I drafted a tweet, stared for a moment, highlighted the words, and hit the delete key. My sarcastic jab wasn’t worth risking a future job.
My tweet was responding to someone who had asked for their followers to call NBC and CNN and ask the networks to cover Senate candidate Doug Jones, the Democrat running against Roy Moore in today’s election in Alabama. The Twitter user wrote that she was worried all of the Roy Moore coverage was giving him an advantage on election day, similar to the advantage President Donald Trump received from non-stop network coverage during the 2016 election.
What I had written was a stupid joke poking fun at all the coverage people accused of sexual assault have received lately: “But who has Jones raped? Can’t get airtime without raping or assaulting someone.”
The world of Twitter teemed under the draft box and I remembered the tweet from 2009 that almost ended Sam Seder’s time at MSNBC. Seder’s tweet sardonically poked at supporters and apologists of film director and rapist Roman Polanski.
Seder wrote: “Don’t care re Polanski, but I hope if my daughter is ever raped it is by an older truly talented man w/ a great sense of mise en scene.”
Seder’s tweet resurfaced last week, brought back to life by right-wing activist Mike Cernovich, a man who has written lovely blog posts such as “when in doubt, whip it out” and was the hype man behind the Pizzagate conspiracy. Seder had been dedicating many tweets and minutes of his MSNBC show to speak out against candidate Moore, who stands accused of preying on women as young as 14. Cernovich seemingly wanted to show the world that Seder was no angel as he, too, was OK with rape, no better than your average Mike Cernovich.
After Cernovich riled up his followers about Seder’s tweet, MSNBC – Seder’s employer – announced that it would not renew Seder’s contract. Days later, MSNBC corrected itself and announced that it had made a mistake and would bring Seder back.
To me, the damage had been done: Seder – a comedian – had been fired for satire.
I’m left to wonder what will happen to those of us who aren’t funny, who don’t have TV shows, who don’t have large Twitter followings when our HR departments come knocking. Will we be made to pay for jokes, satire, or tweets written in jest? And isn’t that an oily path toward being fired for our opinions?
Most of us in the U.S. – and all of us in Illinois – work on an at-will basis. This means that we can be fired without warning and no “cause” needs to be given to send us packing. Then there’s debt, which likely works in concert with social stigma to get us to shut the fuck up. Roughly 80 percent of Americans are in debt, and that number goes up for Gen X (89 percent in debt) and millennials (86 percent in debt), per Pew Research.
I’m lucky enough to have no student loans and most of my credit card debt paid down, but my friends and peers aren’t as lucky. The average bachelor’s degree recipient owes about $30,000 and the average household owes $16,000 in credit card debt.
As more examples like Seder pop up – and I’m certain they will – how many people in debt will simply decide that contributing to the national conversation is no longer worth the financial risk? Debts need to be paid, lest they accrue. When giving an opinion or telling a joke becomes a financial decision, the financial decision will win.
A representative democracy, however, depends on having many different voices speaking up on controversial issues. This does not exclude jokesters and satirists, nor does it exclude people who hold controversial opinions. Even if we don’t agree with people who hold controversial opinions, they’re valuable to listen to – even if just to test our own beliefs. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
In modern times, English LGBT and human rights activist Peter Tatchell told Index on Censorship that “free society depends on the free exchange of ideas.” He continues: “Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offense to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offense in their time.”
Religious institutions have less power to make a stink over criticism and new ideas than they did in the time of Galileo and Darwin. That power has been given away to our corporate institutions, which now hold the power to use offense as a guillotine.
And here’s a problem with that: If someone wants you fired, they can troll your posting history to find a post that may have been innocuous eight years ago, but would be in poor taste now. Would anyone, save a few people, cared about Seder’s joke in 2009? Probably not. But in 2017, we’ve become more appropriately sensitive to those who have been raped or sexually assaulted. It’s a touchy topic, and rightfully so. While this doesn’t mean we need to stop making jokes, it does mean Seder and others – comedians or otherwise – would likely approach the subject more carefully today.
Seder’s situation may seem extreme, but the most absurd situations – the reductio ad absurdums – are important to view, as they can show us the absolute extremes of the situations we’re dealing with. What seems improbable but still possible can at an instant become probable become probable. In this case, if we decide that what we said years ago can come back on us and harm us in our work life or socially, the philosophy of free speech in our country and across the world is in trouble.
Can corporations be good judges of morals? Judges of what speech is offensive? I doubt it, just as I doubt it with social mobs.
The First Amendment may be fully in tact legally, but our society still relies on Mill’s harm principle in social settings, as we’ve done for decades. The harm principle states: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
In action, the harm principle would say: A joke about rape or murder or a sexual assault? You’re not hurting anyone (but you may be a dick). A direct threat to rape or murder or sexually assault? You are threatening to hurt someone and therefore should be charged with assault (and you’re definitely a dick).
We should be careful with what words and sentiments we find unacceptable. If a joke – even a bad or cruel joke – is enough to get someone fired from their job, will an opinion perceived as bad or cruel also get you fired? This would spell trouble for much of the country, who proudly hold and display opinions their political opponents find controversial.
Another important question: Who gets to decide what jokes and opinions are bad or cruel? As Tatchell alluded to, the Roman Catholic Church found Galileo guilty of heresy and left him to die in prison because of his beliefs. Galileo’s idea that the earth revolved around the sun was bad and cruel, they thought. It took the church 350 years to apologize to Galileo. Was the Catholic Church up to the task of deciding the morality of new ideas and opinions? Are we any better than they were?
I do not care to live in a society where we all have to control ourselves because of the possibility that someone in a suit may not like what we said, just as I would despise those in vestments and cassocks telling me what I can and cannot say. Corporations already have control over our bank accounts. They already have at least 40 hours of our week – and for many, 50, 60, or 70 hours. We must fight against corporate control of what we say and think, to be the enforcing body of social stigma.
Let Seder’s firing and un-firing be a lesson: Free speech is currently controlled by corporate interests, but it doesn’t have to be. We can fight back, and fight back we must. If a rape apologist can point the finger at someone who joked at a rapist’s expense and that jokester gets fired, it’s time to look at how we take offense and reassess our society’s philosophy toward speech. We can still reassess fix it: there’s still time.
If we don’t reassess now, who knows? You could be next. Are you sure everything you wrote online eight years ago will be seen as benign eight years from now?