In a surprising op-ed for The Wall Street Journal this Sunday, usually apolitical Apple CEO Time Cook urged Congress to approve the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which up to now has received tepid public support. The proposed bill, currently under review by Congress, would protect workers from discrimination and termination as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Although more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted written nondiscrimination policies explicitly prohibiting harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, their actual commitment to such promises vary wildly. For this reason, Cook’s, and by extension, Apple’s, support of ENDA is incredibly important. The bill faces an uncertain outlook in the Republican-controlled House and stiff opposition from conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. As a lesson in audience-specific advocacy and a promising sign of things to come from Apple’s leadership, Cook’s op-ed this weekend is both substantively and ideologically meaningful.
Substantively, Cook’s argument for ENDA suits The Wall Street Journal’s pages. Rather than relying on the feel-good, forward-learning humanism that characterized President Barack Obama’s Huffington Post op-ed in support of ENDA, also published Sunday, Cook took a resource-maximization tack designed to appeal to the Journal’s readership. In a line of reasoning tailored specifically for CEOs and businessmen, he argued, “People are much more willing to give of themselves when they feel that their selves are being fully recognized and embraced,” and noted that “embracing people’s individuality… turns out to be great for the creativity that drives our business.” Compare this with Obama’s query, “Does it make a difference if the firefighter who rescues you is gay — or the accountant who does your taxes, or the mechanic who fixes your car?” which also attempts, but fails, to address nondiscrimination from an instrumentalist approach.
Framing ENDA in terms of its appeal to ideals is effective if you’re writing for the already converted. It is those who currently oppose or feel lukewarm about the bill, however, who need to be convinced to support it, and to those people, a practical argument is likely to be more convincing than one that assumes shared values. Liberal thinkers and advocates would do well to remember this as debates around ENDA, the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and higher education funding rage on. Frame the ACA in terms of the minimization of exorbitant critical care costs via supplying preventative care; couch immigration reform in terms of the need to maintain a robust workforce as the baby boomers retire; and sell higher education funding to its skeptics as an investment in tomorrow’s human capital.
Mr. President, appeals to our “founding ideals” are great when you’re preaching to the choir, but are much less effective when one’s detractors do not share the same interpretations of those ideals. In such situations, Cook’s rhetorical strategy of appealing to common practical interests is much more effective.
One can only hope that Cook committing Apple to ENDA is the beginning of a series of ideological changes that he will back as the CEO of one of the United States’ richest and most influential companies. Workplace discrimination concerns reach much farther than just LGBTQ issues — women continue to make only 77 cents on the dollar compared with their male counterparts. Meanwhile, both women and minorities are still vastly underrepresented in boardrooms. Internationally, the average factory worker’s rights are violated daily by unsafe working conditions and socioeconomic mobility is more limited than ever. As Apple’s CEO, Cook is in a unique position to effect change on a number of these issues. Imagine, for example, the impact Apple could have if it committed to radical transparency on the way it treats factory workers.
As ENDA moves forward this week, it will be interesting to see how, if at all, Cook’s support for the bill factors into the debate. Going beyond this week, it will be just as interesting to see how Cook’s — and Apple’s — rhetoric on related issues develops and possibly influences workplace equality issues.