Elizabeth Renzetti, a weekly columnist for The Globe and Mail, writes in the weekend edition about the Toronto firemen fired recently for their sexist tweets on Twitter. ‘What’s more offensive,’ she asks, ‘the tweeting or the firing?’
This blog is too well mannered, of course, to repeat the actual tweets here – lest you be offended. However, you could if you wish find them online, in last Saturday’s newspaper. The point is that the alleged tweets are distinctly unfunny and crudely objectionable. Nonetheless, these were comments made outside of work hours, off the work premises, and in the private time and presumably the private sphere of these two assholes. Which raises a number of quite important questions.
First, you might ask, are these guys jerks, or what? Yup. They sure are. Are they knuckle-dragging rednecks? Without question. But should they be fired – thereby losing their livelihoods, which for most of us is not a small matter – for their private misdemeanours? And if so, where does that leave the rest of us, who are not jerks most of the time, but might just be jerks, some times?
As Renzetti puts it, ‘in essence, they’ve been fired for (at worst) holding a set of beliefs that the rest of us find offensive or (at best) having a stupid and juvenile sense of humour. They’ve been fired for expressing their thoughts, however idiotic those thoughts are. I’m not sure that’s a road we want to be travelling.’
Neither, I have to say, is it a road that I would want to be travelling. Except that, it seems, it is a road we are already, all of us, quite far along.
Indeed, there is a deeper question here, in an era where supposedly democratic governments are trawling through our online communications with truly Orwellian invasiveness and our employers, apparently, are increasingly blurring the line between our public and our private lives and identities and intruding into – no, claiming inalienable rights over – the private sphere: are we not living, already, in an age of pervasive surveillance? If so, how come we are not making more of a fuss about it? Scared of who’s watching?
In a more minor key, is it not one of the ironies of our supposedly open societies, where celebrity and excess seemingly have burst through all the limits of propriety, that we should be at the same time such slaves to conformity? And that our employers (our employers! puleez!) should have become the self-appointed, secular high-priests of our political and moral correctness?
Let Elizabeth Renzetti have the last word. ‘Perhaps [this is] the future. But a world in which you have to spend every waking moment as a billboard for your employer, parroting the exact same thoughts as all of your colleagues, is too much of a Metropolis world for me.’