transgenderbathroom-750x400On March 23, 2016, North Carolina legislators passed HB2, a bill that barred so-called “transgender” people from using bathrooms and locker rooms that do not correspond with the gender designated on their birth certificates. The bill sought to overturn an anti-discrimination ordinance passed earlier by the city of Charlotte that allowed transgender people to use public bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity rather than their biological sex. HB2 was signed into law by North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, just hours after it passed the General Assembly.

Predictably, the so-called “bathroom bill” was greeted with sweeping denunciations from the political left. What was surprising was the volume of outcry toward the law leveled by corporations such as Apple, Starbucks, Kellogg’s, and PayPal who, along with more than 100 CEOs, signed an open letter urging the repeal of this “discriminatory and radical new anti-LGBT law.”[1] Even the NBA suggested that it would move the All-Star Game if the law wasn’t repealed.[2]  Such tactics echoed earlier threats by Disney, Intel, Dow Chemical, and the NFL to boycott Georgia if its governor signed a so-called “religious freedom” bill, which would allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violated their religious beliefs.

But why on earth do CEOs care so much about this? Why do they act as if they have a dog in this fight? Why are they so adamantly siding with such a small percentage of the population?

I believe that the key to understanding this corporate solidarity with transgenders is to see it as part of a mass process known as globalization. Considered the defining trait of modernity, globalization involves what is in effect a worldwide social system constituted by a capitalist economy, telecommunications, technology, and mass urbanization.[3] What is crucial for us to observe is that globalization involves a social dynamic known as disembedding, which is a propelling of social and economic factors away from localized control toward more transnational processes. For example, think of your local mall: In one sense, the mass shopping complex is in fact local in terms of its proximity to consumers; but notice that the retail outlets that comprise the various stores at a mall are not local but rather national and international chains and brand names. This is especially the case with the latest releases at the movie theater or the offerings at the food court. This is disembedding: from the ubiquity of “Made in China” imprints on our products and consumables, to the mass influx of immigrant labor, both legal and illegal, and the ever-increasing “Orlando-ization” of our urban and suburban landscapes by chains and franchises, our lives are increasingly defined and interpreted by translocal economic and social processes.

However, it is not merely economic processes that are arrested from provincial control; such dislodging also involves localized customs, traditions, languages, and religions. Whereas premodern societies are characterized generally by provincial beliefs and practices considered sacred and absolute, globalized societies offer a range of consumer-based options that call into question the sanctity of local beliefs and practices, relativizing them to a “global food court” of many other creedal alternatives.

christmas-story-chinese-restaurantPerhaps you remember the restaurant scene from the holiday comedy classic, A Christmas Story. After the Christmas Turkey was eaten by some local dogs, the Parker family goes to a local Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner. As the waiters attempt (unsuccessfully) to sing “Deck the Halls” to create a more festive atmosphere, a roast duck is carried over to the family’s table, with its head still attached. “It’s a beautiful duck,” the father says to the waiter incredulously, “but it’s smiling at me!” After the waiter abruptly decapitates the duck with a meat cleaver, the narrator remarks: “That Christmas would live in our memories as the Christmas when we were introduced to Chinese Turkey. All was right with the world.”

You see, in globalized societies, local customs and traditions can be exchanged for wider translocal options and practices. The Christmas Turkey can be replaced by Peking Duck, even one that smiles at you.

This social order of consumer-based options tends to forge a new conception of the human person as a sovereign individual who exercises control over his or her own life circumstances.[4] Again, traditional social structures and arrangements are generally fixed in terms of key identity markers such as gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. But globalized societies, because of the wide array of options, see this fixedness as restrictive. And so traditional morals and customs tend to give way to what we called lifestyle values. Lifestyle values operate according to a plurality of what sociologist Peter Berger defines as “life-worlds,” wherein each individual practices whatever belief system deemed most plausible by him or her. These belief systems include everything from religious identity to gender identity.

Thus, lifestyle values and identities are defined and determined by consumerist tendencies and norms. Commercial advertising is not merely central to economic growth, it is also of central influence to inventing the self through offering variant lifestyle features and choices. In the words of social theorist Anthony Giddens: “Market-governed freedom of individual choice becomes an enveloping framework of individual self-expression.”[5]

I would therefore argue that the corporations promising to boycott states like North Carolina for their traditionalist politics are not so much for LGBT rights as they are against arbitrarily restricting lifestyle options, since such limitations are deemed inconsistent with a society comprised of consumer-based self-expression.

However, these CEOs seem to have overlooked a rather obvious notion: Is not a tradition-based society a legitimate lifestyle option? Do not North Carolinians have a right to exercise control over their own lives as they see fit, in accordance with traditional gender definitions? By saying “no,” these CEOs are not merely guilty of their own form of arbitrarily restricting lifestyle options; these CEOs, however inadvertently, are defending a consumer-based optionality from which there is no opting out!

Of course, corporations have a vested interest in such predetermined optionality. As part of a globalized economic system that forges lifestyle values, they have created constituencies that in turn consume corporate goods and services. So while the protests of these corporations may sound the clarion call of social responsibility, standing atop the moral high ground of civil rights and social justice, they are in point of fact merely protecting the commodified constituencies they created and depend upon for continued economic consumption. Such boycotts are thus not about protecting fairness and equality; they are about protecting corporate self-interest. In fact, there’s nothing even remotely moral about lifestyle values; by definition, lifestyle identities and constituencies have self-consciously amputated themselves from any objective moral referent. How can you take the moral high ground in a social arena wherein morality as such doesn’t exist?

worship consumerismThe good news is that there are a number of corporations and scores of localized businesses that are resisting these disembedding tendencies. In fact, it may be wise for churches, Christian schools, and other organizations to put together directories of pro-life and pro–marriage businesses, such as Chick-fil-A, Cracker Barrel, Carl’s Jr., and Urban Outfitters, for promoting informed local and online purchases. As the current ‘buycott’ of Target’s transgender bathroom policy demonstrates, traditionalists are well positioned to make businesses feel the economic consequences for promoting consumer-based lifestyle values. And it goes without saying that we ought to give our full support to those lawmakers who are willing to stand up to globalist corporations.

Commercial optionality is of course a wonderful thing. From sandwich shops to sushi bars, the vitality of a pluralistic market entails innumerable joys and manifold benefits. But when optionality transitions from servant to master, as in the case of lifestyle values, it easily becomes just another absolutist system with its own forms of intolerance, exclusion, and bigotry. A number of traditionalist-minded states are about to find this out. Let’s hope that their commitment to a morally-defined public good outweighs their sentiments for the shopping mall.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore




[3] See, for example, Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping our Lives (New York: Routledge, 2000).

[4] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 211.

[5] Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 197.

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