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Target bans another trans-skeptic book and refuses to explain why

Target
A man walks by shopping carts during the going-out-of-business sale at Target Canada in Toronto, February 5, 2015. |

I've written about the Target corporation before. The company has a history of taking highly controversial stances on extremely divisive social issues. For example, it endorsed the Equality Act, which weakens the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It signed The Business Statement on Anti-LGBTQ State Legislation just last year. It also added its name to the group Business for Voting Rights, which supported a highly controversial proposal that critics say would federalize election law and is designed to counter state-level vote fraud prevention efforts. The bill is so controversial that it cannot even garner enough votes to get to the floor of the Senate, which has a slim Democratic majority.

In addition, Target has a history of banning books from its website that are skeptical towards trans-gender ideology, particularly in relation to minors. Abigail Shrier's Irreversible Damage; Dr. Debra Soh's The End of Gender, and now, apparently, Matt Walsh's Johnny the Walrus.

Previously in response to a Tweet, Target apologized and removed Shrier's book (Target Swiftly Bans Book On Behalf Of Twitter User Crying 'Transphobia'). Later, Soh's book was also banned. In response to an uproar from the public, the books were reinstated. After several phone calls and rounds of email, Target was not able to explain their rationale for the banning, nor to give any examples of books they banned which had a more left-leaning point of view. In other words, all the banned books we have seen were written by conservatives or conservative-adjacent liberals (such as Dr. Soh), which are skeptical of certain elements of trans ideology. To date, Target has provided no examples of books coming from the left which they have similarly banned from their website.

Then, quietly, without public announcement, last year Target adopted a written policy on the matter of which books to exclude and then, also without public announcement, they re-banned Shrier's and Soh's books. I learned of this only by asking about it prior to the annual shareholder meeting and also asking at that meeting. At that time Target made its policy statement public (Suppliers | Target Corporation).

I've had extensive conversations with numerous managers at the company and have yet to receive clear answers to my questions about how they arrive at these decisions. The language of their policy statement is extremely vague:

"However, we can decide not to sell certain content…other inappropriate content, and any content that is illegal, infringing, harmful or potentially harmful."

Target Book Content Guidelines

Target defines harmful or potentially harmful content this way:

"Content that has the potential to cause harm to an individual or group of people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, or disability including content that could incite violence, harmful stereotypes or derogatory language, statements of inferiority, medical misinformation, or calls for exclusion or segregation without any historical context or significance."

Target Book Content Guidelines

Of course a "potentially harmful" standard can be used to ban anything, or almost anything, given the political and cultural biases of the people who are interpreting it. And since Target so far hasn't told us who that is, it's impossible to know with confidence whether the process is fair. But, of course, the results give some indication of the fairness of the process, and, so far, the results do not look even-handed.

Even the politically neutral marketing research firm Morning Consult discusses Target (in contrast with Walmart) in a survey of "the most polarizing brands in America." The Most Polarizing Brands in America (2018 Edition) - Morning Consult.

The study (which admittedly is a bit out of date having been published in 2018) found that Walmart had a net favorability edge among Republicans, and Target had a net favorability edge from Democrats. However, the favorability gap was not equal.

"Walmart’s favorability leans Republican by 14 points, with a 69 percent net favorability, compared to 55 among Democrats. Target’s favorability, on the other hand, leans Democratic, by 18 points, with 71 percent net favorability compared to 53 percent among Republicans."

Walmart vs. Target: A Political Divide Among Shoppers

So, the political gap is larger in the case of Target. When one takes a look at the data in the report on individual issues, the gaps are wider on the categories "supports gay marriage" and "supports transgender individuals" than they are on general categories such as partisan support for candidates. As of this writing, I have a request in to Morning Consult for more up-to-date data. However, given the pattern of book banning we saw after that last round of data, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that Target has repositioned itself as a non-ideologically aligned brand.

But it should. There are already institutions that exist to promote one or the other side of our culture war divide: political parties, PACs, activists, advocacy groups and think tanks. Publicly traded businesses exist specifically to serve the interests of shareholders. That's inherent in the decision to 'go public' and sell shares. The leadership of the company works for the owners, or at least is supposed to. That's the price to pay for access to the enormous pools of public capital. If the leaders of the company want to politic, they should do it on their own time and with their own dime.

Target sells books for profit. Amazon sells Walsh's book despite the fact that they were under pressure not to (though they did acquiesce to pressure to remove the book from LGBTQ+ category where for a time it was ranked #1), and as of this writing it has an average rating of 4.9 out of 5, and it ranks #5 in Political Commentary & Opinion. If the point is to sell books, not to take sides in a culture war, Target owes its shareholders an explanation.

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.”

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