Friday, October 28, 2011

You Don't Have A Right Not To Be Offended

James Madison,
Father of the Constitution
I'm the human rights officer at my job site (I work in a residence with men who have brain injuries). Broadly speaking if there are any human rights complaints, abuses, or questions, the clients and/or staff have they talk to me. Luckily there aren't many issues to be dealt with. The clients have been living together for over fifteen years and are quite emotionally invested in their home. Also, the staff are a fairly reasonable lot. This leaves me with little to do besides running the occasional training. However, I am required to attend a retraining on the company's human rights policy once every two years.

I went to the human rights training a few days ago faced a conundrum: How much trouble am I going to sow? (Check out the deviltry I did  last time here.) Regular readers of Purgatory understand that this is a common riddle that I need to answer. Back in the day I spent much time in high school, undergraduate, and graduate classrooms, crafting the perfect subversive question. To tell the truth as the classes became more difficult and the teachers became more adept I took time writing various generations of a query until it was perfect (or at least perfect enough). Then I would innocently raise my hand and spring my very own pop quiz. The human rights training class would be easy to ply my trade.

The class was running smoothly with reviewing the various protocols and paperwork when the topic of obscene clothing came up. The rule states that those clients who live in the residences the company runs can't  wear offensive clothing. For example, a client can't wear a t-shirt that reads AIDS Kills Queers around the house. On the face of it, the policy seems perfectly rational until one thinks about who decides what is obscene. I wanted to open the topic up for discussion.

And yes, I was the only one who thought this was a topic worthy for to be talked about.

"Well, I would think the company would be a bit more specific about what obscenity is," I gently brought up. "Let's say I have a t-shirt that says I like chocolate ice cream and have a big chocolate ice cream cone pictured on it. What happens if all the other people I live are lactose intolerant and hate chocolate and find it offensive? Doesn't this all simply boil down to a mobocracy?"

Being in a minority (or a majority of one in my own mind) I'm always sensitive to the fact that the US Constitution does not state that one has a right not to be offended. Say you find it offensive that gays marry? Or for that matter black and white Americans choose to marry? Maybe you find it offensive when someone burns the flag? What about criticizing something like religion? A majority of people don't like that here in the States. Perhaps that should be banned -- just so that no one gets offended.

Thank my fictitious God for the Bill of Rights and specifically the First Amendment that clearly states
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Supreme Court has had many rulings that support a person's right to speak their mind and express themselves in a variety of ways: Texas v. Johnson - a 1989 ruling that struck down state laws that prohibited burning the flag; Brandenburg v Ohio - a 1969 ruling that states that people (in this case the KKK) have the right to incite revolution against the US government as long as the language does not aim to produce imminent violence; Loving v Virginia - the 1967 landmark ruling that states that people of different races can get married -- it really doesn't matter how offensive the South may find it.

The moderator of the seminar floundered a bit. "Well... of course it isn't a mobocracy."

She muddled through the next few minutes with the usual bureaucratic line that Policy is good! The Policy is fine! Don't criticize the Policy!

And then one of the other attendees had actually listened to my statement and said, "I've worked at a lot of residences where the clients gang up on someone and nitpick everything. They could get angry because that person is wearing a button down shirt instead of a t-shirt."

I nodded my head and smiled. The moderator quickly went to another subject, and I felt satisfied with at least saying out loud that the man behind the curtain is no wizard and that the Emperor has no clothes. I wasn't there to argue Constitutional law, rather to point out that the question of obscenity is not cut and dry. Asking questions openly about company policy is very similar to asking questions about our government as well as religion.

I was simply advocating the freethinkers stance.

What else can you do...

in Purgatory? 

2 comments:

  1. It's too bad that moderator didn't (or couldn't?) pause the training to have a brief discussion about it.

    Doesn't really take too much to determine what should fall under this policy, IMO. A few ideas:

    1. Does it encourage harming others? (Aids kills Queers does, I like chocolate ice cream doesn't)

    2. Does it encourage harmful (yes, a bit of a loose word, I know) prejudices and behaviors towards a group? (Same deal as above)

    3. Does it encourage illegal activity?

    ...and there's just some starter tests. Obviously, this is a business scenario so you don't really need a lot of them -- the main test should be "will this reflect well on my employer (and thus, ultimately, my career), or not?"

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    1. I like the harm/fairness test when applied to these so called "decency" laws. Does it harm someone, lead to harm, or incite others to harm a specific person or group? Does the restriction apply fairly to all or is it targeted to a single group or individual? These coupled with the understanding that you don't have a right to not be offended are balanced ideas in my opinion.

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