Friday, May 25, 2012

Obscene T-shirts and free speech

The culture war over taste and public expression has flared up regarding
a T-shirt that got a wearer kicked off of an American Airlines flight.

Stories like this can seem trivial when there's a lot of real death and destruction to worry about.

But over and over, we're seeing, not considered thoughtfully-formulated policy as to what a business or institution will allow on its property, but a real sense of entitlement by The Offended to make policy on the spot.

To demand that their taste be enforced on customers :

 - without advance notice to those customers;

 - without oversight by any policymaking body for the firm;

 - without planning or consensus;

 - and without consistency in implementation or enforcement.

There is a very very gray area in which the question of what people should do, and what they have the right to do, gets tangled and difficult to sort out.   If you click the link above, you'll see that the offensive word has been partially blocked out in the news story.

Superficially, this can seem laughably stupid.  I mean, is the exact word in any doubt whatsoever?  What difference does it make to put that little black box over the middle letters?

Which leads to the question of....why use the word?  The word "screw" or the euphemism "sleep with" would convey the political message perfectly well.  Heck, context means that the word could be blacked out on the shirt itself and the wearer's opinion, and exact word used, would still be abundantly clear.

The black box does make a difference, and here's why: it doesn't seek to prevent us from reading the word or knowing what it said, but has a different purpose; to affirm the reader/listener's disapproval. Those who find the term offensive can feel that their standards of civility are considered reasonable and are still society's Default Setting.

Whether it was tasteful or necessary isn't the issue.  They were wrong to throw her off the flight.

Let's take the most stringent view of rights, just for the sake of argument, and let's say that AA had every right to make clothing rules.

What they do NOT have the right to do is:  to let a crew member make up a policy and enforce it at the gate without notice to this or to any passenger.  The airline's policy on this matter, included in this article, is not a specific interdiction of known words and phrases, but a blanket assertion of the right to NOT spell out what is and isn't acceptable.  And to make any expression of another passenger's distaste override the offending passenger's rights. 

The shirt made a political statement, and it made that statement with an anger that is neither small nor trivial.  According to the airline, the F-word -- not the political viewpoint -- was the issue.

Maybe it really was apolitical.  But loathing for the political point of view could be shrouded in the claim of obscenity.  It's happened before.

Airline crew encounter all kinds of absolutely nasty and grotesque passenger behavior that leaves this in the dust.  Now, me, I'd be fine with any passenger who showed no sign of doing other than turning off her electronic devices for take-off, fastening her seatbelt, and quietly sitting with her drink, her snack mix and her e-reader.  Nobody on the first leg of her trip seemed to consider disciplining her for the word to be their personal crusade.

The shirt may be obnoxious in some eyes, but it was emphatically not a use of the word for a trivial reason.  The escalation in women's anger comes in response to an escalating ultra-right push on every aspect of a woman's life, way beyond terminating pregnancies.  It is very well stated here.

My "own"  (please, let me out)  state of SC recently tried to forbid state employees to have, in their health coverage, a provision for abortion, even in clear and established cases of rape.

 It failed by one vote.  Not that I'm not relieved, and not that I didn't know how extreme are many peoples' stands on abortion, but the thought of how close it was - how many lawmakers support forcing a woman who has been raped to bear a child from it leaves me gobsmacked.  There are positions of integrity on both sides of the abortion issue, but this mentality can't be considered anything but an assault against women.

The strange opposition to contraception in health plans .....  to money for life-saving gynecological care at Planned Parenthood, which uses NONE of it for abortion .... the idea that if the anti-abortion movement cannot win the hearts and minds of the people of this democracy, they have the absolute right to make the process lengthy and expensive to a punitive and contorted degree...

 ..... and especially that they have the right to insult and shame women using that process, but then have the "right" not to see a bad word on a T-shirt....

Please understand the twisted thinking of this.  Go ahead.  Hate abortion.  Hate irresponsible behavior.

But also hate the mentality that calls for opposing views to be suppressed.  This is one of those cases.  The shirt did not say "[....] Personal Name"  or even   "[....] Big Corporation Everybody Hates"  much less "[....]ing is Fun".  It expressed political rage.  The shirt did not speak for the airline, the crew, or anyone but the wearer, and could never be construed as being the statement of anyone else.

Obviously, I think the rage is justified and that no toned-down term would convey the feeling of violation that many women in this society are experiencing right now.  So yeah, to tone it down would indeed be suppression of the person's free expression.  Telling her she can say it, but must do it nicer, is telling her she can't really say it at all.  There's nothing Nice about the fact that a frightening number of people would grant liberty, authority over one's own body, and self-determination to men and fetuses, but not to women.

If American Airlines or any other business that serves the public wants to make regulations that have absolutely ZERO to do with passenger safety, terrorism, etc., then they need to spell them out at corporate level so that any passenger can choose to comply, or choose to protest, or choose to fly on another line.

The airline might get more business for doing it, or they might lose business.  To avoid spelling out what is disallowed in an above-board, full-disclosure way is cowardly, unethical, and possibly illegal.

If I were an airline official, and that crew member had come to me with some personal demand that a customer's shirt message not offend him or her, I would tell said crew member that we appreciate good employees, and it's up to you, but if you expect your personal taste to determine who may fly, you might want to work somewhere else.  Unemployment is rampant out there and I would be very happy to pass your job on to someone who does not demand that this company serve only customers of whom s/he feels entitled to issue on-the-spot approvals -- or disapprovals.

And I guess you'll all have to take my word for it, that I would apply this to all points of view.  If you want this kind of policy, then do the procedure for policymaking.  Convince the company to put some thought into a policy for passenger attire and behavior that ticket-buyers will be clearly informed of in advance, and that will be applied consistently, and then enforcing it is my job.

Their claim that it's "virtually impossible to write down or precisely delineate every situation that may, or may not, create an issue" is bull.   The list of common obscenities, profanities, and depictions of crass nudity would be quite easy to put together. They have a right to ban specifics, but this vague "policy" to ban just any old thing that someone does not like goes way too far.

Try this:  The exact same shirt, with a black box masking the F-word could still offend some other passenger, who would find it a strident and obviously obscene pro-choice statement.  The American Airlines policy would allow them to kick off the wearer, even under those circumstances.

If any of my readers want a similar T-shirt, they can buy one at this site.  But be forewarned.  The F-word is not blacked out here.  Oh, and for a little moment of rude comic relief -- if you're thinking of choosing the white shirt, you might want to preview it before ordering.


southernyankee said...

Made me think of the Westboro Baptist Church for some odd and strange reasons.

Dann said...

Hi nickle,

Sorry. I gotta disagree on a few points.

1) The woman was not denied access to a flight. She was afforded an opportunity to change clothes and opted to have a "discussion" instead of simply thanking the captain of her first flight, changing into something appropriate, and getting on her connecting flight. She could have flipped the shirt inside out and continued on her way.

The lede at the website "American Airlines Keeps Pro-Choice Activist Off Plane Over T-Shirt" is inaccurate.

2) There is no such right to say whatever, whenever, where ever one wants. There never has been. There never will be.

Does the Klan have a right to parade their noxious signs down the middle of an NAACP convention? How about at a needle working convention?

Being on an airplane is a very unique circumstance. Legally, the captain of an airplane has special responsibilities - by law - and as a result has unique authority - by law. One of the captain's responsibilities is for the safety of everyone on board. Could that shirt have created a situation of non-cooperation in an emergency? Perhaps. Could it have created the emergency by creating conflict? Potentially, yes.

An additional factor that goes into this issue is the capacity to walk away. If someone is confronted with that shirt on an open street, then there is almost always an option to walk in another direction to avoid viewing the shirt. On an airplane...not so much.

Your entry seems to suggest that it was a random crew member that made the decision to ask the woman to change clothes. It was not. It was the airplane captain. He gets paid the big bucks precisely because he has the authority and discretion to make this sort of decision.

3) I think the AA policy is reasonable. It gives them the flexibility to assess each situation rather than providing a binding set of rules the boundaries of which will inevitably be pushed by passengers...and inevitably lawyers.

One of the things I do for fun is play a computer game. Several actually, but one in particular is a combat game with a "race" mode. There is a group of us that own our own servers. We "admin" those servers in a way that promotes racing and is "family friendly".

We have 14 webpages to explain the rules. For a silly, idiotic, means-nothing-at-the-end-of-the-day, 10+ year old video game.

And we have "guests" that push the envelope on those rules each and every day. On purpose.

While we do have the time to explain our rules, an airplane captain (and even the crew) do not. Not listening to them can kill people. Consulting the rule book and then having to explain the rules can kill people.

4) Someone was going to lose.

Either that woman was going to force her morals on her fellow passengers by wearing an admittedly, pointedly offensive shirt, or her fellow passengers were going to force their morals on her by asking that profanity not be on display. In a restrictive environment (i.e. no possibility to retreat from the offense) where children could have been reasonably present, I think the passengers win. Out on the street, I think she wins.


Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Hi Dann. I agree that being on a plane presents the potential for situations that aren't so present in daily life. The possibility of non-cooperation in an emergency is a pretty good point.

But i am completely baffled by the contention that the airline needs that much flexibility in that many different complex "unforeseeable" circumstances. There's nothing unforeseeable about them.

There are 4-letter words. There is crass depicted nudity. The policy indicates that the captain has the right to forbid anyone to fly, even if they wear a shirt bearing a black rectangle over the word. Then another passenger could go purple-faced and say "It's obvious what it says" or "I have a right to not have any pro-choice message 'forced' on me."

He/she has NO such right.

The basis : that the speech of the speaker is the cause of contention.... that the cause is NOT the seer or hearer who failed 8th grade civics and sincerely feels entitled to not see or hear what s/he disagrees with, is pretty pervasive but horrifyingly unconstitutional and wrong. No one has that right. A ban on the 4-letter words and on depictions of nudity, WITH a disclaimer that art like Boticelli's Venus is exempt, could disable most lawsuits and in fact would probably cause fewer of them than does this claim that the airline can make up policy without advance warning. Their so-called policy could easily be interpreted by the ticket-buyer as referring to use of F*** in violent or abusive ways, not a political way.

I hope it's clear that I am not defending the passenger's right to wear the word in these circumstances. I am opposing an unclear policy that allows anyone's offended feeling over anything to be coddled, and places no responsibility for trouble or potential non-cooperation on the offendee.

Dann said...

Hi Ruth,

I think that last point is a pretty good one. I agree that our society suffers from an excess of outrage and the misplaced thought that people have the right to not ever encounter contrarian (much less offensive) ideas.

However, this instance does not seem to be a capricious enforcement of indistinct rules.

Sadly, we apparently no longer have the ability to "play nice" without some sort of over-lawyered rule book. That sort of community sentiment has died....sometimes for good reasons...not always for good effect.


ronnie said...

Just want to applaud the original post. Excellent, well-written, well-expressed.

ronnie said...

Just want to applaud the original post. Excellent, well-written, well-expressed.