Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Power to Influence Outcomes

Kafka - The gatekeeper cont’d

One of my classes is intercultural communication.  Yesterday there was a speaker who had worked in several countries abroad.  She is now the vice president of Weber Shandwick ( and runs the Calgary office.  Weber Shandwick is a Public Relations (PR) firm.  Their logo is “The power to influence outcomes.”  In her presentation to our class someone asked what she did and her response was “reputation management” and “crisis management.”  Basically, if Exxon spills tons of oil in the Glenmore reservoir they spin it as giving back to the community (to be provide a ridiculous example that gets the point across) or something like that.  She had done a lot of work in South Asia so I asked her a couple questions, here is how I remember the conversation:
“Have you seen any sweatshops, and what is your ethical response to them?”
She chuckles and says “well, what is a sweatshop anyway?”
“A place where people are being exploited”
“What you and I see as exploitation might not be exploitation to them, I was talking to a couple people and they told me about when they were working and some North Americans saw them sitting on the floor and were appalled so they went out and bought them a table and chairs.  They told me they just wanted to sit on the floor.  Also, say there is a flood and a farmer’s crops are destroyed and so he sells his daughter into the sex trade so they can eat.  Is that exploitation?  I wouldn’t want to say.  I just think people should have choices.”  
Then some other people asked some questions for a bit, then I asked:
“What about the case where sweatshops tend toward the lowest price so when an area begins to develop and demand better wages the company leaves for a cheaper area causing a boom and bust cycle?”
She responded: “Well, that is an unfortunate cycle, but companies are getting better and what we can do is not work for and not buy the products that we know we don’t agree with.  For example, I don’t buy handmade rugs because of child labour… But companies are getting better.”  

I didn’t realize it until I got home, but she confused the distinction between what is morally wrong and what is exploitation.
Was it morally wrong for the farmer to sell his daughter to save his family? I wouldn’t want to say either.  But ask if that family was exploited in a situation where that is the choice, sell your daughter into the sex trade or die what is that really choice?  I have no problem saying they were exploited.  Webster’s dictionary defines exploited as “to make use of meanly or unjustly for one's own advantage.”  The person that benefited from that girl being forced into the slave trade certainly did something wrong.  He took advantage of a desperate situation to make a buck.  So, is it wrong for people to work in sweatshops so they can eat?  No.  But is it wrong for the employer to provide sweatshop conditions because a person will starve if they don’t work for them?  Yes.  Is it wrong for someone to steal to buy food?  Is it wrong for someone to make someone steal to buy food?  You get the point.

I don’t know if she has ever thought of it this way.  I think her response would be that because the employer is from a different culture it might be alright for him to do what he does.  I just find it funny that the big corporations make a lot of profit from this worldview.  
She provided the example of spousal and child abuse to support cultural/ moral relativism.  Where she was working it was a pretty common sight to see abuse.  
Spousal abuse is a tricky thing, and I think it has a lot more to do with socioeconomic position and shows how well a society is working as opposed to an example of cultural norms.  An illustration of whaling can serve as an example.  In one of my classes last semester there was a presentation on the Inuit whale hunters and the community.  Recently whale hunting has been severely restricted and as a result the men couldn’t go hunting and provide for their families.  I am kind of fuzzy on the details, but the gist was that the men abused their wives more because they didn’t feel respected.  The point is that analysis of cultural relativism has to be carried out with a little more sophistication than comparing surface values and not understanding why things are the way they are.  It also homogenizes a society into saying that no one thinks it is wrong and gives the impression that it is a common practise.  

This relates to Kafka because this lady has a respected place in society that influences public perception.  I think it is fair to say that she is a gatekeeper of the system.  So why am I (a lowly student) not convinced of her ethics?  If I wanted to know anything about ethics I should be able to learn from a person who creates the image of the major institutions of our society.  But I was disappointed and not convinced by her answers.  I was actually offended by the fact that she trivializes the problem of sweatshop workers.  When 14 year old girls work for 12-14 hours a day and can’t make enough money to send any home.  When union organizers “disappear.”  This is exploitation, and the position they have been placed in is wrong.  

What kind of world do North Americans want to create?  
I just want to do my own business and I will respect the right of other people to do their own business their way, unless it offends me too much and they are right there and I feel up to saying something about it.  I will effect change with my purchasing decisions.  

This view doesn’t understand that doing nothing is doing something.  What if I had a firm and chose to impose my ethics on another country?  She asked what would happen if a firm paid $8 an hour where the minimum wage was 50 cents.  Well, what if 50 cents wasn’t enough to provide food and shelter for a family?  Couldn’t my firm pay $3 an hour so the family could afford school fees and food and clothing and shelter and God forbid a short holiday to see relatives?  She asked what would happen to the economy.  Well, wouldn’t it be amazing if firms competed over the labour of the poor instead of those who are starving fighting over a job?  What if I were the IMF and I could remove SAPs?  We live in the world we do because people created it.  I am a person, and my life’s work can effect more change than the sum of my purchasing decisions.  What if I spent my life making unethical corporations look ethical, so they could self regulate and keep things the way they are?  I don’t know, has she ever done that, cover up a questionable move, or make it look a bit better than it actually was?  I think I will take their corporate logo and make it my own logo, the power to influence outcomes.  That is agency, everyone has it; few use it.  

I am going to email the woman that spoke to our class and ask for a response.  

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