The Boss picked up a huge number of likes, shares and retweets on April 8 when he cancelled his scheduled concert in Greensboro, North Carolina. Bruce Springsteen was protesting the state’s ludicrous House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom law.” It is a blatant move by the state government to discriminate against transgender individuals by preventing them from using public restrooms that align with their gender identity. In refusing to perform in North Carolina, Springsteen issued a statement, saying “it is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.”
Springsteen was following in the footsteps of passionate entertainers throughout history who have expressed their opinions on important social issues of their time. During the first half of the 20th century, folk musician Woody Guthrie spoke on behalf of the poor, especially Dust Bowl migrant farm workers. “There’s several ways of saying what’s on your mind,” Guthrie said. “And in states and counties where it ain’t any too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind, or even to vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around. One of the mainest ways is by singing.”
A generation later, Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, joined fellow musicians Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and many more in performing songs protesting the Vietnam War. For example, John Lennon mobilized millions with his anthem that contained just a few simple words:
“All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
Entertainers can leverage their talents and popularity to influence public policy and speak out as the conscience of society. A moving set of lyrics and a catchy tune can be enough to overthrow the powerful and fight injustice.
But notice the subtle difference in Springsteen’s method of protest in North Carolina. Instead of composing a song that expressed his opposition to discrimination, he employed economic leverage in cancelling his concert. With $300 concert tickets and millions of dollars in gate receipts, major concerts are big business these days. By refusing to take the stage, Springsteen was wielding the weight of his personal brand and depriving government of tax revenue, as well as hurting the finances of the municipal venue and employees who would have profited from parking, concessions sales and a share of the profits. Unfortunately, this kind of strategy by a celebrity has a downside that you could never find in a protest song of the past. Springsteen’s action not only impacted those who are in support of the bathroom law, it also hurt those who think the law is ridiculous. Those people who may have relied on income from working at the concert lose, and Springsteen’s fans who looked forward to the show were also penalized. This kind of protest by Springsteen isn’t poetic or artistic expression, its economic blackmail designed to hurt the pocketbooks of those in power. Apparently money talks louder than razor-sharp lyrics in 2016.
Other entertainers hopped on the Springsteen bandwagon, with North Carolina performance cancellations by Cirque du Soleil, Pearl Jam, Boston and Ringo Starr. Now, the National Basketball Association is threatening to pull its next All-Star Game from the state if the bathroom legislation isn’t repealed. Even NASCAR has spoken out against the bathroom bill, which is sure to make many people in the state have second thoughts about the wisdom of this law. There’s no arguing the potential for these economic pressures to influence public policy, but it somehow turns the passion for a particular point of view into merely a financial transaction that doesn’t convey the full dimensions of an artist’s message. Either way, I support the notion that a creative individual or group of performers can use their talents to influence others and shed a bit of light on a contested issue.
But the North Carolina legislation has spurred a similar sort of protest strategy that deserves a deeper scrutiny. Hundreds of businesses have signed petitions of protest against the bathroom law. PayPal dropped plans to add 400 jobs and establish a new office location in the state, and Deutsch Bank froze plans to add 250 jobs there. Many other firms that were exploring North Carolina as a potential location for expansion are said to be abandoning those plans. The message is clear: Do what we want, or you’ll pay the price. This type of political influence hurts everyone in the state, regardless of their views on the bathroom law. There are at least three reasons that this kind of economic blackmail should make us all worry:
First, we should recognize that a company is not an individual. It represents the collective interests of its customers, employees and owners or shareholders. An individual entertainer can hold a singular position on an issue, but a collective group of people connected to a business hold many different opinions. Perhaps a majority of those who work at one of these protesting companies oppose the bathroom bill. But then again, perhaps they do not. When Apple Inc. signed the company’s name to the business protest petition, how did it determine that this was the right position to take? Was it the CEO’s decision? Did the company carefully consider the opinions of all of its stakeholders? Why did the company choose to voice a position on this particular issue when there are so many other issues that involve similarly controversial matters? Should these crusading corporations also be publishing petitions calling for North Carolina legislators to increase school funding, which has much more relevancy to their ability to recruit a qualified workforce and do business in the state?
Second, we should consider a company’s true motivations for flexing its economic muscle on matters of public policy. It’s usually about profit and brand identity. The company’s bottom line is almost always the bottom line. Taking stands like this can be good for business, and not taking a stand can be bad for business if your customers perceive you as weak on a social issue. This kind of scenario can promote a mob mentality on issues, which is not necessarily the best way to find the right public policy solutions to complicated or nuanced problems. A generation ago, businesses might have spoken out quite differently on LGBTQIA issues, based on the prevailing views of society at that time. Butt out, big business. Your profit motives should not be a factor when are we are considering issues of discrimination, faith, conscience, the environment, justice, and similar matters. And personally, I’m not looking forward to a future where might see signs at rallies that read, “Today’s protest sponsored by Apple, Hershey’s and Nike.”
The third reason to be uncomfortable with economic blackmail has to do with the responsibilities each of us has in our democracy. The emergence of companies and organizations as the most influential political actors on matters of public policy could be detrimental to our nation. We should not assign a company or organization to be our proxy for expressing our opinion, allowing a brand to become a surrogate for an engaged citizenry. For example, if we rely on a business to target its investments to penalize fossil fuel producers, we can be tempted to abdicate our own responsibility to work to mitigate climate change. Here’s the dangerous mindset: “Let the businesses wield the influence on my behalf – now I don’t have to study the complicated questions, formulate an intelligent opinion and let my representatives know what I think.”
We all know that businesses wield plenty of influence behind the scenes through lobbying and political influence. But the forum of public debate in a democracy is best carried out by individuals who express their passions and do their best to influence their fellow citizens. Economic pressure might be effective, but it’s a dangerous force that can be applied in ways that are not necessarily good for our country. I’m thankful there are talented minstrels, such as John Lennon, who urged us to “Imagine” a world without countries, war or religion. Somehow, I don’t think a boycott petition signed by a multinational corporation conveys the same kind of world-changing vision.