Last week, Gregory Sullivan, a professor at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, set up a movie for his class to watch. As he walked out, he told the class that “if someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.” This, of course, is a reference to the shootings at the Aurora, Colorado screening of The Dark Knight Rises. It turns out, though, that one of Sullivan’s students lost his father in the shootings – a fact the teacher likely knew – and left the room upset. It looks as if Sullivan will be fired for making the joke.
PQED reader Gail sent us an article about this and wonders whether or not the firing is moral. It’s a very good question. Before we answer it, though, we have to ask, what exactly is he being fired for, the joke or telling the joke in front of one of its victims? (I think the term ‘victim’ is too narrowly defined if we don’t consider someone who lost his father a victim as well.) If the professor is being fired for just telling the joke, this question becomes one about free speech in general. If it’s about telling the joke in front of a victim, he may be let go because he created a hostile educational environment for the student.
In this case our moral consideration hangs on the consequences of the act, not the intention. One could certainly ask about Sullivan’s motivations, but unless he was intentionally trying to hurt the student (and there is no evidence to suggest he was), his intention was just to be funny. We don’t know if anyone laughed but we have all made jokes that came out flat. No one deserves to be fired for that.
Let’s pretend that there were no victims in the room. Should Sullivan be fired then? This would be a hard case to make. People make bad and offensive jokes all the time. In most circumstances, they get sensitivity training. If there is a pattern of jokes, then people get fired, but not after a single incident. In opposition, though, one might suggest that teachers have to be role models and offensive jokes set the wrong tone for the class. But this hangs on what someone finds offensive. I have students who are offended because they are required to be open-minded about the morality of gay marriage. Teachers can’t be held to a zero-tolerance standard of offensiveness. If they are, anyone who is at all offended by anything can get them fired. There has to be some “reasonable” standard of offense that applies and if there is, the unreasonable emotions will just have to be ignored.
Return now to the actual situation, the one in which a victim is actually in the room. This makes the consequences of the joke worse, but it doesn’t make the joke itself worse. So, if we can’t fire the teacher for making the joke in the first place, we can’t fire him now. We can only fire him for creating, as suggested already, a hostile environment for the student.
This is a real concern for the student. But how do we separate the hostility faced by the Aurora victim from the person who is politically or theologically offended, like the student offended by the gay marriage discussion? I don’t know how to answer this. One might suggest that the student who lost his father has emotions that are raw and recent, but this isn’t fair to the true religious believer. Many very religious people suggest that their reaction to sin is as just as intimate and intense as they can imagine. Unless they are lying – and I’m not in a position to say whether they are or not – then the two cases are equal. There is no difference between offending the victim and the “morally upright.”
The final justification for firing the teacher is that the joke is “personal.” It singles out the student and directs the offense specifically at them, the way a racist joke might harm a single black student or a sexist comment isolates women in the class. This is the most serious charge, although the religious person might try to claim the same of their own experience. In a diverse classroom, making jokes out of a certain categories of people is cause for dismissal. But being the victim of a crime is not a protected class because there is no history of oppression based on this kind of victimization. So, unless we reserve the restrictions on speech for the people who have been officially recognized as having been denied justice, we are at the same point again. The victim of the Aurora shooting is no different than anyone else.
I hope this doesn't come out callous, I don't mean it to, but in the grand scheme of things, a joke is pretty mild compared to the pain one feels when losing a parent to violence. I write this because of something my wife said to me once. We have friends who were going through a horrific tragedy and I was leaving them food on their porch; I knew they didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. They saw me on the porch dropping the food off and I waved, but then I worried that my presence offended them. My wife told me not to worry explaining (pardon the language) that “given what they’re going through, you’d probably have to take a shit on their front lawn before they even noticed.” Harm is relative.
The student in class did notice, of course. He left the room. But the joke was a trigger, not a cause, and what upset him was not the crack but the event. So, it seems to me that there is no case to fire the teacher, although, as always, I could be missing a key point.
One final comment: when the teacher was told what happened, “he made a ‘quick and remorseful admission’ of guilt, and a ‘personal apology immediately following the incident.’” There is no evidence to suggest these were not heartfelt. Assuming they are, shouldn’t they count for something?