When the chief of a global corporation that has more cash on hand than some nations do speaks on a matter of conscience like this, the world listens. That Cook is openly gay adds to the power of his words. Of course, he is being slammed for acting on his convictions. Detractors reflexively hate him, or the Fortune 5 company he helms, or both. But some of Cook’s most acerbic detractors are calling him a hypocrite for speaking out on gay rights at home and remaining mute abroad. The validity of that criticism only goes so far.
Apple operates stores in Hong Kong and 15 countries, including the United States. Being gay in all of those countries is not illegal. Same-sex marriage is legal in five of them. But Apple has online stores for 109 nations and Puerto Rico, including 16 countries and Hong Kong that have retail outlets. “Homosexual acts” are illegal in 17 of those nations. In four of them — Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — being LGBT may be punishable by death. An Apple owned-and-operated store was expected to open in Saudi Arabia in February. Being gay is punishable by death in Iran, where the company hopes to enter the market if sanctions are ever lifted.
The rage on the right over Cook’s seeming hypocrisy is understandable up to a point. And let’s not just pile on Cook. Marriott International president Arne Sorenson and Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon also spoke out forcefully against the religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas. Their companies operate in countries where being LGBT is illegal or punishable by death. If they are willing to boldly blast discrimination here then they should do the same in nations where they do business and the treatment of LGBT people can be horrific. I get it.
But that mindset makes me put a twist on Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim, “All politics is local.” Cook is an American, which gives him the right to lecture lawmakers in Indiana (two stores) and Arkansas (one store) about their wrong-headed and “very dangerous” policies. As an American business leader, he has an outsized authority that commands the attention of elected officials at all levels of government. I applaud his willingness to use his voice and stature to affect change here at home.
In a perfect world, Cook (and Sorenson and McMillon) would be as publicly vocal abroad as they have been at home. Yet, you would be a fool to expect them to shake their fists with equal vigor in less tolerant countries — unless your goal is to get them fired. The Almighty Dollar reigns supreme in the publicly traded companies they run. Their first responsibility is to shareholders who want growth in markets, dividends and profits. Their American outspokenness could result in much more than eyerolls if exercised in another country. Their companies could get locked out of a market by a foreign government or disgruntled stockholders could force their ouster over the potential hit to stock prices. This is capitalism at its ugliest and most brutal.
Balancing the right thing to do by society and his employees with the bottom line is the burden Cook bears. His conscience and convictions will have to guide him as he does business with nations where who he is– and who many of his customers are– are deemed illegal. I can only hope that he gets the opportunity behind the scenes to push those foreign leaders and their governments to treat all of their citizens with fairness, dignity and respect. But branding Cook a hypocrite on this score strikes me as rather facile.