The recent outrage on social media regarding celebrities endorsing fairness creams is an instance of classic lazy liberalism, where scolding other people has replaced actually doing something
American talk show host Bill Maher once said, “America’s second favourite pastime (first is of course NFL) is telling perfect strangers how to lead their lives.” Bollywood actor Abhay Deol’s multiple posts on his Facebook account, attacking fairness product industry and celebrities who endorse them, reflects the growing popularity of this pastime in India.
Before we begin, I would like to stipulate the purity of the intentions of Abhay Deol, i.e. I believe he, unlike some of his colleagues from Bollywood, does not have an ulterior motive behind this tirade. I say this because I overall have a good impression about him, and also because I wish to have the distraction of his motives off the table.
Let me first sum up his argument broadly –
1. Fairness industry promotes racism by telling people fair skin is better than dark skin.
2. People should not try to change their skin tone.
3. Celebrities are unethical in endorsing such products. Let’s now analyse the fallacies behind each of these statements.
To start with, asking cosmetic industry not to produce and market fairness products is wrong, not only from the company’s, but also from the consumer’s view-point. Companies are not expected to be the moral guardians of the society. The primary objective of any business is fulfilling an existing demand, and turning in a profit for all stakeholders in the process. Cosmetic companies are making fairness creams because a large number of people wish to lighten their skin tone. For a company to ignore this wish is not only bad business sense, but also an imposition of its will on its consumers. A cosmetic company making a decision that people should not act on their desire to become fairer, is no different from a social media company deciding what kind of opinions people should express on their platform.
This brings us to the second broad point made by the actor, i.e. people should be happy with their natural skin tone. A fair point, as long as it is not extended to forcing people to be happy about it. Colour discrimination is a real and large problem faced by the society, of that I have no doubt. I remember an incident when one of my female colleagues refused to join for a picnic to a coastal town because her mother had asked her to not expose herself to the sun as her parents were in the process of finding a groom for her. ‘Mujhe gorepan ki zaroorat hai’ (I need to be fair) - her matter-of-fact, yet helpless declaration pierced me then, it pierces me now. Our society needs to get rid of the bias towards fair skin and the colour of the skin should not matter when it comes to employment or marriage. I agree this far. However, there is an aspect of cultural authoritarianism to the anti-fairness products campaign that ought to worry all of us.
The whole rhetoric of this campaign is geared towards getting rid of fairness products altogether without a thought to those men and women who, as part of their individual choice, may wish to lighten their skin tone using cosmetic products. This aspiration is as legitimate as people who take expensive treatments to grow their hair again, or dye their hair to hide shades of grey. Two examples from other spheres of discourse will help underline this point better.
Last year, a few coastal towns in France imposed what was popularly called the ‘burkini ban’, restricting women from wearing a swimsuit that covered entire body except their face, hands and feet. Liberals world over were outraged about what was viewed as government interference in a citizen’s private choice of what to wear. The courts promptly overruled the ban.
The second example is more recent and closer to home. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that all alcohol serving establishments within 500 metres of state and national highway should be shut down. Most of the opposition to this came from liberal thinking individuals who once again see this as state (or in this case judicial) interference in personal matters.
If you combine the case of fairness products with the above two cases, we must make the following conclusions – as a society, when it comes to regulating tastes, we protest any effort from government but applaud when the same is done by private individuals. Alcohol kills 3.5 million people each year in India, to speak nothing of the financial demolition almost all lower income alcoholics subject their families to. And yet, we would rather leave alcohol to self-regulation, and go after a tube of chemical that will lighten your skin, if that.
While we are on this subject, much as this goes against the liberal grain of thinking - if you value your liberties then you must stand steadfast against private regulators (like celebrities crusading against a product, a practice or an idea) rather than governments. Please remember governments can be challenged and changed, there is no escaping from the self-appointed moral guardians.
There is also this very real fear that even though Abhay Deol launched his tirade against the movie stars, the real target of his campaign will be ordinary, lower income group young men and women who face enough discrimination already. Do we really wish to fight this battle over skin colour discrimination by keeping our gun on their shoulders? A celebrity not endorsing this product is only giving up a few zeroes of his substantial pay check. For a young man or woman facing discrimination due to colour, denying access to a remedy (as shallow as it might be) might be the difference between getting a job or not, getting married or not. Asking them to wage this war, before we fix the widespread bias is nothing short of being irresponsible.
The last point about the morality of movie stars or athletes endorsing these products is debatable. But again, this is what I wish to know- if your objective is to get movie stars not to endorse potentially harmful products, should fairness cream be your first choice? Really? Even ahead of soft drinks, that almost all major movies stars are either endorsing or have endorsed in past? A single 500 ml bottle of a carbonated beverage such as Coca Cola contains about 15 teaspoons of sugar, nearly twice the recommended daily sugar intake. Add to that the fact that, with soft drinks endorsement, there is active misrepresentation, as it is nearly impossible to retain the sort of body that most movie stars flaunt if the product they endorse is consumed regularly.
As long as Deol was taking pot-shots at Deepika Padukone, he might have asked a question or two to this fit, athletic woman about the morality of endorsing soft drinks without making it a part of her diet. Sadly, again in the battle between products that have direct connection with lifestyle ailments such as diabetes, and a product that promotes a certain image of beauty, Abhay chose the latter.
In a discourse as noisy as ours, the biggest danger lies in failing to frame the issue in its proper context. The issue of the anti-fairness campaign is essentially about a group of self-proclaimed liberals trying to legislate our tastes. The bias against dark skin is not going to change by de-legitimising the aspiration for a fair one.
Borrowing a phrase from Bill Maher again, this is classic lazy liberalism, where scolding other people has replaced actually doing something.