Big Brother Is Listening to You

Over the weekend, the groups I belong to on Facebook were aflame with Lena Dunham’s unwarranted bit of eavesdropping on American Airlines employees.

The scandalous talk she reported overhearing was as follows:

American Airlines said Dunham's comments had them "concerned" and asked her to direct message with more details. Dunham obliged, explaining that she had been flying a different airline and was walking to baggage claim when she overheard two female attendants walking and talking "about how trans kids are a trend they'd never accept a trans child and transness is gross."

Besides the fact that Lena Dunham is not particularly popular in my circles (we really object to child molesters, as well as people who lie about having been raped), there was the feeling that, yeah, we’re adults and we understand that when representing your company, such as when you’re in uniform, you should be careful about expressing opinions the public at large – or your company head – might find objectionable.  On the other hand, in public adult human beings give other human beings a certain amount of space and tend to assume the best – according to our lights – of them.  After all, you can’t be sure that the conversation you just overheard wasn’t the tail end of a long in-joke between friends who have been giving each other a fair amount of ribbing for a long time, and whose real opinions might, in fact, be the exact opposite of those expressed.

Besides all that, there was a feeling that Lena Dunham was doing her best to get these people fired for thought/word crime, and because their words deviated from Lena Dunham-approved speech.

But the plot thickens, since apparently Lena Dunham was, in fact, inventing the whole thing.  Or as we mere mortals would put it, “lying.”

So why does this matter at all?  A woman who once made up a story about having been raped by a college Republican is now making up stories about airline personnel engaging in transphobic talk.

It matters because American Airlines took Dunham’s tweets seriously and started investigating whether its employees had really engaged in such talk.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the idea that the employees are always representing the company, and as such can’t let their hair down while wearing the uniform.  I think the normal human mind can easily grasp the idea that two women walking from one flight to the next, without taking the trouble to change out of their uniform, are still private citizens, as opposed to, say, airline employees standing at the podium and announcing over the intercom that they don't like or will not help board transsexual passengers.

Let’s consider instead that employers seriously took the unsubstantiated tweet of a power-hungry celebrity and engaged in a witch-hunt for employees that might, in fact, have uttered such heretical words as “trans kids is a fad.”

They actually thanked Dunham for “bringing it to their attention,” asked for the exact location where she’d heard the words, and then investigated to see if one of their employees could have been responsible for the bad-think.

You’ll say they’re private employers, and, being afraid of backlash, are entitled to find and penalize employees who might have tarnished their image.  And you’d be right.

What is not right is this assumption that bad-think expressed by people who — whether they were wearing a uniform or not — were not in a professional capacity at the moment can and should be investigated and punished.

The fear of giving offense is not equal, either.  If the imaginary AA employees had, instead, said how Republicans were gross and conservatives were haters, and a conservative had complained on Twitter, I doubt the informer would have received that deferential “thank you” and the careful investigation.

This is because in America the side that tries to suppress contrary thought and speech opposed to their aims is the left/“progressive” side.  I can’t tell you whether this opposition to free speech (they are very hot on their attempts to suppress “hate speech,” which seems to boil down to any speech progressives hate) is part of their generally totalitarian worldview, where those who dissent from them are of necessity evil and ill-intentioned, or whether it's due to their knowledge that their worldview can’t stand up to the free give and take of a free society.

I can tell you, however, that they find it very useful.  By protesting any speech, real or imaginary, that offends them, they have managed to get people fired, ruin people’s careers, and cost people their reputations. Even though this isn’t the same as bringing the force of the government down on individuals, having managed to mau-mau corporations into fearing them, they are just as effectively curtailing the discussion or expression of opinion that opposes them.

Let’s start by disposing of their idea that any speech opposing them is hate speech.  There is no such thing as hate speech.  Sure, there are words that originate in hatred.  For instance, when I say that cabbage smells terrible, and no one should cultivate it, I am engaging in hate speech against cabbage.  If I were persuasive enough, it is possible that the cabbage farmers of America would be adversely affected.

However, there is a far step between a private individual saying “cabbage stinks” (I beg your pardon, it does) and the ruin of cabbage farmers of America.

In the same way, private individuals, not speaking at that moment clearly and explicitly for their employer, should be able to say they hate whites or blacks, Muslims or Christians, Democrats or Republicans.  None of us should be afraid our casually spoken words could cost us our jobs or our ability to support our families.

Casual observers should not be on a hunt to punish total strangers for a few overheard words.  For one, because words taken out of context/background can acquire a completely different meaning.  My sons and I, or for that matter my friend Larry Correia, have been known to say that “all people of Portuguese origin are a little crazy” and not mean it precisely as it sounds.  We’re rather recognizing an extant cultural strand in all of us, not stigmatizing an entire national-origin group.  After all, it might be an important discussion to have.  A brain researcher making a remark about the changes in the brains of pot users, for instance, might have an important meaning to communicate, and not be making a slur on a general group or offering up an opinion on the legalization of pot.

Look, again, I know this is not a governmental thing, but the First Amendment was put in the Constitution because free speech is important.  “Hate speech” is nothing but a censoring of an entire set of opinions.

Sure, perhaps you think your kid is trans and therefore you’ll be highly offended if you hear words like what Lena Dunham reportedly heard.  But there is an important discussion to be had about letting children – children we do not allow to get permanent tattoos, and who aren’t even allowed to have their ears pierced without parental permission – decide what “gender” they’re going to be for the rest of their lives, or that their “gender” doesn’t fit their body, well before they’re aware of the consequences of a long-term hormonal regime or surgical modifications, or even of their own role in the world.

For years I complained that in Portugal I was forced to choose my future career in 9th grade when my view of “what people do in offices for money” much less my own potential or abilities was at best nebulous.

Imagine how much worse it is to make the kind of decision that will affect your health, your appearance and your ability to have a family at that age.

I'm not saying every trans kid shouldn’t be – bah, I’m not everyone’s mother – but I’m saying there is a strong possibility there for abuse and parental projection and that even mental health professionals aren’t infallible.

Considering the sudden upswell of the demographic, shouldn’t the subject be open for discussion?  Should we be threatening people with firing for having opinions contrary to those of the trendy set?

Because, make no mistake, what went on here, despite the thing probably being nothing more than a fabrication, is the chilling of speech on this subject, which Dunham thinks should be beyond the pale.

And no subject – NONE – should be beyond the pale in a society that wishes to survive.

Human societies have been very wrong on very many subjects before, from the relative intelligence of women/other races, to eugenics, to such things as the advisability of a daily bath.

Had the discussion been closed on such “settled” subjects, they would never have been investigated and society would never have changed.

Why would Lena Dunham, who benefits greatly from, say, the change in the status of women in the last 100 years, wish to close the book on any subject?

Could it be because her idea is to stop the wheel while she is on top?  The only way to do that of course is to make it impossible to discuss alternatives.

Dunham's vision of the perfect future is a human ear listening behind everyone’s door, forever.