2 September 2012

Double standards

Here is a test. Which of those three T-shirts would get you barred from a flight?

  1. Printed on the shirt: "If I wanted the government in my womb, I'd fuck a senator." (pro-choice)
  2. Printed on the shirt: "Terrists gonna kill us all." (sarcasm about racial profiling)
  3. A T-shirt showing "a lot" of cleavage (assume you're a woman)

Answer: it depends on the employee you encounter.

That is what happens when there are no clear rules put in place: the decision is left to the subjective appreciation of the person who has temporary control over you. In some cases, you'll be fine wearing any of those T-shirts. In other cases, you won't. These are real stories – here is what happened in each case:

  1. She was allowed to keep flying after draping a shawl over the shirt.
  2. He was barred from flying.
  3. She said she was lectured.

Policies may appear cumbersome but are a good way to prevent double standards. Here are other examples:

- on the workplace, love or family relationships are omnipresent: in which cases should employees be transferred to different departments?

- in churches, can singing at an altar be considered blasphemy (and you'll see below why the notion is blasphemy is outdated, if not unclear)?

So: what is the rule spelling out the highest hemline or the lowest neckline allowed in an airplane? Should there even be a rule in the first place?

If there's no rule, then there can be no complaining. Each to his own. But as you can see, a rule is intrinsically intertwined with the notion of precise definitions. The case of T-shirts appears simple on the surface. After all, one could easily, for instance, declare all vulgar words on T-shirts illegal. But then, replacing one letter with an asterisk ("f*ck") would easily circumvent the rule. And what about the French Connection brand "fcuk"? Same thing. Every time the rule, law or policy will try to encompass those variations, loopholes will exist.

Now that doesn't mean we cannot have any rules (e.g. killing someone can be made illegal because death is an observed state that leaves little room for interpretation). However, it does seem ridiculous to worry about rules when it comes to details of what type of T-shirt is appropriate to wear in a plane. Guess what? Fellow passengers can read too and decide by themselves if they want to be offended or not. At least you know on what side the T-shirt wearer is if they want to engage in a lively debate whilst on flight :) (I said "debate", not start hitting each other).

So, blasphemy. That's an interesting one. It's, in short, offending God or sacred things. What does "sacred" mean? It is what's dedicated to a religious purpose, deserving veneration by believers of that religion. Problem: religions are bound to be antagonist to each other. In fact, they are that way already (e.g. Christians consider Jesus as God, an assertion seen as blasphemous by Muslims). There is therefore no way that blasphemy makes any sense in a society that claims to respect all beliefs. In fact, anyone can start a new religion, which means nothing prevents anyone from creating a belief that goes against the very principles of other religions. Even if it's made up, there's no denying of that person's right to believe in it – and be respected for it, if others require respect for their own beliefs.

I know this is controversial. But let me go even further. France passed a law against sexual harassment in 1992. Subsequent laws increased the scope of the offence (all the details are here in French) but anti-harassment associations still felt some people managed to escape trials. Lawmakers changed the law again, simplifying it, to the extent that it not only started conflicting with other laws but most importantly became too vague to be properly used. The Constitutional Council, in charge of ensuring that laws respect the constitution, was seized earlier this year... and declared the new law unconstitutional because too imprecise. All pending cases were immediately dropped (offenders rejoiced)... and lawmakers rushed to draft a new law that clearly defined the offence.

Suggestion: let's leave thought crimes to the past; rules are in other cases necessary, but let's make sure they have proper definitions, so they don't leave their interpretation in the hands of their human surrogates.