We find ourselves in a remarkably bitter and divisive time in American history. As we look to how to move forward as a nation during this time of great disunity, I turn to the issue of “cancel culture” in the airline industry.
Boeing Embraces “Cancel Culture” In Airline Industry
Last summer, a Boeing executive was fired for an essay he wrote 33 years earlier while in the Navy. The essay addressed females in combat and made a number of arguments that did not age well.
“Women do not naturally band together for ritual comradeship.Their enormous personal courage usually reflects their loyalties to family and home rather than to each other and ‘the group.’
“But while feminine loyalties are arguably more civilized, productive, and intellectually defensible than the male compulsion to be part of a group, it nevertheless remains that the bonding imperative is crucial to the collective mettle of men in combat.”
That was in 1987 and reflected a widespread belief at the time. Neil Golightly, Boeing’s (now former) Chief Communications Officer, has since disavowed that view, promoted female talent within Boeing, and maintained an unblemished service record.
In a public apology, Golightly said he “was embarrassingly wrong and offensive,” and that well before the controversy arose he “opened my eyes, indelibly changed my mind, and shaped the principles of fairness, inclusion, respect and diversity that have guided my professional life since.”
Nevertheless, he was terminated.
The Thorny Issue Of Speech
When does an opinion cross the line? Females in combat? A traditional view of marriage that even President Obama expressed as late as 2012? Questionable views on criminal justice reform or busing? Perhaps skepticism over climate change?
The answer, in the aggregate, is what the most vocal determine at the time. Laws, culture, and morality change first with minority views which gradually become majority views.
The problem, as I see it, is a new and vague emphasis on safety, as articulated by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine. Chait notes that this emphasis “frequently collapses the distinction between words and action — a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model — by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.”
I’ve written about United Airline’s chilling new speech codes which regulate employees in and out of uniform, even on closed internet forums.
It’s not okay to say (or post) things that are offensive or racially charged.
But who determines what is offensive?
For example, United supported Prop 16 in California, a ballot initiative that would have restored race-based affirmative action in public schools.
Is it reasonable speech to oppose that measure, as a majority of voters in California ultimaly did? What if it does cause “offense” amongst some who supported it, United’s new barometer for measuring whether online speech is appropriate?
Telling people to use “common sense” doesn’t apply in 2021. Not in our polarized world.
Is it reasonable to cancel someone for “being on the wrong side of history” even if it was years ago? Who makes that call? While private companies are not subject to the 1st Amendment, what about ones who accept government tax breaks or bailouts?
Perhaps you are seeing the problem.
I believe the answer to speech is more speech. I generally do not censor comments on Live and Let’s Fly. Furthermore, I publish stories, in a sense bringing notoriety, to poor speech (like the crazy QAnon nuts who refuse to wear masks onboard flights) precisely because it is through speech we learn and through speech we wrestle with contrary opinions in search of truth.
I’m frankly shocked and dismayed that Boeing would fire Golightly for an essay written over three decades prior that he had renounced years earlier. It makes me worried about the future exchange of ideas that are pivotal in pursuing enlightenment and understanding one another.
And do we have no room for forgiveness and empathy left? I certainly hope that is not the case. I certainly hope that those who once embraced views that are no longer in vogue will not be persecuted for opinions they have long abandoned. Accountability and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. We can call out poor behavior and don’t have to whitewash past actions, but past speech? That gets tricky.