This is one of those deep, working essays that many of you won’t want to read that deal with understanding the underlying structure, changes, and direction of society. It is a response to a question by commentator Frat Man left on this thread.
Hey Joshua, I had a question for you. As every sports fan (and perhaps even non-sports fan) learned today, Jason Collins disclosed the fact that he is gay. It’s gotten a lot of news because he’s the first professional athlete in one of the “Big Four” sports to do it while being an active player.
Almost anyone who has been critical of Collins has been roundly criticized in social media outlets, be they newspapers, blogs, or Twitter. For example, Chris Broussard (a journalist) went on ESPN and started citing his interpretation of biblical principles and he called Collins a sinner and some other things. This hasn’t exactly made Broussard beloved, and almost every reaction to Broussard’s comments have been negative. Many are calling for his resignation or for ESPN to fire him.
Yes, I understand that free speech is only guaranteed from a government standpoint, and employers don’t share in the application of 1st Amendment Rights.
I remember you quoted Voltaire before for saying “Find out who you cannot criticize, and you will find out who rules over you.”
In the 1950s, you could not criticize the US government or else you’d be seen as a communist sympathizer. Nowadays, it seems that if you speak out against affirmative action, gay marriage, or (say) birth control, and you do it in an ineloquent way, you are quickly branded racist, homophobic, anti-woman, etc. In other words, there’s a very short leash with certain issues I think.
I’m curious: Do you consider it a good thing that we have this “quick to fire” mentality towards people that state the (usually conservative) position on these issues? If you get your facts wrong and sound stupid while making your argument in favor of gay marriage, there is a “no harm, no foul” attitude. If you get your facts wrong and sound stupid while arguing against gay marriage, it can easily be career ending.
On the other hand, if someone argues in favor of bringing back the “n word” on live television, we’d probably all agree that we have reached the point where we don’t tolerate certain arguments anymore. If the CEO of Procter & Gamble argued in favor of bringing back slavery, no one would express remorse if the Board fired him. I guess part of my question depends on whether being against gay marriage (or voicing the opinion that homosexuality is a sin, or whatever it may be) is something that passed the point where “reasonable minds can disagree” and has reached the “you are a bigot that should be kicked out of polite society” point.
Personally, I’m sad that we have this “fire ’em” attitude every time someone says something that we find abhorrent. I would much prefer to live in a society where anyone can let their ideas fly and it is up to the audience to draw their own conclusions from the facts presented. In Broussard’s case, everyone is making fun of him online. He’s being mocked and derided and being called an anti-gay bigot. By people exercising their own speech expressions, they are able to point out how ridiculous and wrong Broussard is. He’s experiencing very real damage to his reputation even if his career remains intact. Should that be enough? I’m curious what approach you’d recommend in response to these episodes where commentators say things that may be racist, homophobic,
This may seem an odd thing to assert, but my answer is going to be unexpected. I would argue that your question isn’t really about gender, race, political correctness, or sexual orientation.
Rather, this is a story about technology and how it has changed both how we interact, and how we accept claims made by others now that the availability of widespread information is free and accessible to everyone.
For many of you, this essay is going to be boring. We’re going to have to touch on multiple disciplines and areas. Yet, these are the things I enjoy staying up and thinking about in the evening because these are the things that change the direction of the world; that let you understand how the parts work together, how it all interrelates and influences the movement of the other pieces.
A Move To Personal, Rational Knowledge Driven By the Way We Interact
In 1942, my grandmother was born. That same year, so was another woman named Dorothy Counts. When she was 15 years old, she was one of the first black students to attend the Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. For four days, Dorothy endured unimaginable torment and harassment. In this photograph by Don Sturkey from September 4, 1957 (colorization retouching done by Sanna Dullaway), you see her sitting alone, as an entire auditorium of white students sneer at her.
Every one of the boys and girls in that audience were behaving in a way they had been taught was not only expected, but desirable. They had been taught that Dorothy was not fully equal to them; that somehow, God had made her inferior. They were taught this by their parents, by their teachers, by their pastors, and by their friends.
Though firmly believed and strongly supported by the community, that conviction had no rational basis. Society recognizes that today.
I would argue that a significant portion of the rapid social change the world has enjoyed is the result of access to information facilitated by a rise in technology. From the television sets tuned in to watch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give his famous “I have a dream speech” to Tumblr blogs that forge connections between young people halfway across the globe, we no longer live in isolated villages. You can be in bed at night reading about the effect of black holes on the perception of time or watch a video where someone talks directly to the camera about his experience suffering at the hands of bigotry. You can feel connected to people you’ve never met in person, and form communities of like-minded people on niche topics as diverse as vintage truck collecting to civil war reenactments.
Working together, those forces have changed behavior. You’ve seen a massive societal shift away from “revealed knowledge” – beliefs held because they were handed down from an authority figure, a religious sect, an institution, or a government – and toward “rational knowledge” – beliefs held because analysis of the data indicates what is most likely to be true based on demonstrable facts. Move forward a couple of decades and suddenly it doesn’t matter that your parents tell you Dorothy shouldn’t be allowed to sit next to you, or that your local activities leader says interracial marriage is a sin. Your own experience, and interaction with the world, tells you that these objections are false; there is no substance there. The “other” is less scary; less abstract. The other becomes real people, and you know them, even if only digitally.
As This Shift Has Happened, People as a Whole Have Grown Less Tolerant of Non-Rational Worldviews
As people began to rely on data, evidence, and facts for themselves, seeing and making connections with people they otherwise never would have met in real life, they have come to increasingly rely on a “harm test” when determining morality. Even I, myself, after being asked to define morality in clear, concise terms can see no other rational definition. As a result, when someone espouses an opinion, people seem far more likely these days do a gut check on the level of harm rather than defer to the institutions of power and authority, like their great grandparents’ generation did.
It took all of this to point out that what is really happening is not that society is disapproving of conservative points of view. Instead, society these days mostly objects to any view that cannot be rationally defended based solely on facts, whether it falls along the left or right side of the political spectrum. We’ll discuss some examples of both in a few moments.
What naturally happens is that when you identify with the people and groups who have been oppressed for no rational reason, you grow less and less tolerant of the inability of those who support on-going prejudice to come up with any reasonable explanation for their behavior. When this happens to a large enough percentage of the population, it becomes, as you say, not something that can be tolerated among polite society. Espousing the viewpoint is social, political, and career suicide. This is not mere “political correctness”. It is when an opinion is considered so irrational or harmful that it is deeply offensive to people on an emotional level.
An Illustration of This Shift Through the Lens of Abortion and Birth Control
Consider the stunning drop in abortion rates over the past few decades, which we have discussed several times in the past. No one talks about it, but it coincides perfectly with the rise of the sonogram, as well as the widespread availability of birth control. As sonograms become more advanced, abortion rates seem to drop further. Wary of the truism that correlation is not causation, looking through to the underlying trends it seems clear that it is not simply a coincidence. It’s an odd thought but I when I was born in the early 1980’s, my parents didn’t know what gender I was going to be until I was delivered in the hospital – and that was normal at the time. People forget how different things are now that you can plan your child’s baby shower with appropriate clothes and gifts.
Though there are certainly other variables at play, such as economic conditions, the GE and Siemens health care divisions have done more for the pro-life movement than every political lobbyist, every Church, every protest sign, and every op-ed piece. The technology that allows a parent to see a living, breathing, nascent human life inside of you fundamentally alters behavior for a large percentage of the population. It is a fact, so much so that there have been political fights in various states over whether or not the woman should be required to have an ultrasound before making an informed decision about termination. The opposition to this practice, which would not make abortions any less available, was vicious because it would “cause women to question their decision”. Implicitly, this connection has already been made.
This same technological advancement in prenatal imaging has also led to some unexpected consequences. Medical testing has become sophisticated enough that couples now know if they are going to have a child born with a birth defect or cognitive deficiency. The most visible example is Down Syndrome. Since the introduction of the in-womb testing less than a couple of decades ago, even highly religious couples abort children with Down Syndrome at a staggering rate exceeding 90 out of 100 pregnancies even if they are pro-life. It is so widespread, and cuts across so many demographics, that there is some discussion about the fact that the United States has effectively been engaged in a form of rapid genetic selection by terminating this derivation in the human genome to the point that it may someday be eradicated. Individual people, acting on a micro-scale, are quite literally changing the direction of human evolution.
This, along with the advancement of the point of viability, have caused even those with no religious affiliation, such as the late thinker and secular humanist Christopher Hitchens, to point out that the question of termination at the point of viability when the child no longer requires the womb of the mother, a point which he accurately describes as getting pushed further and further back toward conception as our medical intervention becomes more advanced, is a moral one that must be decided in a way that counts the (now) fully human occupant of the womb as having human rights.
On a related note, looking at second and third order effects, birth control and condoms reduce abortions, result in less poverty as fewer teenagers give birth before being able to afford to raise a child, reduce crime rates as the socioeconomic status of parents is the greatest indicator of the propensity of the next generation to engage in violent assault, rape, and murder, lower the transmission rate of sexually transmitted diseases which, in turn, lowers medical costs for taxpayers and decreasing the personal suffering of the infected, lowers cancer rates thanks to halting the spread of HPV which can cause cervical mutations, and helps prevent a single mistake from tying two people who are disastrous for each other together for the remainder of their lives, having a child brought up in that environment. There is no rational opposition – absolutely none – to widespread availability and use of contraceptives and birth control considering the alternatives and costs, both explicit and implicit, of a restrictive policy.
Thus you reach an interesting position where, though abortion is less popular than it has ever been since being legalized in the United States, opposition to condoms or birth control is deeply believed, by a large percentage of the population, to be a harmful, superstitious, irrational, fundamentally flawed and extremist position that is based on phony morality and designed to control reproduction by usurping authority from the individual and granting it to the legislature and religious institutions against the will of those who are affected. It leads directly to people dying and suffering. It is not a neutral position. The differentiation between the two is not an inconsistent opinion. They are not comparable, morally, ethically, or biologically.
I would argue that the greater support for pro-life positions is not a conservative win, nor is the greater opposition to birth control a conservative attack. Rather, both reflect a move by a large portion of the population to scientific, harm based morality; a standard that is vastly superior in its real world outcomes than anything followed solely because someone believes it is the will of God, or a supreme leader, or whomever they look to for guidance.
How This Applies to Your Question About Chris Broussard
On to your question about sports caster Chris Broussard. The civilized world over the past 25 years has seen the same thing happen with gay rights. A very stable portion of almost all given populations have historically expressed romantic and sexual compatibility exclusively with the same gender. A rational view of the condition would say that we should do what promotes stability, health, and wealth accumulation in society by actively encouraging those who are gay to enter long-term, monogamous marriages, use prophylactics to prevent sexually transmitted diseases if sexually active before marriage, and establishing households that contribute to the community by being ingrained in local cultural and civic activities so the broader civilization benefits from the additional human capital.
When someone like Chris Broussard says he believes homosexuality is “wrong”, which in religious speak (at least in my part of the Bible belt) often equates to homosexual acts not orientation, those who know gay people, who are friends with gay people, or who have a gay person in their family, immediately recognize that what has been left is a Morton’s Fork: Either the person who is gay is required to remain celibate and alone for life, never experiencing the joy of romantic attraction, physical companionship, sexual excitement, and contentment in growing old with someone with whom they are enamored, or they have to enter into a relationship with a person of the opposite gender and be satisfied with merely remaining friends, albeit one would hope friends who deeply love one another.
Not only is the latter option unfair to the straight spouse, it is also deeply depressing. While that may be a form of love, it is not the same, deep, abiding love that causes people to write plays, go to war, carve statues, compose sonnets, or die trying to save their soul mate. As anyone who has experienced that kind of true, lasting, permanent love can attest, those who haven’t had it in their lives have no idea what they are missing. Despite all of their protestations, it would be like a color blind person insisting he or she didn’t need to see color and really wasn’t lacking any enjoyment from a sunset or a painting. Unless you’ve been there, and lived through it, you cannot know. It changes your life. It can make you a better person. It can give you confidence to go for things that you otherwise might not have pursued. I would go so far as to argue that it is one of the few things that defines humanity and elevates it to something greater than the sum of its constituents.
(A small minority of people will argue that people can “change” their sexual orientation despite all evidence to the contrary. While bisexuals do exist, who could easily and happily switch between the genders, most people do not have that ability. I doubt you chose to be straight. I doubt you control when you are attracted to a woman, to the point that the attraction can even overwhelm your logical brain. I doubt that you can make your heart not pound, your palms not sweat, and your mind not race. I doubt that you could make yourself fall in love with a man. It’s an absurd belief based on nothing contradicting virtually all shared experience by both straight and gay people. You simply do not, and cannot, control the gender to whom you are romantically and physically attracted, nor is there any rational reason to restrict it to the opposite gender only as there are no negative consequences. (There are negative consequences to behaviors such as promiscuity, which is an entirely different issue.) Love isn’t logical. Sex isn’t rational. Emotions aren’t convenient. Why would any intelligent human being want to spend his or her life sacrificing what is inarguably the quintessential human connection?)
That is why people react so negatively to Chris Broussard, just as they do birth control. It doesn’t matter that he believes what he is saying. It doesn’t matter that he thinks that is what God wants. His belief contradicts all rational evidence, all common sense, as well as the harm test especially for those born between 1980 and present who grew up in this technologically connected world (to go back to my original thesis that it is the relationships people are forming that is changing the way society behaves). When people like Broussard advocate for things such as “traditional marriage”, it is not anti-conservatism or politically correct speech that gets a large portion of the civilization offended. Rather, it is a deep, instant, emotional reaction because he is not talking about an abstraction. He’s talking about their children; their friends; their brother; their sister; their coworkers; their teachers; their attorney; their neighbor.
On This Particular Topic, The Tipping Point Has Been Reached
You asked if I thought we had reached the point where this is no longer an acceptable topic of debate. After reflecting on it for a few days, I’ll share my experiences. Please note that society is made up of many sub-demographic groups. I exist in a bubble of wealthy, highly educated, self-driven people with divorce virtually unheard of, long-term marriages being expected, trust funds for your kids a given, and debate about sociopolitical trends a good time at the dinner table. This is not going to be true for everyone. I’m just sharing how it is from my vantage at this particular moment in time.
In my social and professional circles, we have unquestionably reached the point at which any opposition to equality for gays is no longer something that can be tolerated in polite company. It is now almost at the same level of support for women and racial minorities. Though looking at the data from institutions such as Pew and Gallup, a few exceptions continue to exist in a handful of enclaves in the Southern States, especially among the lower classes, the elderly, and the under-educated, this support for gay rights is almost universally true if you were born in 1980 or after and / or if you have a college degree.
Examining the data from those demographic trends, especially among my particular sub-demographic (who tend to be the people who end up running everything – well educated, wealthy), it is now treated as an almost universal fact that if you think there is any moral difference between straight and gay couples in any area of life – marriage, hospital visitation, adoption, inheritance, tax filings – you are a bigot. There is no wiggle room or nuance. You’re going to be treated as such.
It may seem unfair, it may seem unreasonable, but it’s a fact. And the people who feel that way are not doing it because of politics; it is personal. It is emotional.
To illustrate how deeply this is felt: I watched one acquaintance in New Jersey cut off ties with a former long-time friend over the Chick-fil-a debacle because her friend continued to eat at the restaurant. The friend was upset saying, “We can agree to disagree.” The woman I know – a married, straight, Christian, college educated mother living in New Jersey – finally told her, “You don’t get it. This isn’t an abstract topic. Your beliefs have a very real, negative effect on people I know and care for and you gain nothing from it. You are ruining their lives simply because you are a bigot. You may not think you are, but you are. I can’t have you in my life. I can’t have you around my children. I don’t want them hearing that any more than I would allow you around if you said it was wrong for them to marry someone of a different race.”
If you think that she was in any way motivated by wanting to harm conservatives, harm her church, or act in a politically correct way so as not to offend anyone, you’re going to have a bad time understanding social trends. It’s much more basic than that.
This sentiment is now a given in most sectors of the economy. Recently, there was a conference by major employers on Wall Street where the heads of the investment banks said they had no choice but to support fully equality in all areas for gays and lesbians because if they didn’t, the young people coming out of college would refuse to work for their firm. It’s like the 1950’s and 1960’s when friends and colleagues of Jewish people refused to join a club that their Jewish friends couldn’t. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said on the topic, “To be successful, we must attract, retain and promote from the broadest pool of talent available. We have no factories or plant equipment, all we have is human capital. My job is to create an environment where everybody can thrive. If you ignore this as a chief executive, you are insane.”
A few days ago, a realtor was fired because he published a flyer that contained a praise of the “traditional family”, which was so offensive to so many people that he threatened the profitability of the brokerage for whom he worked. He said he “didn’t want to offend anybody … I didn’t have bad intentions.” He truly didn’t understand that the things he wrote are, to a large percentage of the population, a deal breaker. It’s not different than my own experience … I once cut ties with a trust agent at a major national bank because when the door was closed and we were discussing some of the portfolios under his purview, he referred to someone from the middle east as – I kid you not – a “sand n****r”, as it were the most natural thing in the world.
The upper end of the culture and economic spectrum has shifted so heavily, in fact, in the recent Supreme Court cases about marriage, more than 300 of America’s largest corporations filed with the court asking them to strike down the marriage bans because it was costing them money, making it difficult for them to move the most talented employees to the divisions that needed them based on the state-by-state laws, and messing with the taxation effects of their health, bonus, and other benefits.
It’s just the reality. If you were to walk into a trustee meeting of a successful museum or university outside of anywhere but the deep south, and say, “You know, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, we’ll just agree to disagree”, it would be like saying, “You know, I like blacks and all but I just think they should keep their kids out of our schools and stick to their own kind.” It is professional, social, and cultural suicide, even more so if the person thought it was merely a minor disagreement, which would make it even worse. Vendors aren’t going to want to deal with them. Customers are going to avoid them. It’s a distraction that has no good outcomes.
(Edit: Seconds after I published this, the news broke that Delaware just became the 11th state to pass marriage equality, following Rhode Island a few days ago. Minnesota is expected to pass it in 48 hours on Thursday. Yes. I’d say the tipping point is over and done. Nate Silver was right. He predicted several years ago, and has updated his model since, that between 2012 and 2016, the dominoes would begin to collapse in everywhere but the south as the older generations died and younger voters came of age.)
How This Affects Business and Firings (the Answer to Your Question)
It took more than 3,500 words thus far for me to arrive to heart of the question so you would understand why I am going to answer the way I am going to answer.
When you realize just how strongly defenders of race, gender, and sexual orientation feel about the topic, it becomes very clear that opposition is, in the long-run unless you exist in an isolated enclave of the rare sub-demographics (e.g., 72 years old, living in Alabama, high school only education, below the poverty line, evangelical), a losing proposition that can cost you a lot of money.
As such, it is almost always the best business move to:
- Fire the person,
- Get the controversy behind you, and
- Move on with the firm’s primary operations.
It may not seem fair, but it’s just good business. That doesn’t mean you should do it, but it is good business. We at least need to be honest about that.
Do I think the quick-to-fire culture is good? Not particularly. It can lead to some unjust situations sometimes, especially when a mistake is an honest one. It can turn teachable moments, and opportunities for reconciliation, into open hostilities that fester and last for years.
Do I think it is understandable? Yes. If you are a running a hotel and your general manager says he doesn’t want his son to marry an African American girl or your restaurant chef says he doesn’t want to serve Christians, you’re going to alienate a significant part of your customer base in a way that goes straight to their heart. Their response is going to be visceral. From a dollars and cents perspective, you’re better off firing the manager. If you don’t, you’ve opened yourself up to claims of discrimination later, which adds an element of contingent liability.
This sort of things affects the bottom line, even in places you wouldn’t expect. The other day, there was a young boy scout going through my neighborhood raising money. When his mother kept hearing that raising cash was going to be hard because no one wanted to support an organization that banned gay members, she was shocked. It was as if she actually didn’t realize walking through an upscale neighborhood full of professionals was going to result in her being told this every time she knocked on a door. I live in the Kansas City area – this is not New York or San Francisco – yet she seemed genuinely, honestly baffled as if this were some sort of surprise that she kept running into this same objection and hesitancy to help her son.
So … yes. It is no longer an area where reasonable people can disagree. The tipping point has been passed. You may not realize it if you live in an echo chamber, but for the nation as a whole, the culture of every major institution is already there. With only two or three notable exceptions, if you think you could get hired as an executive by a Fortune 500 company and this would be an area where “reasonable people can hold different opinions”, you’re going to be shocked at the ramifications for your career and social life. It’s not because there is some secret plot to infringe on your rights – your beliefs truly are that offensive to people. They truly do hurt people, and make them angry, because you are advocating for something that harms others.
And if you’re running a business, the temptation to dump and rehire can be a strong one. This has only been made worse by another change ushered in by technology: Your words can now live on in infamy for years. When they are uttered, people react immediately, so you get the brunt of the emotional anger (a few generations ago, by the time you got around to seeing someone again, the anger would have subsided.)
To reiterate, though, it may not seem like it, but this is really a story about technology. None of this would be happening if we still were engaged solely with the technology that was present in the 1970’s.
TL;DR: No it’s not always good that it always happens. Sometimes it is. Yes, it is understandable that it does almost every time. Yes, it is the most rational course of action if you are running a business. Yes, the tipping point on the particular topic has been reached. In conclusion, it’s all been accelerated by technology. My guess is the underlying facilitator (technology) will result in greater support for human rights of those in the womb once viability has been reached, and greater support for total equality for minorities of all types.