What Workplace Intolerance Really Looks Like

Kathleen Geier   April 21, 2014

Conservatives are rarely more gleeful than when they’re accusing liberals of hypocrisy. That’s why they accusing the left of illiberal “intolerance,” as they did recently when Mozilla fired its homophobic CEO, Brendan Eich (he had donated to an anti-gay marriage campaign), and Brandeis revoked a planned honorary degree for anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

But those episodes, like other freedom of expression cases that become conservative cause célèbres, don’t represent real threats to speech. There is a growing threat to freedom of expression in America, but it’s one that conservatives largely remain silent about: the threat posed to employees’ freedom of speech, by their employers, both on and off the job.

Rush Limbaugh bloviated that Brendan Eich’s critics were “fascists” and “Nazis,” and a Fox News piece compared Brandeis denying Hirsi Ali an honorary degree to “an honor killing.” Ross Douthat’s language was daintier, but the ideas were the same. Douthat argued that these cases represent “bias against social conservatives” and “discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions . . . trump[ing] the commitment to ‘free expression.’” To Andrew Sullivan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is “the latest casualty of the culture war,” a woman “silenced by intimidation” of “the hard left.” In a blog post about the Mozilla episode titled “The Hounding of a Heretic,” Sullivan castigated “left liberal” intolerance, asking: “Will [Eich] now be forced to walk through the streets in shame?”

My Little Pony

My Little Pony: grounds for dismissal?
Photo by Calgary Reviews

None of these self-styled scourges of “liberal intolerance” grappled with the public relations disaster that an anti-gay CEO created for Mozilla, particularly in the context of a gay-friendly sector like the tech industry in Silicon Valley. Nor did it seem to occur to them that a university might have legitimate reasons to think twice about conferring an honorary degree on Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In a 2012 speech, Hirsi Ali claimed that Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivek, who murdered 77 people, “had no other choice but to use violence” because his extremist political views were “censored.” She also said in a 2007 interview that Islam needed to be “defeated.” Asked if she meant radical Islam only, she was admirably clear: “No. Islam, period,” she replied. If you’re waving the banner of “tolerance,” as many of the conservatives in these debates are doing, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a bizarre person to choose as your poster child.

However, Andrew Sullivan did make one interesting point (albeit one that was irrelevant to the case that he was writing about): “What if an employee went to a demonstration that his company found objectionable?,” he wrote. “Would that be a reason to fire him?”

In fact, analogous situations to the one Sullivan describes happen all the time in America, and they’re perfectly legal. For example, in 2004, a worker at an Alabama insulation company was fired for refusing to remove a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker from her car. Many similar outrages have made the news in recent years. Here are a few of them, many culled from Corey Robin’s excellent blog:

• In 2011, an Illinois car salesman was fired for wearing a Green Bay Packers tie to work (the boss was a Chicago Bears fan).

• In 2013, a 30-something man was canned from his office job for being a fan of My Little Pony (a “Brony,” in fanspeak parlance).

• According to one study, approximately one in seventeen eligible voters in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for supporting a union.

• Here’s a fun new trend: employers demanding that employees and jobseekers turn over their Facebook usernames and passwords! What could possibly be the harm in that?

• Another phenomenon that appears to be on the upswing is employers’ political coercion of employees. Examples include workers being forced by their employers to attend Romney rallies during the 2012 election, companies requiring employees to seek approval from supervisors before running for local office or serving on the boards of nonprofits, and political mailings sent directly to the workers (in at least one case, an anti-Elizabeth Warren flyer was stuffed in payroll envelopes).

• Finally, in 2008, a casino employee was fired for posting a Dilbert comic strip that compared management to drunken lemurs. We’ve come to a sorry patch indeed when posting a Dilbert cartoon becomes a genuinely subversive act.

There are many more such tyrannies (see this catalog of horrors for additional examples). Ordinary workers experience these radical infringements on their personal liberty every day. Sadly, they have little legal protection from these outrages. In forty-nine states, employment-at-will is the reigning legal doctrine, meaning that the employer has the right to fire you for virtually any reason—including the color of your tie. In only four states do the lawful off-hours activities of employees enjoy legal protection.

Twenty-nine states, however, protect the rights of employees to smoke off the job, so there’s that.

In an economy like the one we experience today, where growth is weak and unemployment is still relatively high, employers always have the upper hand. They wield enormous power, even more than in the recent past, so it’s no surprise that they will abuse it. What is surprising is that their abuses continue to attract little notice, other than as wacky novelty items on the web. Brendan Eich didn’t get to stay on as Mozilla’s CEO, but he’ll be fine—the man invented Javascript and is likely independently wealthy. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a cushy sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute and has cultivated many influential patrons on the right.

Eich and Hirsi Ali face no serious economic consequences for the political opinions they hold. Ordinary Americans, however, enjoy no such luxury. I have yet to see a conservative writing an outraged New York Times column or blog post about the violation of their rights.

Kathleen Geier is a Chicago-based writer and researcher. She blogs at Inequality Matters and has written for The Washington Monthly, The Nation, Salon, and other publications. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee.

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