Business versus #MeToo & Statue Removals: How will they Change the World?

The state of Virginia recently removed the statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who fought the Union Army. Lee was a professional soldier who was great in drawing aggressive war tactics that presented him as a talented strategist. After the war ended in 1865, Robert E. Lee supported reconciliation efforts to keep the Union together, but he vehemently opposed racial equality, thereby contributing to the mechanisms that led to Segregation and the Jim Crow Laws of the American South.

Image Source: Time Magazine

What does all this mean to Business?

The #MeToo movement took the world by storm in the early 2010s. This came to a highpoint in 2017 when a lot of women in the United States and around the world spoke up against sexual abuses they had endured in the workplace. Prior to that, such abuses were endured by women in silence.

Social media therefore provided a platform for a new form of convergence and advocacy which ensures that accountability channels that were previously closed are now opened.

In effect, a business has blurred privacy lines. The leaders of an organization are accountable for the things they do – both formally and informally. This places an obligation on leaders of organizations to take extra care to weigh the moral and ethical implications of their actions.

Retrospective Application of Laws

Natural justice dictates that new laws and legal precedents are applied prospectively. This means that when a law is formally passed, it is applied to incidents that occur in the future. In most societies, the lawmaking process goes through a lot of formalities including gazetting and made aware to the community at large. After that, the law is “reified” and given force by the sovereign of the land.

When a law comes into effect, it is applied to incidents and situations that come up. Laws do not normally go back into time to hold people accountable.

Statue removal of Confederate leaders and sexual assault cases opened decades and even centuries after they occurred create a new legal structure that supports the retrospective application of the law. In other words, events like the MeToo movement and removal of Confederate symbols tend to ignite a process where timelines blur. People and their descendants can be held account for actions of the past.

In situations where there is a lack of legal will to act to restore order and things from the past, citizens can resort to mechanisms like shaming to get their point across. In the age of social media, this has a lot of effect and impact.

Contemporary Right-Wing Position

Many supporters of right-wing views cite the claim that the new mechanism of holding people accountable for things that happened in the past is against the fundamental principles of law. There have been claims that women going back into time to hold men accountable for sexual assaults against them ought to be banned.

The right have used various legal and constitutional loopholes to protect their interests for generations. One of them has been the use of the “statute of limitation” idea which bars people from applying laws retrospectively.

These two positions are frowned upon by victims of acts that happened in the past and their descendants. What is the position of natural justice on this?

The Revisionist Natural Justice Position

Diehard supporters of the principle of natural justice will assert that any wrong done in time must be fixed. While the law must function in ways that preserve the society, wrongs that have created lasting impacts to the present time must be addressed in some way or the other.

In this vein, any attempt to hide behind statutes of limitations cannot be accepted, since the law cannot be used as a shield against crimes. Therefore, it is essential for people who have committed crimes in the past to be held accountable in some way or form.

A man who assaulted a 19-year old intern would have to be called to answer for it when she raises a claim. A Confederate soldier who killed more Americans than a Nazi official has to be held accountable in some way or form. Therefore, the retrospective application of the law might be justified.

On the other hand, natural justice also provides protections for the accused persons. Therefore, it is necessary to weigh the claims and realities to achieve a fair balance. The following pointers might be helpful:

1. What was the context within which a person lived? Was their action illegal then?

2. Were other people in that space and time doing the same thing?

3. Will it be fair to hold the individual accountable?

4. What was the impact of what they did?

5. What is the state of their victims today?

6. What can the present generation benefit from any act that will be imposed?

7. What will be of the precedence that a punishment would set?

These seven questions are important and they must be taken seriously in any case where retrospective applications of the law are concerned.

Strategic Implications

Businesses are destined to be held to a higher degree of accountability in the future. Social media and digital technologies allow for various reputational issues to erupt and a firm must closely monitor these pointers. Adherence to a centralized authority or a group of elites for protection might not always work in dealing with excluded persons. Hence, a firm must think and act responsibly. Issues that are brought up from the past must be handled closely. There might even be the need for the “suspension of disbelief” to hear out a powerless or unlikely victim to provide the best solution to any claim they may put up.

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