Elon Musk: Hero or Villain?

Artwork By Angharad Neal-Williams


Since the passing of technological juggernaut Steve Jobs in 2011, Silicon Valley has been desperate for a new genius to uphold its innovative and creative reputation. In the past few years, an heir apparent has emerged – SpaceX and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk.

The South African-born, Canadian-American entrepreneur rose to fame for co-founding PayPal, prior to his more publicised ventures of Tesla and SpaceX, which propelled him towards worldwide fame and notoriety. But questions still remain about Musk’s character; his effect on our society and the motivations behind his unrelenting pursuit of innovation.

Most recently, concerns over Musk’s moral compass has dampened his golden image. Only recently he was an advisor to President Trump, part of the Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Jobs Initiative. Musk has since resigned, following Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement.

His initial appointment and acceptance of the advisory role drew criticism. However Musk, a centrist, stated he would prefer to have a voice in the machinery of Washington than none whatsoever. It was his resignation, though, that sparks serious questioning.

If Musk was so swayed by morals and social issues, his resignation begs the question as to why he even joined the administration. Trump’s consistent racism, misogyny and his rejection of science provided Musk with good reason to refuse to join the boards. Similarly, Trump’s defunding of Planned Parenthood and quasi-immigration ban have shocked the globe by their insensitivity. The question remains: was this withdrawal simply the last straw in Musk’s attempt to justify his position as an advisor? Or was his resignation to do with Tesla’s stance on environmentalism and therefore, a stance aligned with his company and its stakeholders.

Ultimately, Musk’s public decisions do beg the question of whether he is acting as an individual swayed by personal ideals, or rather as a company CEO eager to capitalise on a financial opportunity.

It is rather convenient that the face of sustainable automotive endeavours would so publicly announce his resignation over an issue of sustainability. However, in the face of countless other social issues, he ignored the actions of the administration in order to retain his influence in the politics of the country. Ought Musk, for the sake of moral conviction, not have continued to advise Trump to restart work on sustainability in the environment? Thus, one might infer that Musk’s resignation was motivated by a desire to maintain Tesla’s progressive reputation, rather than as an individual passionate about social justice.

Moreover, Musk has been in the spotlight over workplace safety concerns at Tesla manufacturing plants. On May 24, Worksafe published findings that Tesla had a rate of injuries 34% higher than the industry average. Following this, Musk made an emotional statement declaring he would personally oversee all future workplace injuries. Further, he would take the time to work in each role of Tesla’s manufacturing so that he could understand the difficulties of his employees. This statement was made on May 31 and was met with widespread approval. The problem, though, is that the report was shown to Tesla as early as January. There were only brief and emotionless statements about workplace issues appearing prior to the publication of the report.

Musk’s emotional response was not driven by the fact that his staff were more vulnerable to injury than the industry standard, but rather by the prospect of a negative public reaction to the findings. Why else was his statement not issued within a week of this data being shown to him in January? The answer is simple. Musk recognised that an emotional response would be most popular, as it appeared that he had no prior knowledge of the stats and was devastated to learn of the misfortune of his staff. That way he could control the issue in one powerful presentation.

This also calls his moral stance into question anew. How can we believe he is emotionally aware of issues facing pockets of society, when he is apparently more driven by profits than the wellbeing of his employees? Is his response to both his position with Trump and the Worksafe findings no more than damage control?

Despite his entrepreneurial genius, questions remain for Elon Musk. Is he a worthy face of global innovation? Or is he simply a commercially driven, profit-hungry public figure willing to sell his morals for a few more orders of his latest Tesla pursuits?


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