Remember when Target banned a pair of books that ran afoul of the secular left’s view of sexuality and gender? Maybe not – it was all the way back in November, after a complaint on Twitter, that they removed Irreversible Damage (Abigail Shrier) and The End Of Gender (Dr. Debra Soh) from their online store. And while the controversy was major, it was also short-lived: Target banned and then unbanned the books over the course of a single day. End of story, right?
If only. No, Target did not do the obvious thing, which would be to step back from social-political activism. Instead, they banned the books again – secretly, earlier this year, without any public statement on the matter. I only know this because I attended Target’s annual shareholder meeting and wrote to their investor relations department. As someone who has had a front-row seat to the worst of corporate activism as of late, I have never seen anything quite like this.
This episode should be of particular concern for Christian investors. There is a reason these books were considered so offensive they needed to be banned twice: both are critical of a specific narrative surrounding sex and gender which is diametrically opposed to traditional Christian, Muslim, and Jewish views. This is not to imply that Shrier or Dr. Soh were writing an explicit defense of the Christian understanding of sex and gender, or that they were writing as Christians or for a Christian audience specifically. They were not.
Nevertheless, they became Target’s targets because they wrote that there is such a thing as biological sex, that there are innate differences between the two sexes, and that it is problematic for minors to undergo gender and sexual reassignment procedures – all things people of traditional religious views would agree with.
Target outraged their shareholders and created a national controversy in November because their corporate culture was too biased and insular to realize most people do not believe in banning books.When Target’s error became publicized, they quickly reversed the ban. They even told me that they had “changed their process.”
Then sometime in the spring, despite knowing the bans were controversial, even though they were regarded as biased and short-sighted, and even though management assured me the whole episode would be corrected, Target repeated their mistake. Only this time, they did so quietly, without telling anyone until they were forced to do so.
Not only does the removal of those books demonstrate that Target’s corporate managers fundamentally do not understand their role (or do not care), it’s also indicative of the increasing hostility for traditional religious faith in corporate America. If Target (a large, powerful, prolific, mainstream corporation) thinks it unacceptable to even broach the idea that some young women identify as transgender because of social factors, how do we expect them to treat the views held by conservative Baptists or Catholics?
I invite you to read Target’s new book policy and see whether this seems like a corporation that tolerates dissenting social views, let alone one that is looking out for its shareholders interests. Again, it’s important to understand that we only know about this policy (which led to the book bans) because I engaged with the corporation by attending their annual meeting and writing to investor relations. By email, an IR representative told me, “This Spring, Target rolled out new guidelines that shape our book assortment. These guidelines […] put more definition around harmful content that will be excluded. As a result, some books previously in our assortment no longer fell within these guidelines.”
(Note: Earlier this year, I had several off-the-record conversations with a representative from Target’s investor relations department. After the annual meeting, I reached out to them again and received this response. As of this writing, they have not responded to numerous follow-up questions asking for comment and clarification.)
According to their new guidelines for publication, if a book “has the potential to cause harm to an individual or group of people” on the basis of various identity groups (such as gender and sexual orientation), Target reserves the right to remove it. Amazon announced a similar policy earlier this year, saying they “have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.” Combined, Amazon and Target control a sizable majority of all new book sales. What that means in practice is that if you are a Christian author who publishes a book that, for instance, maintains the traditional religious view of sex or sexuality or gender, you are running a risk of being unable to publish your book. What rational, profit-oriented publishing house would contract a book that some of the country’s largest retailers will not sell?
Target’s policy was, apparently, not unveiled with some white paper or other announcement. Why the secrecy? Shareholders were kept out of the loop on the new policy and its accompanying book bans, even though the last time Target tried this it was a major controversy. This is one of the many reasons it is critical for Christian investors to be engaged with corporations. Without input from Christians and conservatives, corporate management will continue to side with the ideologues who hold our views in contempt. They will continue to sideline mainstream religious views whenever they differ from those held by the meddling activists and politicians. Engaging is the only way to stop this.
If we cannot pull these corporations away from this dishonest, dangerous spiral of ever-more extreme activism, we ought to at least know how far they are willing to go. I did not know Target had introduced this policy until I engaged. Even though Target is one of the most biased major corporations in America, it was still beyond the pale that they would secretly re-ban these books. The lesson Target should have learned in November is “we need to stop with the activism.” The lesson they appear to have learned is “we should do more activism but be sneakier about it.” Even if we cannot pull corporate America back to sanity, we can still shine a light on them as they slide to the anti-religious left.
Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”