As part of an expanding body of work around values, i want to use today to explore ‘values’ in action, around six seconds of detail.
The six seconds in question are length of time removed by Warner Bros from the new film in the Harry Potter franchise, ‘Fantastic Beasts’, at the request of Chinese censors.
It’s not a random six seconds, nor a violent one, but rather the length of time it takes for one of the leading male characters to say to another male character ‘because i was in love with you’.
To any Harry Potter fan, the dialogue is not revelatory: author JK Rowling herself confirmed almost fifteen years ago that Dumbledore, the Head Teacher of Hogwarts school, was gay. But this is the first time that a character in the franchise has explicitly acknowledged this fact, and it appears to have been one step too far.
I want to explore this six seconds of dialogue against the context of how global organisations hold their values, where they hold them, and how they are accountable in each direction: to their employees, to society, to censors, to the law, to shareholders and the market, and to the truth, absolute or otherwise.
I should stress that this is not an ostensibly campaigning piece: i have written before about how we share difference, and am unashamedly liberal in my views, but here i am more interested in the tensions of a global context, and how we hold values when the ground beneath our feet is uneven. And whether our Organisational pragmatism causes a fundamental fracture of flaw in the core narrative of the socially accountable Organisation.
Let’s examine a range of potential perspectives on this decision, starting with the money.
Global Organisations trade across differentiated landscapes: not simply geographically separated, but morally and ethically distinct, culturally different, legislatively different, and under different models of governance, government, religious freedom, and the social norms that underly it.
They tend to take a rather pragmatic approach, adapting their operations accordingly: so people get paid on different pay-scales, in different currencies, have different employment rights and employment contracts, protections and punishments, opportunity and reward.
It’s so easy to rationalise this that i will barely bother to try: we can say ‘someone in London will be paid more than someone in Manilla to do the same job because it costs more to live in London’. Which is true. But also belies the truth that global labour markets provide a real competitive edge by reducing labour costs to those Organisations willing to exploit that difference, and that the quality of life of those people in London is to some extent supported by the inequality of wealth and opportunity of those that work to serve their needs.
So Organisations pay differently between regions and rationalise it as normal, and an advantage, indeed an essential one. But what about gender? Focus on the gender pay gap in developed Western economies pressures them to (at least in a token way) to adapt, to strive to pay roles equally, and not to differentiate by gender. This is backed up by law. But do they carry that imperative back into those territories where it is neither backed by law, nor of such a dominant social shift? Or to put it another way, do they choose to get away with it when they can?
How many Organisations measure the gender pay differential not simply in country, but between territories, and act accordingly?
All this may feel a far cry from six seconds of dialogue, but let’s consider it through that lens of money.
Warner Bros makes money through the release of films. If they cannot release a film, they won’t make any money. Indeed, the calculus of viability of a film will likely require successful release in many different territories, across formats, at a range of price points. If they refuse the request of the censor in China, the release may be blocked, or restricted by age, reducing potential income. So why not make the change?
One view would be that there is no harm in making the change: the company is selling a product, and products typically can be adapted to different territories. If i make soap, i may use a different scent in different countries to represent whatever is popular. I may package that soap with different imagery, to represent local landscapes and imagery, and may differentiate the pricing too.
We could argue that there is no intrinsic integrity to a movie in one edited format (although fans of the Snyder cut may disagree): essentially the movie is just an asset that can be repainted as needed, chopped and diced, and sold in any way possible.
This is not simply a reasonable rationale, but a foundation of the industry: whilst i love going to see a movie, the point of the movie business is not explicitly art, so much as money, in many cases.
But are there broader narratives at play: Organisations do love to talk about values, and almost insist that you share them, especially if you are employed by them. So how could this play out?
What would happen if i worked for Warner Bros, and asked HR to edit out the words ‘inclusive’ from the staff handbook. Probably they would say no, for three reasons. Firstly, they are in charge, and i hold no formal power or sanction. Secondly, where i live in the UK, they are legally obliged to be inclusive. And thirdly, also where i live in the UK, the dominant narrative of society tends towards inclusion (albeit imperfectly), so they would have the advantages of the power dynamic, the legal framework, and the moral imperative.
Or at least, the moral imperative in the UK. In China it appears that the moral imperative may be different, which again relates to the varied global landscape that we inhabit.
In a BBC analysis, Warner Bros are reported to say that, despite the change, ‘the spirit of the film remains’, which indicates that from an artistic perspective, the same sex relationship was deemed important. But not at the cost of finance?
Of course, what we are really seeing here is the new colonialism of the import and export not simply of culture, but of values, and morality itself, and with it the decisions on how we engage: in opposition or through dialogue.
One perspective (and to be clear, i am sharing this to illustrate a point, not a personal view) is that it’s ok to drop the dialogue, because ‘the spirit of the film remains’. Including ‘an understanding the the characters share an intimate bond’. So the argument here is that we are engaging respectfully: still portraying the loving nature of the relationship, portraying homosexuality in a loving and positive light, but without actually needing two grown men to say that they love each other. One interpretation of this is that it’s a respectful way to engage in a delicate area, in a country that is changing, albeit slowly (homosexuality is at least now decriminalised in China). Another is that it sounds like the old US Military ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
There is yet another perspective on this, and it relates to the Organisation itself (and this is the part of the conversation that Disney is likely most interested in right now): Organisations are responsible to markets, and global cultures, but also to the people that work for them.
I do not know the language that Warner Bros uses to their employees, about the value of every person and every type of love, but the likelihood is that words around inclusion, fairness, authenticity and honesty pepper their vocabulary.
And things like ‘authenticity’, and ‘fairness’ are judgements of the beholder, not an absolute measure of the thing itself. So will Warner Bros win if they make the cut, make the money, but lose the judgement of authenticity from even one employee. Or, indeed, from me.
It may also carry us into the conversation about just how, exactly, should inclusion carry us into action: is it enough to be passive, or should we strive for better?
To say ‘we are a values led Organisation’ is an easy narrative to hold, but in reality, a complex life to lead. Which values, and where, and at what cost?
And Organisations do not act in isolation: i too believe that i am a values led human. In general i believe that i am both nice, and good, as a person. I think that i am trustworthy, generous, and generally fair. But i will also happily watch the new Fantastic Beasts film, paying my money, and ignoring the debate about values. And i will sit there in my jeans that are made by cheap labour in China or Cambodia. And i will eat pizza with mozzarella flown in from Italy, contributing to global warming and ultimately flooding coastal zones. We are all ambiguous about the links between our values and action at times.
Possibly the trick is to make the implicit and hidden explicit and narrated: to ask ‘how should we operate’, and to keep decisions and the thought process behind it open and active.
Disney has struggled with a different example of this, in some ways a much harder problem, with their response to the so called ‘don’t say gay’ legislation which will ban teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender issues in the classroom. Disney, an active contributor of political funds, as well as a major employer in the State, has remained silent or elusive on the issue, leaving it to their LGBTQ+ alliances to speak out and take industrial action.
How are values playing out here?
Clearly values are not keeping Disney safe. And, again, they tread a careful path: to come out against the Bill would be to speak against the legislature, and hence to move into opposition: Organisations are active political contributors to garner support for development and legislation that would favour them – so to make political enemies carries a cost.
But what is the cost of ‘betraying’ your own employees.
Warner Bros are caught in a debate that spans two continents, and is clearly differentiated between domains. Disney is caught in a debate on one continent, differentiated by social views within one domain. In the case of Disney, all the debate happens in the same legal, financial, and social space, so the only things separating the two sides is values.
I think this is a harder map to navigate (again, personally speaking it’s easy – do the right thing – oppose the legislation), and one with a potentially much higher cost.
Organisations talk about values because they believe that it’s the right thing to do, but one also assumes because it will somehow make them better, more efficient, more capable? I really don’t know, but it’s pervasive.
If they make decisions at the cost of those values, then is there any value left in values at all, or is the emperor really naked?