After a brutal earnings report and a sea of controversy, Netflix recently delivered a blunt message to employees.
If you don’t like the content Netflix produces, you’re free to leave.
The message was conveyed to employees in the streaming giant’s culture policy, which the Wall Street Journal said were updated Thursday for the first time since 2017 to include language about artistic expression in their programming.
“We’re letting viewers choose what’s appropriate for them, rather than having Netflix censor specific artists or voices,” Netflix said in an updated memo. “Depending on your role, you may have to work on titles that you find harmful. If you’re having a hard time supporting our breadth of content, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”
It’s been a tough year for Netflix. Shares of the company have fallen 61 percent over the past 12 months after plummeting in April, when the streamer announced in its first-quarter earnings report that it had lost 200,000 subscribers, the first time in more than a decade that it posted a net loss in subscriptions.
Aside from its bottom line, Netflix found itself in a stew of controversy in October when a group of employees staged a strike over Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The nearerwhich some viewers called transphobic.
The controversy prompted a producer to boycott Netflix, whose CEO seemed surprised by the backlash.
“We seek to support creative freedom and artistic expression among the artists who work at Netflix,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-CEO. “Sometimes, and we make sure our employees understand that, because we’re trying to entertain the world, and the world is made up of people with a lot of different sensibilities and beliefs and senses of humor and all of that stuff — sometimes there’s stuff on Netflix.” that you don’t like.”
A win for freedom of expression
How Netflix got here stems from two cultural trends. The first is the mainstreaming of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), an idea that says companies must be socially responsible to their customers and stakeholders – by getting involved.
For most of US history, corporations have stayed out of politics. That has changed.
customers now expect Businesses need to take sides, which is why it’s common for businesses to take sides on everything from climate change and vaccines to gun control and language regulation. The rise of CSR is why you see Burger King embracing cow farts and burps. It’s no longer just about making profits by serving customers. Companies increasingly feel a responsibility to take a stand in the area of social activism.
Companies are motivated, at least in part, by the fear of hiding important issues, said Vanessa Burbano, assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.
“Is your silence suggesting something that is not in line with your company’s stance?” Burbano told Forbes. “When every other company in your industry has come out and spoken publicly on an issue, you don’t want to be the one to keep quiet.”
The second trend is the rise of fragility and censorship that have steadily affected free expression and speech in recent years. Around 2016, social media companies like Twitter, which had previously billed themselves as bastions of free speech, began aggressively policing expression on their platforms. By 2020, companies like Coca-Cola, Hersey, Verizon, and others boycotted Facebook as part of a “Stop Hate For Profit” campaign designed to encourage more aggressive “content moderation.”
Proponents of censorship, like New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, say they just want to protect people from hate speech.
“[Hate] is spreading like a virus and so I urge the CEOs of all social media platforms to review their policies and look me in the eye and tell me that everything they can do is being done to ensure this information will not be disseminated,” Hochul said Sunday after the mass shooting in Buffalo.
But what is classified as hate speech is very much in the eye of the beholder, which is what Netflix saw with Chappelle’s comedy show.
While most viewers loved The nearer— it scored 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — others saw it as transphobic hate speech, something Sarandos disagrees with.
Americans could debate endlessly whether Chappelle’s act was funny or hateful or offensive, as we could on many other shows on Netflix. As a Christian, I could easily attack Netflix’s “Gay Jesus” parody. But the true mark of a tolerant and enlightened society – as opposed to a dogmatic one – is the ability to speak freely, even when doing so may be viewed by some as hateful or blasphemous.
“My free speech is my right to say what you don’t want to hear,” George Orwell once said.
And that’s the beauty of it. If you don’t want to see Chappelle’s play or Gay Jesus, you don’t have to see it. This has always been the right response to efforts to ban “dangerous,” “hateful,” or “blasphemous” speech.
“It doesn’t hurt me if my neighbor says there are twenty gods or no god,” Thomas Jefferson once remarked. “It won’t stab my pocket or break my leg.”
Free speech is a healthy and good thing for everyone, but it’s especially important for artists and creators. There’s just no way to produce good art if you’re constantly afraid of accidentally stabbing someone’s sacred cow or trying to please everyone.
Netflix seems to have recognized this. Consider this an important win for free speech. Let’s hope other companies pay attention.
This article originally appeared on FEE.org entitled “Netflix Delivers Free Speech Salvo to Employees With 9 Little Words: “Netflix May Not Be the Best Place for You”