialist powers that be, in the universities, media, and elsewhere, that gives the Democratic Socialist’s life meaning and the Woke their only link to their fellow human beings…The new antiracism requires that we take our eyes off what antidiscrimination work is all about—combating invidious discrimination—and focus instead on social outcomes that arise in the absence of racial preferences. The primary focus of antidiscrimination, however, must be on [race-based] -mistreatment of individuals.”
In our cancel culture running rampant in this election season, there is reason for corporations to fear the Twitter mobs who rejoice in putting people, products and companies on the hot seat for allegedly “racist,” exclusionary and other un-woke practices. As we have seen, the MSM indiscriminately promote and defend woke corporations in what they see as a war against freedom of conservative speech and ideology. They have zero tolerance if you don’t think and act in the way they advocate.
Nike, the company that revolutionized running shoes in Oregon also lionized Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during our National Anthem, with a long and continuing activist history. Gino Fisanotti, Vice President for North American branding says, “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.” The fact that many Americans and customers don’t support Nike’s activism has no impact or their corporate behavior.
A 2018 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that more than half of Americans said it was never appropriate to take a knee during our national anthem; 86% of Republicans said it’s never appropriate as a form of protest, 51% of independents and 29% of Democrats were against this woke gesture. After the infamous ad premiered, Nike’s stock dropped 3.1% but Phil Knight said, “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it, and as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people…which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.” But for whom? Even with new President & CEO, John Donahoe, Nike’s activism has continued. An audit of Nike’s 2019 philanthropy shows it donated $108,500 (83%) to progressive politicians and causes, but $23,000 (17%) to conservative politicians. The Fleet Feet website lists the best-selling running shoe brands in 2020. Nike resides in fifth place behind Brooks, ASICS, Hoka and New Balance.
Goodyear has also recently snubbed conservatives with a policy supporting the Marxist-inspired Black Lives Matter slogan while denying employee rights to express “Blue Lives Matter” and their right to wear MAGA hats at work. Their policy reads in part, “Goodyear has zero tolerance for any forms of harassment or discrimination. To enable a work environment free of those, we ask that associates refrain from workplace expressions in support of political campaigning for any candidate or political party, as well as similar forms of advocacy that fall outside the scope of racial justice and equity issues.” For Goodyear, BLM is apparently not a form of political advocacy. Social justice, whatever that means to Goodyear, is most commonly defined as simply an absence of disparities and inequalities, is legitimate while making and keeping America great is illegitimate? By early June, 2020, corporate America had donated an astonishing $1.68 billion dollars to BLM and this number continues to increase
Breitbart released a list of corporate virtue signalers including:
• Facebook, donating $10 million to groups fighting racial inequality, Peloton donating $500,000 to the NAACP’s legal defense fund.
• Peloton CEO John Foley signaled its users that “Black lives matter. This week, what’s become clear to me is we must ensure this is an anti-racist organization.
• Snap CEO Evan Spiegel told employees in a memo that he’s “heartbroken and enraged by the treatment of black people and people of color in America.” He criticized the United States for so-called racial and wealth inequality and called for a progressive income tax system and higher taxes on the wealthy.
• Intel CEO Bob Swan wrote to employees saying, “Black lives matter. Period” and is pledging $1 million to “community organizations focused on social injustice.”
• Netflix announced, “We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.”
• Not to be outdone, Levi Strauss announced it was donating $100,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union.
• Verizon also announced it was donating a total of $10 million to a variety of social justice organizations, including the National Urban League and the NAACP.”
Thomas Sowell warns that social justice is really cosmic justice and that while its proponents never bear “the costs of social justice and how those costs change the very nature of justice itself, no one should be happy with cosmic [social] injustices. The real questions are: 1) What can be done about them—and at what cost; 2) What should we do collectively about them—and how much should be left up to individuals themselves?”
Fewer U.S. corporations are resisting becoming so cavalier with their consumer reputation and brand image by eschewing being woke in favor of being successful in the marketplace. From 1987-2002 I served as a board member of the Arthur W. Page Society, an organization whose members included CCO’s of corporations like AT&T, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and premier PR firms like Burson & Marsteller. The Page Principles advise companies, among other things, to: 1) Tell the truth; 2) Prove it with action; 3) Listen to stakeholders; 4) Realize an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people. This advice was instrumental in pulling AT&T through the breakup of the Bell System and Johnson & Johnson through two successive Tylenol poisoning crises without denigrating their corporate reputations and products with consumers. America’s corporations have changed radically, now supporting very leftist ideas in hopes that the cancel culture will leave them alone. Chick-fil-A, Nike and many other woke corporations would now be wise to pay closer attention to their consumers and leave their virtue-signaling to the academy and DNC.
Since President Trump was elected, America has become a cornucopia of social justice warriors advocating prompt actions; yet none have added one iota more social justice to America. Instead they have caused grief and hardship to the victims of social justice violence and destruction, and schooled America on how to break its laws and threaten its citizens. Sowell warns us that “Justice at all costs is not justice;” social justice can’t be achieved through social injustice.
Loyd Pettegrew is a Professor Emeritus in Organizational Communication at the University off South Florida. He received an interdisciplinary doctorate in Communication and Psychology from the University of Michigan.