Stamatakis: Less privacy creates need for constant political correctness

By Nick Stamatakis

Follow me around with a microphone all day and I will say things that I would never dream of… Follow me around with a microphone all day and I will say things that I would never dream of writing in a column. There wouldn’t be any anti-Semitic diatribes or anything of that sort, but there would probably be a few politically incorrect, cringe-worthy asides on which I wouldn’t want to be judged.

I’d guess most people would feel the same. Yet as our privacy continues to fall by the wayside in a world of microphones, cameras and social networking, our freedom to express these kinds of thoughts keeps decreasing. In the age of YouTube, you never know who is watching.

Just a few weeks ago, notable British sportscaster Andy Gray was fired in a perfect example of our shrinking autonomy. In an off-air aside to a fellow announcer in a response to what he perceived as a bad call by a female referee, he said, “Women don’t know the offside rule.” A video later surfaced of him telling a female colleague to tuck his microphone pack into his waistband while in the presence of another male sportscaster.

The comment is pretty mild as far as sexism goes — the portrayal of Daphne from Scooby-Doo as a clueless, attractive dunce seems like restricting women’s suffrage in comparison. And the video, while demonstrative of inappropriate, direct workplace sexism, makes Gray seem like he’s trying to be “one of the guys” rather than committing a deliberate put-down of a lesser sex.

But even if you disagree with this interpretation of the nature of his comments, a fact remains — an employee was fired for comments which were not meant to be heard by a broader audience. It falls into the same category as water-cooler talk and forwarded jokes among colleagues.

The company in question, Sky Sports, was completely within its legal rights in this decision to fire — barring a decision based on race, age, gender, religion or ethnicity, a company can have any employment standards it wishes. But the firing, nonetheless, sets an uncomfortable precedent.

Gray was fired for holding personal beliefs that were at best crude humor attempts, and at the worst mild sexism. There was no evidence he participated in any harsher gender discrimination or intentionally displayed sexist viewpoints to damage the reputation of the company, nor does the company statement indicate Gray’s behavior decreased the performance of female workers.

These would be great reasons to fire Gray. But firing him for such a mild offense is firing him because his private beliefs happened to become public — and this tacitly suggests that companies have a right to judge people by private beliefs.

This is even harsher than the well-known practice of companies monitoring people’s Facebook accounts — those, more or less, represent the images of ourselves we wish to project. By doing things like artfully dodging out of pictures that include red plastic cups, we can control how people see us. Using social-networking sites, companies only make judgments on the image we present, which is potentially valuable information for the company and therefore fair game.

But with the Facebook situation, we can still go to those parties. We can still act like ourselves. It is this new level of scrutiny that is worrisome.

In the age where “news” and “multimedia” can be posted by anyone on social networking sites and video communities, everyone becomes a reporter. , And with scandals like Gray’s setting precedent, the realm of “fair game” can include almost our entire lives. To protect our careers, we’ll have to act like inoffensive game show hosts: agreeable, pleasant and as bland as oatmeal.

Holding a controversial view and then expressing it, is a no-go. We are closer now than ever before to losing the anonymity of a friendly water-cooler conversation. This anonymity — or more accurately, freedom from retribution — is a key part of self-expression.

As USC researcher Patricia Lange noted in a 2008 paper, when YouTube users wish to express unconventional views, they typically conceal their identities. Nobody knows the true origin of many popular memes. The whole process enables people to sort out what they think, get some feedback and grow without any fear of judgement or fallout.

Our anonymity, ironically perhaps, is almost nonexistent except in these situations. Unless we express ourselves from anonymous usernames, the “self-actualization” process described by Lange is very difficult considering there might be a record of it. An off-the-record, face-to-face version, with no possible retribution, is rare.

Somebody might get offended. An activist might hear. The boss might be listening.

It’s not that this surveillance is particularly Orwellian — there isn’t an intent to suppress discontent. The problem with firing Gray, the problem with making everything on-the-record, the problem with restricting our opinions — as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has famously said, to things that we would want our “mother-in-law, supervisor, ex-boyfriend, and choir director” to hear — is that it prevents conversations. It prevents growth. It prevents the controversy often needed to make advancements.

The solution to this isn’t a legal issue — restricting employers’ current broad rights to do whatever they want isn’t ideal. The solution is to acknowledge that if private beliefs or behaviors don’t affect professional performance, then the beliefs are irrelevant. Even if they manifest themselves in less-than-ideal ways, we need to stop being so offended by them and start accepting them as just another color in the palate of beliefs that surround us every day.

I might have more to say, but I’ll refrain from doing so, for now.

E-mail Nick anything except jokes about blonde women at [email protected]