Last fall, Target thrust itself into a major political controversy when it suddenly removed a pair of books skeptical of prevailing LGBT orthodoxy from its online store. Around that time, we had several interactions with Target’s Investor Relations Department in which we pressed them on what this said about the company’s corporate culture. Their answers were less than satisfactory. Nevertheless, most of us moved on after the issue was apparently resolved. Then, months later, when no one was looking, Target appears to have re-banned the previously unbanned books.
Given the endless series of political controversies Woke Capital keeps throwing up, it is understandable if most people have forgotten about the entire pitiful episode. Here is a quick refresher: Back in November 2020, Target.com had among its catalog two books that upset Twitter activists: Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier, and The End of Gender by Dr. Debra Soh. A Twitter user complained that books they did not like were being sold, prompting a rapid response from Target. Both books were removed. Naturally, this produced a political backlash, so Target reversed the ban the next day.
That appeared to be the end of the story; yes, an embarrassment for a major corporation, and a bad omen for the direction of corporate America, but the books were again available on Target’s website. Until they weren’t. Prior to attending Target’s annual meeting on June 9, we dug into the controversy again and found that Abigail Shrier had tweeted about her book being unavailable on Target.com — months after the ban was supposedly reversed.
We checked ourselves, and both Irreversible Damage and The End of Gender are once again unavailable on Target’s website. We asked a Target Investor Relations representative why these books were apparently banned again. The answer? Despite their rapid reversal last fall in the face of widespread outrage, Target quietly introduced a new set of “guidelines” that determines what books they will let people read. Even though this is clearly a matter of controversy and interest to shareholders and the general public, Target introduced its new policy without any apparent press notifications. (Target’s Investor Relations Department declined to answer when we asked if this policy had been formally announced before the annual general meeting.) Typically, corporate prostrations to the trinity of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” are accompanied by enthusiastic fanfare in the form of advertisements and tweets and infographics. Not so with Target. Their new book-banning policy was instead hidden away in an obscure corner of their corporate website; technically public, yet conspicuously unpublicized.
Given that Target clearly anticipated a negative response over the book bans, why did they ban the books at all? They obviously know many of their shareholders have a problem with book banning — because we had a problem with it the first time around. The answer is all too obvious: They do not want shareholders meddling in their affairs. They do not want to be held accountable by anyone for any of their activism. They do not think they owe their investors an explanation other than vague references to a policy statement replete with malleable generalities. That is their policy, de facto if not de jure.
Officially speaking, Target reserves the right to remove any book that “has the potential to cause harm to an individual or group of people” based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on. That is now, and has been for some time, the official policy of one of the largest retailers in the United States. To find a market with them, you cannot put anything in your book that could be interpreted as calling for “exclusion,” the conveniently vague term preferred by the professional managerial class.
That is what they said in their annual meeting in response to our question, and what the IR Department told us directly: “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.”
We know how Target will apply this policy in practice because we know how management thinks. Whether it be their endorsement of the Equality Act, their opposition to laws restricting gender-reassignment procedures for minors, or their aggressive identity-politics campaigning, Target has made it known where their loyalties lie — that is to say, not with their shareholders. Our repeated inquiries to Investor Relations as to what exactly was “harmful” about Irreversible Damage and The End of Gender have been ignored. If you are going to ban books, you should — at the absolute bare minimum — be able to tell us why.
They will not, at least until investors who prefer to see their companies focus on business get involved. The concerns of just one conservative shareholder about religious liberty are all too easy to ignore when compared with the cacophony of activists, institutions, nonprofits, and politicians who see the corporate boardroom as just another battlefield in the culture war. Next to the noisy hysteria of their foot soldiers, our complaints will be inaudible. It is utterly predictable that corporations would attempt to appease their critics on the left when their one-time allies are all but absent.
Our “side” always responds to corporate social engineering the same way: complaints on social media, with maybe the occasional call for some indeterminate government intervention tossed into the mix. What is almost never discussed is engagement. With very few exceptions, our side is simply not playing the game. We are watching the game from the sidelines and whining about the result.
Why should we be surprised that corporations such as Target, having made a devil’s bargain with the HRCs of the world, would renege on their reneging? We do not show up when the other side does, so is it really all that shocking that Target would sneak off and cancel Irreversible Damage, The End of Gender, When Harry Became Sally, or whatever book comes next? Those are the consequences of a failure of corporate engagement by shareholders who think that a business should just stick to its business. Under the status quo, it seems near certain that whatever few victories our complaints might achieve are liable to be reversed.
Target’s behavior is just another low. But we can still uncover the depths of their activism. We would not know about Target’s official book-banning policy if we did not attend their meeting. We would not have them on record if we did not reach out to their IR Department. A single investor, at a single meeting, was able to expose what Target had so discreetly done.
What would happen if more investors actually got involved, attending meetings and voting on proxies and talking to IR departments instead of just ranting on Facebook? It is becoming increasingly obvious that corporate engagement should be our priority. Right now, there is no other strategy. Corporations can get away with this insanity because conservatives simply do not engage. When we do show up, we can sometimes make progress, and if not, we can at least expose just how “woke” capital has become. Or we can bemoan corporations on social media again. But honestly ask yourself: Is that strategy working?
Jerry Bowyer is the president of Bowyer Research and editor of Townhall Finance. Charles Bowyer is a risk analyst for Bowyer Research and a writer for Townhall Finance.