When I was small, my parents told me stories about what it was like in the Soviet Union. One feature was that every workplace, every classroom had snitches. You could sometimes tell who they were and sometimes you couldn’t. As a standard practice, there were at least two snitches in each setting, each of whom didn’t know who the other was. That way, the authorities would know if somebody was withholding incriminating information on their classmates or co-workers. The purpose of this massive surveillance apparatus was, of course, to control speech.
Growing up in the seventies, the attitude with regard to speech couldn’t have been more opposite. Traditional prudery was dying while liberals were still running around quoting Voltaire’s famous dictum, “I may disagree with what you say but I defend with my life your right to say it.” At the time, I thought that speech codes this side of the Iron Curtain were forever impossible. Anybody who tried would be labelled a prude and run out of town on a rail.
That was then. In the ensuing decades I have watched with increasing horror as former Voltaire-quoting liberals transmogrified into the Thought Police. A revealing skirmish in the Culture War occurred just this Sunday in Toronto at a Toronto FC soccer game.
While a TV reporter was interviewing fans, she was heckled by other fans (likely drunk) who harassed her with crude, sexual comments. Instead of ignoring these taunts, the reporter confronted the goons directly with her camera and mike. Instead of backing down and apologizing, they doubled down and said even worse things. The video went viral and soon the instigators were forced to cancel their Facebook and Twitter accounts. So far, so good.
Now the troubling part: one of the foul-mouthed punks was found to work for Hydro One (a local power utility) and was fired from his (lucrative) job. Driving home from work, I heard a labour lawyer gleefully announce on the radio that just because you are not on the job, your employer has a right to hold you accountable for actions you take and words you utter in your spare time, even if it has nothing to do with your work. Huh? When did this happen? When did it become permissible for your employer to discipline you for things you said or did on your own time? It certainly wasn’t that way in the 70’s. Any Junior Gestapo type in the HR department who tried to censor your off-work speech would have been tarred and feathered. Hydro One has subsequently stated that the employee in question was fired because he had violated their ‘code of conduct’. So now employers have the right to enact ‘codes of conduct’ that cover what you do or say on your own time? Swell.
Keep in mind that the man in question was not a public representative of Hydro One (like a PR flack) nor was he doing anything related to his job or career, nor did he identify whom he worked for. While he knowingly made crude comments on TV, he never identified himself. This incident had no bearing whatsoever on his job, except for the fact that his employer made his personal business their business. All of this is corroborated by the fact that the Social Justice Warriors had to actively hunt down who he was and where he worked.
In the Toronto Sun twitter feed, there were many people who said things like “fire him, yeaaah!”, and “serves ‘im right”. I am sure that there were conservatives were among them. I have this to say to conservatives (and anybody else) who think this guy should be fired for violating old-fashioned notions of chivalry: you are a dupe. The social justice warriors have you bamboozled. This is because the reasons given by the witch hunters for firing this guy have nothing to do with gentlemanly codes of conduct towards the fairer sex. They justify their actions with concepts like ‘harassment in the workplace’ and ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘war on women’ and ‘safe spaces’. In short, they are employing the same ideas that they use to suppress free speech on university campuses.
Now clearly, the guy’s actions were wrong. So what should have been done? The cops say they are looking into the incident. I can see that he might violate some petty larceny-type misdemeanor offence like disturbing the peace or public drunkenness or indecent behaviour. Great. Then charge him and convict him and give him his $500 fine or 2 weeks in the local jail. And of course, his employer shouldn’t be any required to accommodate any incarceration time he may be awarded. But terminating somebody after his fair trial is over is different from destroying his career just because the mob is screaming mad over something he said.
The justification given to the empowerment of the HR thought police is that we want to create a ‘harassment free workplace’. This goal sounds good in theory, but in practice it means employees living in constant fear for their jobs lest they make some off-colour joke or say something that somebody subjectively determines to be harassing for obscure personal reasons. This destination looks a lot more like the Soviet Union and a lot less like the Voltairean 70’s. Who wants to work in a place like that?
Any liberty loving person should find these social and legal trends repulsive and should refuse to go along with the burn-the-witch mentality that is all too prevalent these days.