The job of management,” proclaimed Frank Abrams, chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey, in 1951, “is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly interested groups … stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.”

To my understanding, this was not a unique or uncommon sentiment for business executives to have in the mid 20th Century. Milton Friedman's widely-read essay "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits" which rebukes this view wouldn't come out until 1970

So the idea that corporations should be active, not passive, in public affairs even when their business is not directly concerned is not a new one.

Indeed, the donations corporations have long-made to politicians often go much further than to serve the business' own interest. Money is fungible. If a company donates to a politician who puts equal effort into deregulation of the company's industry and into increasing mandatory minimum sentencing, you can't delineate the company's support for one objective and not the other.

So for a long time, company's have been exercising a large say in public affairs that don't directly influence their bottom line - it's maybe been more quiet, and subtle - and we're just returning to a previous model, that company's have a duty to act on behalf of their community and the public at large the way they do their shareholders.

In terms of individuals, I think this is where your more salient argument is. A friend of mine runs a small AI tech incubator. Over the summer, he got messages from activists asking him to sign pledges or commit to actions like investing in at least 20% Black-run AI-start-ups per year. He complained that he couldn't commit to things like that - one bad investment could end his firm, and he resented the activists for putting him in this position where if he said no, he would be branded with terrible labels

I guess what didn't occur to him is that he could have turned down a commitment he couldn't afford and at the same time asked the activists what other ways he could show his support - A few suggestions I mentioned to him were to ask and organize all employees to volunteer one day a month (for example, tutoring high school students who were having trouble remote learning) or to hire (paid) interns through a local job-seeker program for disadvantaged people. I'm not in his firm or an activist, so I can't say for sure but doubt that there was really nothing he could do to materially support the activists goals which he ostensibly agreed with, even if he didn't feel comfortable signing a pledge.

Now, what happens when as an individual, you disagree with the activists message? As in the case of your professor friend, you may fear not signing a pledge will tarnish you as against the cause. If you put yourselves in the shoes of the activist though, this is very much the point. You're trying to raise support for your goals and issues, and it's useful to highlight who agrees/disagrees with you, and it's not unreasonable to think that a person would have at least some thoughts on a sustained top issue in public discourse at that moment.

If you're building a mass movement, the "mass" part matters - executives, professors, celebrities - are people who have an outsized influence in society. You would probably think getting them on your team is important, and you have to tally them somehow

Your "right" to remain silent or stay-out-of-it is immaterial to them. They want to know where you stand. If you disagree, good activists will want to convince you (though yes, it's a problem that there are a lot of bad activists who will immediately see you as an enemy to their cause).

What I'm getting at is that this conversation can't really exist outside the context of what activists are incentivised to do. I agree that on paper, it sounds nice that I would never be expected to voice an opinion where I don't want to - But how do we get there, so long as activism is a necessary force to drive any meaningfully large and fast action in society?

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This is a really thoughtful reply.

One thing I think your example of your friend illuminates is the pervasive adoption, across the activist class but increasingly across society at large, of something like Kendi's "you're either antiracist or you're racist" binarism. The resentment your friend felt over being made to take a stand or endure odious labels wasn't due to some latent racist indifference (as far as I can tell), but due to being put in a position where he either commits to the specific goals, designs, and practices of the activists, and thereby potentially suffers intolerable financial costs, or he becomes vulnerable to reputational costs that are both financially *and* personally agonizing. From the activists' perspective, they are advancing the cause of justice. But your friend just wants his business to run and to maybe support justice in a way that is less totalizing than the vision the activists have.

The only way out of this predicament, at least currently, is to apply counterpressure of various forms. Your suggestions to your friend were good, but sometimes those measures aren't enough to satisfy the demands. Backlash to activism can work. Setting up support systems where people who are financially or reputationally harmed can recover funds or undergo reputation rehabilitation are other techniques.

I think your point about focusing on the *incentives* of activism is a smart one and worth some more thought.

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