November 9, 2018

Getting Fired for What You Wear

ball and chain
A man in Mississippi who worked as an EMT was fired by his employer after a photograph of him voting while wearing a t-shirt described as "wildly racist" went viral on social media (link to story and photo of the t-shirt here). Pretty bad, wasn't it? I wish I could say that the image on that shirt is uncommon around here, but I can't. It is hard to imagine an African American seeing this image and then receiving treatment from the person wearing the shirt could have much confidence in the quality of care being delivered. That's a problem.

From the viewpoint of the employer, getting rid of this guy seems like an obvious decision. Once the photo went viral, it is hard to imagine how it wouldn't adversely impact his ability to do his job, the reputation of his employer, and so on. Of course, he didn't wear the shirt to work, and it is not his fault that the photo went viral. The responsibility for that lies with the person who photographed and shared his image, presumably without his knowledge or consent, and the outraged mob who spread it.

I do not own any t-shirts that any reasonable person might consider racist; however, I own a number of t-shirts that many people would find offensive. Most are either secular t-shirts (e.g., some I have picked up from American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or various pro-science groups) or concert t-shirts from various metal bands. What would happen if I were photographed without my knowledge or consent wearing one of these shirts and it was spread on social media? My employer could easily argue that wearing a shirt with a pro-atheist or especially an anti-religious message might have the same sort of impact as what this man's employer argued in this case.

For an older clutching-my-pearls-in-horror sort of white Christian raised in Mississippi, some of my Slayer t-shirts would probably be far more offensive than what this guy was wearing. The same could probably be said of some of my pro-science or pro-evolution shirts, but I suspect that the Satanic imagery on some of the metal shirts would probably get more attention. And that's the thing, in a place like Mississippi, there are many things one could wear that would likely be viewed as offensive by many people.

I'd never wear any of these shirts to work, of course. I do sometimes wear them out in public when I am not at work though. It seems like that sort of thing ought to fall under my right to free expression. And I do not mean this in the limited sense that I should be able to wear such a shirt without being arrested. I mean that I ought to be able to wear a shirt of a band I like on my own time without worrying about getting fired for it. Right? This may have once been true, but I'm not sure it is true today. Our outrage culture might not allow such a luxury, and I think that is a real shame. I guess it is a good thing I never got any of the tattoos I wanted.