My brother-in-law, David McConkey, writes a regular article for a newspaper, the Brandon Sun. He is an active nonbeliever (atheist) and I truly admire and respect him. But his latest article (below) really bothers me, since it relates to the Charlie Hebdo incident. What bothers me is that the whole world appears to be entirely on his side, which threatens our freedom of speech.
I would love to know if I am not alone.
Directly under David’s article is my reply to him.
“BAD BEHAVIOUR AND VIRAL SOCIAL MEDIA” by David McConkey
(For publication in The Brandon Sun, Monday, May 25, 2015)
What about that recent incident outside a soccer game in Toronto? It says a lot about the viral frenzy of today’s social media, social behaviour, and social shaming.
At first, I was mystified. Some young male soccer fans in Toronto were shouting obscenities. Why is this national news? But, as I was to learn, such yelling is not an isolated incident. It is a real thing: spread by the Internet and acted out in the world at large.
Who knows how Internet memes get started? Apparently, something happened in the U.S. that turned out to be a hoax. Whatever. When something goes viral, it becomes a trend, it creates its own power. So, for about a year now, men have been shouting obscenities into the microphones of women TV news reporters. That was what happened to Shauna Hunt of CityNews at the Toronto soccer game. But this time, she reacted.
“I hit my limit and I had to push back,” Hunt later said. “I wasn’t going to stand for it anymore.” Hunt confronted the heckler and his friends. The video of that confrontation went viral.
To expose this phenomenon has been good. I assume that most people – like me – had no idea this was happening. But it is widespread. A dozen CBC reporters and videographers in Winnipeg have since come out to say that they have been subjected to this abuse. Saskatchewan reporters say that they are insulted in towns and cities across the province. These journalists describe such experiences as “mortifying.”
The Brandon Sun reported in a Canadian Press story that the Toronto viral video had ignited “a social media firestorm.” One of the men in the video was identified as Shawn Simoes, an engineer with an electrical company, Hydro One.
Simoes got a lot more than his 15 minutes of fame. Simoes became one of the best known – and most reviled – people in the country. He even appeared in a newspaper political cartoon. And, though he was on his own time and not associated with his employer, he was fired from his $100,000-a-year job. Hydro One said in a statement that it terminated Simoes for violating the company’s Code of Conduct.
And the Internet continues to pile on. Mentioning Simoes and linking to the news stories are countless blog posts, Facebook uploads, and Twitter tweets. In the future, prospective employers doing an Internet search of Simoes will know about this incident. Simoes has become toxic. He may never work again.
The whole arc of this story is worth reflecting on. Viral videos are not only about cute kittens. Sometimes they can spread hate and abuse. Sometimes they can alert us to injustice.
I would like to add a cautionary note, however. I would like to see employers not just firing employees who are caught on video acting in embarrassing ways. Just as in the larger society, draconian punishments often don’t work out well.
(But we too often think that harsh punishment will smarten people up. Take the political cartoon of Simoes noted earlier. It approvingly shows his mother publicly humiliating him, calling him an “idiot,” and slapping him. Like, that’s how parents should teach respect?)
In cases like this, employers could consider “restorative justice.” That approach seeks to restore the situation to what it was before the wrongful behaviour. Restorative justice can be a better way to provide restitution, to comfort victims, and to reform offenders.
A young man acted rashly and rudely. But his employer missed the opportunity to demonstrate how to act calmly and politely. Because now that young man has lost his job as well. If he can never work again, he won’t be the only one to suffer. We all will, with the expense of lost productivity, welfare, or even jail.
How better to deal with such a situation? Perhaps a short work suspension, an apology, a requirement to attend or even help create a harassment prevention workshop? Out of one stupid mistake, there could be a chance to build long-term empathy and maturity.
The Internet invites us to learn about all sorts of things. The Internet also invites us to imitate behaviour – good and bad. And the Internet invites us to jump to easy conclusions, to seek instant gratification, and to shame others.
Whether on the Internet – or in the real world – let’s try to remember to resist our worst impulses.
Another interesting and timely piece.
You raise an interesting question: How much of one’s behaviour outside of work is the business of the boss? Are one’s hobbies, say, to be scrutinized too? Or how one dresses on the weekends? Hmm. I smell a rat emerging. Do employers own their employees, like slaves?
I appreciate that, sometimes, the outrageous behaviour of an employee has the potential to reflect poorly on a company’s reputation or image. But on the other side of the equation is freedom of expression. Speaking one’s mind—offensive as it may be—is a basic right we all cherish and will fight to protect. Have we forgotten “Je Suis Charlie”?
Our Prime Minister, Mr. Harper, seems to disregard this basic right. He exclaims that Muslim women should not wear a burka in Canada because it reflects poorly on our values, making us appear to be anti-women. But forcing women to NOT wear their choice of dress is clearly an outright infringement of their freedom.
You suggest that rather than fire the outspoken employee, the employer could take positive action, like requiring the offender to enrol in some program or engage in public service. But doesn’t this beg the question as to whom, if anyone, has the authority to condemn and assign punishment or “treatment” to the offender? That is the big question.
Prime Minister Harper’s intolerance is bad enough. But when we condone vigilante justice to be executed by fellow citizens (employers) who have no judicial authority, we are not only consenting to an attack upon an important basic right, we are contributing to it.