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The military sacred cow

Lindsey Stone, a 30-year old employee at a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts that assists adults with learning disabilities, was on a work-related trip to Washington DC and while there her supervisor took a photograph of her near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier making a mocking gesture. She then (as has now become almost obligatory) posted the photo on her Facebook page.

That photo went viral and resulted in angry emails and calls to her employer by people offended that she had disrespected the military. The employer in response issued an apology and promptly fired her and the supervisor who took the photo, even though Stone had been previously classed as a ‘good employee’. (Note how this news report has blacked out the offending finger, a sensitivity that puzzles me.)

To be clear, this is not a free speech issue. No one was preventing Stone from publishing the photo on her Facebook page and her employer presumably has the right to fire her for creating unwanted publicity for a company that depends on public goodwill.

What it is interesting is how total strangers reacted so strongly to what was essentially a gag photo, simply because the butt of the joke was the military, and demanded that she be actually fired from her job. It reminds me of the tourists in Sri Lanka who were threatened with jail for taking a gag photo involving a statue of the Buddha. They were charged with “wounding the religious feelings of Buddhists”.

As a result of this, Stone and her supervisor may find it hard to find new work despite issuing an apology. That seems rather a high price to demand for a gag photo.

Comments

  1. left0ver1under says

    How interesting. Those who prattle endlessly about “They fought for free speech!” are the first people to try and stifle free speech.

  2. says

    IMHO, the problem wasn’t that she took the picture, but that she did so on company time, on a company paid trip, and thus while representing the company.

    For that, yes, I’m okay with her being fired. And I would be if it were a church, or an art show, or a museum, because it is such a calculated display of disrespect in an area that is ‘sacred’. When representing your company, it is not wise to deliberately display disrespect to something a group of people consider to be extremely important.

    If it had been on her own personal time on a trip she funded personally, it would be a different story for me.

    It’s not just a ‘military location’, it’s a memorial. And frankly, memorials are a place where you need to shut the hell up and show a bit of respect, not for the memorial itself, but for those who come there in memory.

  3. says

    That picture was clearly a joke. She’s shouting and giving the finger right next to a sign that says “silence and respect”. Obviously it’s a joke and shouldn’t be taken as more than that.

    I’m not sure I quite buy the “representing the employer” bit. I don’t see anything in the picture implicating the employer in any way. Perhaps she posted something along with the photo?
    Ether way, I don’t think the mere fact that she took the photo on company time is anywhere near sufficient reason to fire her.

    On top of that, there’s the obvious double-standard lurking in the wings. If it had been a group of Muslims complaining and getting someone fired, it would have been trumpeted as a grave injustice and a reason why Muslims in general are horrible people.

    No, there’s definitely a Holy Cow on the barbecue here.

  4. RKHB says

    Yeah, if you’re dumb enough to act like an ass at the Tomb of the Unknown” and then even dumber in posting this to your Facebook page, you deserve what you get. The tomb has an honor guard that has stood watch during hurricanes Isabel and Sandy, during 100 degree heat and winter blizzards. If she thought this was in any way funny, she is one of the biggest jackasses I know.

    http://www.snopes.com/military/hurricane.asp

    Mano, the “butt of the joke” was not the military; I and many more like me see it as an insult to the men and women whose memory is honored there.

  5. Tracey says

    Mano, they blacked out the finger because that way nobody could tell what she was doing! It’s obvious. (j/k)

  6. richardrobinson says

    I completely agree. This isn’t disrespect for the military, or for a memorial. It’s a gag about a sign.

    I also don’t buy this “company time” crap for a minute. Was the business she was in DC for being conducted at the memorial? Did she skip out on a meeting to go there?

    It doesn’t matter that her employer paid for the trip. She was there to perform a specific business function and so long as that function was performed, any time not spent on the job belongs only to her.

    Otherwise, someone ought to tell the businessmen of America they need to be sure to represent their employers well when they go to the peelers’ on a business trip.

  7. smrnda says

    Your employer shouldn’t even be looking at your Facebook page.

    On the whole, if we start arguing you can fire people for doing things that show ‘disrespect’ who is going to be left having jobs except some very bland people with no sense of creativity or fun? It seems like anything, from simply having your picture taken while you are holding an alcoholic drink (gasp!) to the fact that you might have posed nude can get you fired.

    Even if she’d intended to offend, it’s not related to her work.

    The other double standard is that never the people on top who have to watch out for what they do.

  8. EwgB says

    Yeah, I have to agree with that. I couldn’t care less if she did this at some military base, which would constitute as insulting the military in my view. But such a memorial is not a representation of the military as such, but rather a… well, memorial to the fallen soldiers, many of whom didn’t even have much of a choice in the matter of becoming a soldier. I don’t think such behavior should necessary be against the law, but the outrage of the people is in my eyes quite justified. (Full disclosure: I’m not an American and don’t care much about the American military as such, nor any other for that matter).

  9. sundoga says

    The freedom of speech clause only applies to the government. Businesses certainly can require employees to censor their remarks or actions – though the only real penalty they can bring for being defied is to fire the employee.
    But this isn’t censorship. The woman used her right of free speech – and is now suffering the consequences therof. There is no right against that.

  10. says

    The tomb has an honor guard that has stood watch during hurricanes Isabel and Sandy, during 100 degree heat and winter blizzards

    As opposed to doing something useful. Sorry, I don’t think that’s inspiring at all. I think it’s silly. You’re telling me that as a hurricane strikes, people are dying or losing their homes; while all this happens, these guys are guarding the memorial.

    That’s not noble. It’s stupid. They could be out helping people, but they’re guarding corpses. And you think this is a good thing? Talk about screwed up priorities.

    Besides, nobody’s saying you’re not allowed to feel offended if that’s how you feel, but there’s a big difference between feeling offended and getting somebody fired.
    I see this as an expression of a world view that cares more about honoring the dead than caring about the living. Her joke might not have been particularly good, but at least it didn’t threaten to put anyone out of house and home. It didn’t cause anyone to lose their livelyhood.

    She posted a picture on her facebook page. That’s all she did. You might think it was a douchebag move, you might think it’s deeply offensive, you might even say that it lowers your opinion of her as a person, but you can’t seriously argue that anyone was actually hurt by it.
    In return, she’s now out of a job in an economy where unemployment is through the roof. Will she be able to find another job? Will she be able to pay rent? Does she have any children that might be affected by all this?

    What she did reflects on her, but the response by the public and her employer certainly reflects on them too, and not in a good way.

  11. smrnda says

    True, but I think the issue here is that, when it comes down to it, employers (meaning, the wealthy) end up having far more free speech than their employees. I mean, some CEO can spout any number of offensive and obnoxious opinions, and gets to enjoy being offensive without suffering any financial penalties. The worker, however, can be dismissed over just about anything. Freedom of speech is there, but it’s kind of a meaningless abstraction at times.

    Another problem is, if a business has some policy of dismissing employees for anything like this, it damned well ought to be clearly spelled out in an official policy statement that’s made known to everyone, or else you never know what they can fire you over.

  12. Chiroptera says

    And frankly, memorials are a place where you need to shut the hell up and show a bit of respect, not for the memorial itself, but for those who come there in memory.

    I think that’s a reasonable opinion.

    However, I think that Mano’s point is that we are seeing a degree of outrage that we wouldn’t be seeing if the monument were to someone other than US military personnel.

    I believe that this is probably true: people aren’t reacting because of disrespect to people who want to honor the memory of whoever this memorial is memorializing; rather we are witnessing a reaction against what is considered in US culture to be blasphemy against something held sacred, in this case, the US military.

  13. says

    Why does anyone respect the military?? Anyone participating in today’s US military has been hopelessly compromised morally. Never mind that one would have to daily ignore one’s oath to protect the constitution from enemies foreign and domestic, a serving member of the military is constantly expected to support or participate in unconstitutional uses of military force and crimes against humanity and to obey the illegal orders of a compromised chain of command that is acknowledged war criminals. History will judge the US military and its supporters badly, and so do I.

  14. says

    if we start arguing you can fire people for doing things that show ‘disrespect’ who is going to be left having jobs except some very bland people

    Nod and say “yes, surr” and don’t look your master in the eye.

  15. mnb0 says

    What exactly is the difference between showing disrespect for dead soldiers and showing disrespect for a dead founder of some religion? Nobody thus far has explained that.
    Phrased otherwise: why should somebody get fired for the first and not for the second?
    I don’t like Stone’s joke, but I don’t like the joke of those tourists in Sri Lanka either.
    Definitely some Holy American Cow here.

  16. RKHB says

    She’s a twit. She went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, not just some monument or military installation, insulted thousands, including me, who lost relatives in the far-flung corners of the world, some of whom were forced to fight and didn’t volunteer. And no, these few soldiers honoring the Fallen could not really have made a difference in the hurricanes, but they made a difference too many of us who have relatives represented by the “Tomb of the Unknown.” So what if she has kids, a sick grandma or a hungry cat to support. She went out of her way to get her picture taken at the Tomb, and then posted it on Facebook. Sorta like the woman who posted that she thought her job job sucked and then got fired.

    @ Marcus Ranum: You can make a joke to your friends, show the picture in private, fine – post it on Facebook and you just went public – she screwed herself, and I don’t care about her kids.

  17. says

    You’re a twit. I guess that means I ought to call up your employer and try to get you fired. Or does that only work the other way around?

    So what if she has kids, a sick grandma or a hungry cat to support

    Like I said, I see this as an expression of a world view that cares more about honoring the dead than caring about the living. Honoring the dead is fine. Doing it at the expense of the living isn’t.

  18. RKHB says

    “Dead founders of religion” had a choice, many soldiers didn’t. A founder of a religion just conjured something up. The majority of people who served were forced to do so. How you can compare a religious founder to a serviceman, or woman who answered a need, whether reluctantly or eagerly, is beyond me. There is a big difference. If you can’t see it, so be it. We can argue about the “right” wars and “wrong” wars, but I would think the men and women who gave their lives in the Civil War, WWI and WWII deserve our gratitude. We can talk about the other wars in our history and you may not get much of an argument out of me. But if you don’t get that the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” stands for more than just jingoistic, patriotic crap, you miss the point. Not every war was fought for cynical purposes. And, yes, even though I was part of the military for 25 years, I would like to see wars, drone strikes and extra-legal killings as a last, a very last resort.

  19. sundoga says

    While it’s “Tommy this”, an’ “Tommy that”, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
    But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
    There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
    O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.

  20. lochaber says

    Meh. I think it’s pretty clearly a low-brow gag in regards to the sign (respect and silence). I’d be willing to bet (granted, not excessive amounts) that people present while it was happening either didn’t notice, r weren’t terribly disturbed by the event (if they were, I’m sure we would hear their eyewitness testimonies in regards to the trauma they experienced due to this event).

    I had spent some time in the military. At one point I had the opportunity to visit the peace park at Nagasaki. I had a lot of trepidation going there not only as an American, but active military to boot. Decided to go. Glad I did, but wish it could have happened as a civilian. Lots of disturbing photos and accounts. Most of the group I was in were respectful.

    Until we got to the hypocenter memorial. Then everyone had to get their photo taken there, most of the people making various ‘kaboom’ noises/gestures. I can not express the combination of horror, shame, and disgust conjured by those acts.

    That alone shows me how much military (and by extension pro-military) folk know about respect.

  21. billyeager says

    She went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, not just some monument

    Actually it is *exactly* that, a monument. Just some monument. It’s a concept, not a thing.

    Christ, she wasn’t even insulting the fecking monument anyway, it was a joke about the sign and you fucking know it. You just want to have your ‘how very dare she!!!!!1!!!!eleventy!1!!’ moment so’s you can feel the burn of that oh-so-righteous indignation.

  22. billyeager says

    the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” stands for more than just jingoistic, patriotic crap

    Only when and if we stop having wars for jingoistic, patriotic crap reasons.

  23. nomennescio says

    What it is interesting is how total strangers reacted so strongly to what was essentially a gag photo, simply because the butt of the joke was the military, and demanded that she be actually fired from her job.

    I think the strength of the reaction may depend on whether or not one has friends, family, or relatives that have served and been wounded/disabled or even killed in the line of duty. I do, and my reaction to that photo was a brief “well fuck you, too!” and then I moved on with my life, because for me there are more important things to be outraged about than a photo of some individual behaving like a jackass. Clearly that’s not how others dealt with it, and I don’t think I can blame some of them for their reaction. Should I be surprised at a public backlash against my employer by total strangers if I post a photo of myself wearing oven mitts and a “Küssen Die Chef” apron at the Holocaust Memorial while on my company’s dime? Merely a joke in poor taste and people should just get over it, right?

    To an extent she’s not just mocking a sign she doesn’t take seriously, she’s flipping the bird to a space that in a way represents an awful lot of husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors, and some people take that rather personally. If you’re going to be insensitive and disrespectful about something that is important to a lot of people you’ve got that inalienable right under the US Constitution and I don’t for a second believe she should have been forcibly prevented from doing what she did.

    But if you’re going to do so at your public company’s expense at the freakin’ Tomb of the Unknowns, you should probably expect the backlash to include the people who were paying you to represent the company while you did so. I’m surprised the sentinels didn’t catch this, they’re usually extremely effective at correcting adults who choose to behave like children at what is for some a sacred space. Again, not advocating legal action or deprivation of inalienable basic human rights over what many people view as sacred, and what some do not view that way at all.

    I’m not sure if this is much different from the lady who lost her job at Coldstone Creamery for using the ‘n word’ to refer to the POTUS. She had every right to express her opinions, too. To paraphrase what the CC manager said in response her firing: our business depends on community goodwill, and when the community hates you because of the public actions of one of your employees, that’s bad.

  24. nomennescio says

    “I guess that means I ought to call up your employer and try to get you fired.”

    I’ve had people try to do this to me over petty stuff. My employer was smart enough to give due weight to the complaints of a random jerk with an axe to grind. That’s not the situation here.

  25. says

    It isn’t? Looks to me like that’s exactly the situation here: Random people on the internet got very offended about a picture that this woman posted in her facebook page. However, instead of just telling her what they thought about it, they contacted her employer and got her (and her supervisor) fired.

    What makes the difference for you here? The number of people who called? The reason they called? The fact that you agree with them, rather than her? What?

  26. nomennescio says

    Well, in my case my employer weighed the jerk with an axe to grind’s accusations against what she knew to be true of my work performance and level of professionalism, and found the complaint lacking in merit and basis in reality.

    In this case their employer obviously did the same and didn’t find their employees’ conduct acceptable. Don’t they have a right to make that decision when employees act like jackasses and spread it and the company’s name all over the internet?

    The town I live and work in is very small, less than 5,000 people and at least 15 churches in a 2 mile radius of my home. I am a salaried employee of a local small business and I am an atheist. Now, I have every right in the world to spend my time outside of work standing outside one of the local “Bible-believing” churches with a sign denouncing YEC promoting actual science. If I were to do so, I would offend a certain subset of people, some of whom know me through my job.

    The immediate impact of this would be these people loudly and frequently informing my boss that one of her employees is acting in a manner that reflects poorly upon her company and her own good name. She would be welcome to sand up for my inalienable right to call superstitious bullshit for what it is, and would likely have to close her business as a result of the customer backlash.

    That will never happen. She’ll do what any competent business owner would do, and that’s fire me and start on damage control.

    Clearly the employer of the two boneheads in question saw merit to the complaints, or else they would have been ignored and this whole thing would have blown over.

  27. says

    So, you’re of the opinion that an employer has the right to fire any employee for any reason that they personally feel is sufficient, regardless of the actual job performance of the employee?

    For example, if your employee had decided to fire you over that complaint, then that would have been totally OK, right? After all, if they fire you, that means that they found merit in the complaint and that means that you were in the wrong to begin with, right?

    If I were to do so, I would offend a certain subset of people, some of whom know me through my job.

    What if you didn’t and these people just decided to complain about the fact that you’re an atheist? In that case, would it still be OK for your employer to fire you? Remember, regardless of the reasons, this might still impact their business and so the “damage control” justification is still valid.
    I’m not comfortable with giving employers that wide bounds. It lends itself far too easily to discrimination of minorities, especially in small communities where alternative employment may not be easily available.

    However, my original complaint was less against the employer than against the people who complained. I think they acted in a spiteful and childish manner that’s far worse than anything this woman did.
    She took a picture. That’s it. That’s all she did. It may have been offensive, but it was just a picture. In return, they attack her livelihood; undermine her personal economy; jeopardize the health and well-being of both her and any children she may have.

    I think it’s fucking petty and I think it says a lot of not very nice things about the character of those people.

  28. N. Nescio says

    What if you didn’t and these people just decided to complain about the fact that you’re an atheist? In that case, would it still be OK for your employer to fire you? Remember, regardless of the reasons, this might still impact their business and so the “damage control” justification is still valid.

    Well, every State I’ve ever worked in has been an ‘employ-at-will’ State, so any employer I’ve ever had was able to fire me for any reason, or no reason at all. That’s their right as a business owner to make decisions about what they think is going to damage their business. There’s a reason I excuse myself from public conversations about religion or politics. I hate having to do that, but that’s the reality of where I live and work. Idealism doesn’t pay the bills.

    I’m not comfortable with giving employers that wide bounds. It lends itself far too easily to discrimination of minorities, especially in small communities where alternative employment may not be easily available.

    Agreed, but we’re not discussing ideals here, we’re discussing a very specific situation. Clearly the employer saw merit to the complaints and decided that such public behavior was not acceptable from employees on a company paid-for trip.

    However, my original complaint was less against the employer than against the people who complained. I think they acted in a spiteful and childish manner that’s far worse than anything this woman did.

    And the employer obviously did not see it that way. Why should they have to put that call in the hands of a blog commentator, and not be able to decide for themselves when an employee is dragging their company name through the mud, and keeping them on the payroll isn’t worth the animosity and potential damage to the business? Again, the lady who worked at Coldstone using the n-word to refer to the POTUS had every right to do so. But when your business depends on community goodwill, and the community hates you because of the public actions of somebody you employ…that’s bad, and the obvious solution is to get rid of the person(s) whose actions make the community hate you. Simple business decision.

    She took a picture. That’s it. That’s all she did. It may have been offensive, but it was just a picture. In return, they attack her livelihood; undermine her personal economy; jeopardize the health and well-being of both her and any children she may have.

    Thinking about the potential consequences of one’s actions before doing something on the company dime that might damage the business? What a shocking notion! You ever own a business?

    I think it’s fucking petty and I think it says a lot of not very nice things about the character of those people.

    And I’ve pointed out how I’ve been on the receiving end of such treatment, and my employer was able to weigh the situation and decide what was best for her business. Why doesn’t the company in this case have the same right to make such an evaluation, even if you personally don’t like the end result?

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