I disagree with most of Curt Schilling’s political opinions, but I believe in his right to share them and keep his job with ESPN.
Now let me explain why.
For those who haven’t followed this story, Curt Schilling posted this meme on Facebook and then added his own comment above it. “A man is a man no matter what they call themselves. I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.”
The post rapidly went viral with the usual suspects rending their garments, clutching their pearls and demanding that Schilling be fired for sharing his opinion on transgender bathroom issues.
Last night ESPN fired Schilling for his post, releasing this statement: “ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated.”
When you break it all down, this entire story is patently absurd. We’re talking about a national uproar over the opinion of a former baseball player about transgender people using public bathrooms. I mean, really? This, however, is the natural outgrowth of our modern society, a place where certain opinions are acceptable in mass media and others are not.
Indeed, this is a story that plays itself out again and again, on perpetual loop, for both public and private figures. Someone posts something on social media, a group that disagrees with that posting publicizes it to make their followers angry and demand retribution, and inevitably the conversation advances to the point where the company who employs that individual has to make a decision — do we fire this employee and end the story or keep them employed and risk losing business because we employ them?
Almost always a corporation fires the employee and the story goes away.
That’s the standard operating behavior in stories like these. My contention is this policy is lazy and actually harmful to our public discourse, but I’m going to discuss that in a bit. In the meantime it’s important to keep in mind that with the rise of social media our public and private lives have become inextricably intertwined. It used to be that most of us had well defined public and private lives. If, for instance, Curt Schilling had strong conservative political views in 1985, it would have been hard for most people to know that. Absent running for political office, writing a book, or paying millions to distribute fliers, it was hard for regular people to share their political beliefs to millions with ease. That’s no longer the case. Whether you’re a famous public figure or a mom posting on Facebook, the line between public and private has become nonexistent. And we’re still grappling with what that means.
Think about it this way, it used to be that comparatively few people knew your political leanings or your position on hot button social issues, now people feel compelled to share those opinions online with everyone. Often, ridiculously, in “humorous” memes. I’ve never shared a political Internet meme on social media because in my experience it’s the surest way to establish that you have an IQ below 100, but it’s fair to say that such sharing is common in our society today. Curt Schilling has millions of company on both the left and right wings of our political spectrum when it comes to sharing political memes online.
But Schilling also represents something more, he’s an example of larger issues that exist in our society today. There are six big issues that I believe deserve to be discussed in light of this story.
So read along and think with me.
1. Why is the government involved in legislating transgender bathroom laws?
This is the first question that I come to which goes to the root of this issue — is there some great need to ensure that people have penises in public men’s bathrooms and that they have vaginas in public women’s bathrooms? Have I missed the huge controversy — which somehow has not previously emerged in hundreds of years as a country — over transgender people and public bathrooms? Do we need really to employ Crocodile Dundee outside the women’s bathroom conducting genital checks?
The simple truth is this — if you look like a dude you can use the men’s bathroom and if you look like a woman you can use the women’s bathroom. That’s our societal standard. It has always been our societal standard and it isn’t remotely controversial.
We don’t need courts or laws or states to get involved with this situation. This isn’t a pressing societal issue demanding redress — or really an issue at all. It impacts, maybe, at the absolute most, somewhere well beneath one percent of the United States population. It is almost impossible for politicians to fixate on a less pressing issue that demands their attention.
So let me begin there — we’re failing, on both sides of the aisle — when it comes to electing intelligent politicians with the ability to address serious societal issues in an manner befitting adults. Instead of focusing on issues that affect all of us, our politicians often focus on issues that divide us. Because that helps them get reelected. But in the process it dumbs down our national discourse to the point where issues like this emerge for stupid people to debate.
We’re not far from electing an emoticon president.
2. When did it become commonplace to assume that corporations are responsible for the political views of their employees?
If I could change one thing about how social media stories like this are covered it would be this proposition that has become embedded in our culture — the idea that corporations should somehow be connected to the opinions of their individual employees.
This is manifestly ridiculous.
Does anyone with a functional brain believe that Disney has the same opinion as Curt Schilling about transgender bathroom issues?
Of course not.
Moreover, Schilling didn’t make the comments in the middle of Baseball Tonight on ESPN’s airwaves, he made them on his own personal Facebook page. If Schilling had said, “Big win for the Red Sox tonight, but not as big of a win as the American public will have if we ban people with penises from using women’s bathrooms,” I’d see how ESPN could be upset at the intersection of sports and political discourse at a time when people didn’t expect it. Schilling would have used his work time to advocate for a political cause and dispersed that political belief through ESPN’s appropriated network.
But he didn’t do that.
He made a political statement on his personal Facebook page. Again, I don’t agree with his opinion, but how can anyone with a working brain make the argument that ESPN is responsible for Schilling’s statement or, even crazier, endorses it as company policy? If anything comes from this story, I would hope that many reasonable people would begin to question this idea that corporations are somehow responsible for the individual political opinions of their employees.
That idea needs to die.
3. Make no mistake, Schilling was fired for what he wrote.
That is, ESPN punished him for his political opinions.
If Schilling had endorsed the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom — again, how absurd is it that this is a political issue? — he’d still be employed at ESPN. So this decision isn’t content neutral. If, say, ESPN had a policy that all employees were to refrain from discussing political issues, then Schilling could be fired for his political statements.
But ESPN doesn’t have that policy.
Further, it’s not as if Schilling’s comments represent a totally radical or illegal perspective. He wasn’t recruiting for ISIS on Facebook, he was sharing a meme that has probably been shared by millions of people before he shared it. In fact, if you polled American people right now, the majority might even agree with Schilling’s position, that you should use the bathroom you were born to use.
Further, ESPN has a long and varied history of employees making political statements. Frequently these statements are liberal in nature. Indeed, has any ESPN employee ever been fired for making a statement that was too liberal? I can’t think of any. That’s because ESPN is a liberal corporation. They’ve made a clear decision to promote Michael Sam as a gay athlete playing football and Caitlyn Jenner as a famous athlete becoming a woman. Their promotion equals an endorsement of that political viewpoint.
That’s fine, but if the corporation can have a political opinion, isn’t it hard to argue that individual employees can’t have their own opinions outside of the time they appear on ESPN’s airwaves? Essentially what ESPN is saying is that it’s fine if you have a political opinion, but it better be the same as ours.
That’s what totalitarian governments do.
Read as such, how scary is this statement? “ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated.”
What ESPN is really saying is: “We’re an inclusive company. Unless you disagree with us, in which case we’re exclusive. And you’re fired.”
How amazing is it that in this age of diversity, that companies only want diversity of color, not diversity of opinion? Wouldn’t it arguably strengthen Disney to have people working for it that advance every opinion under the sun, liberal and conservative, so that they can better reflect the country as a whole? There have be thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of Disney employees who agree with Schilling’s opinion. Some of them may have even shared the same meme. How nervous are they? What they’ve been told is pretty clear, you’re welcome to have opinions, but they better be the same as ours.
Hello, George Orwell’s 1984.
Interestingly, an ESPN employee recently used network airwaves to make a liberal political statement — Bomani Jones wore a Cleveland Caucasions shirt on “Mike and Mike” in a hamhanded stunt designed to draw attention to his belief that the Cleveland Indians nickname was racist. Now that’s a liberal proposition — not endorsed by the vast majority of sports fans — and it’s a direct work act that’s being distributed by ESPN. That is, Jones’s politics, liberal and fringe in nature, were okay to be distributed by ESPN, but Schilling’s non-work, conservative Facebook post was deemed unacceptable to the company.
How can you reconcile this disparate treatment? One employee advocates a fringe liberal position on the air while he’s working and the other employee advocates a potentially majority conservative opinion on his personal social media page while not working. If you were going to treat everyone equally, isn’t Jones’s position more of an issue for the company? Of course it is. Disney is making decisions not based on political speech itself, but based on whether it agrees with the content of that political speech.
That’s the very definition of arbitrary and unequal treatment.
4. Corporations are more powerful than many governments now.
It’s true that Curt Schilling wasn’t fired by a governmental entity for his Facebook post and so the first amendment isn’t directly implicated, but this misses the larger issues at play: isn’t Disney as powerful as many of the states in this country?
Put it this way, would you rather be governor of Wyoming or CEO of Disney?
Does anyone pick Wyoming governor?
My point with this is pretty simple, just about everyone has to work for a corporation these days. If corporations start policing social media comments made outside of office hours and firing employees for opinions the corporation disagrees with, shouldn’t that be scary to everyone regardless of their political persuasions? Very few of us are so rich and so wealthy that we can live without being employed somewhere. Why should the extremely wealthy only have full freedom of speech today?
Many large corporations are more powerful than state governments. These corporations have more power today to constrict speech than many governments do. That’s one of many reasons why it’s absurd that a company’s employees and a company have to agree on everything.
Sure, Disney is a liberal corporation, but what if someone works at Hobby Lobby, a conservative corporation, and posts a strong belief in the right to abortion or birth control? Should Hobby Lobby be able to fire them for that opinion because their opinion differs with Hobby Lobby’s?
I don’t think so.
My point here is simple — corporations and employees shouldn’t have to be allied on the same side of political opinion. Employees shouldn’t fear for their jobs if they share legal opinions online. Right now corporations, as we saw with Schilling, have a great deal of power to enforce agreement when it comes to political speech. That’s not okay, and I don’t believe it’s right.
Regardless of your political persuasion you should find it alarming.
5. The marketplace of ideas requires robust debate.
Much to the chagrin of many of my left wing haters — who only support free speech when they agree with it — I’m a first amendment absolutist. I believe that you should be able to share any opinion in any way that you see fit. And I also believe that you shouldn’t have to worry about losing your job because of your political opinion that is privately expressed outside of your job.
It’s only when everyone feels entirely comfortable sharing their opinions that we allow the marketplace to decide which ideas win. Right now we don’t have that. We have an artificially circumscribed level of discourse and I believe that’s why there is so much anger in this country today — many people don’t feel they have the freedom to say what they actually believe and remain employed.
Whether you agree with Schilling’s opinion or not, what we’re moving towards is an era when robust debate is silenced and the marketplace of ideas isn’t an actual thriving marketplace. That matters because sometimes fringe opinions on the left or right eventually become mainstream ideas. We need to allow all opinions to live freely and employees to share them freely without fear of termination.
Where is Schilling free to share his opinion on transgender bathroom issues? If he can’t do it on social media because he’s employed by Disney, he’s silenced there. Can he do it at dinner with his friends and family? What if a waiter secretly records that conversation and posts it online? Disney would be under the same pressure to act as now.
When and where can Schilling share his opinion and keep his job with Disney? Given the rapid collapse between the distinctions between public and private in this country, the answer may well be nowhere.
And for those of you who say, “Well, he’s free to share his opinion, but not be employed by Disney,” why should your personal political beliefs dictate where you can work? I just fundamentally reject this idea. Liberal, conservative, libertarian, totally uninterested in politics, I think everyone should be treated the exact same so long as their behavior is legal. And I think companies are stronger for employing people with all different sorts of opinions.
The company isn’t speaking when employees give their opinions online, people are.
6. Who are the people monitoring Curt Schilling’s Facebook page waiting for him to say something they disagree with?
This is the final thought I can’t get away from — some losers out there are hitting refresh on Curt Schilling’s personal Facebook page all day long just waiting for him to express a political opinion they disagree with.
And for what reason?
So they can shame a conservative former major league baseball player based on his opinion about transgender bathroom issues and get him fired from ESPN for it?
HAVE WE REALLY REACHED AN ERA WHEN WE CARE SO MUCH WHAT FORMER ATHLETES THINK ABOUT TRANSGENDER BATHROOM ISSUES THAT WE INSIST MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR CORPORATIONS TAKE ACTION AGAINST THEM?
Most importantly: does it really advance the cause of transgender advocates to demand Curt Schilling be fired for his opinion? I would argue the exact opposite, this makes Schilling a martyr for many people who agree with him and makes sympathetic people in the middle of an issue recoil. I think this polarizes a debate that shouldn’t be polarizing.
Sitting in front of a computer and waiting for someone to say or write something you disagree with so you can grab your pearls, squeal, faint, and demand they lose their job makes you the exact same as the people flooding their politicians with concerns about someone going into the right bathroom.
These are the people you say you’re fighting.
Except in the process you’ve become exactly what you hate, someone trying to silence the freedom of others.
And ultimately that should scare all of us, regardless of your political persuasion.