An American bass named Valerian Ruminski arrived in town to rehearse for a production of Puccini’s Tosca, presented by Opera Lyra Ottawa, in which he was cast as the Sacristan. And a few days ago, he posted on Facebook a photo and some caustic remarks about someone he saw on a local bus. The subject of his abuse, a man later identified as Jade London, had jewels glued to his fingernails.
Ruminski wrote: “Look at the stupid nails this moron had on while taking a bus in Ottawa. I guess he needs diamond studded nails to make up for his face.” (See here for more, and for some responses to his posting.)
This was, in my opinion, a pretty obnoxious thing for Ruminski to do.
Some people have interpreted his comments as homophobic. Ruminski has insisted that this is not the case, in a lengthy apology. (It can be read here.) Be all that as it may, I’d like to repeat my view that it was a pretty obnoxious thing for Ruminski to do.
But the response of Opera Lyra was even even worse. The company’s general manager, Jeep Jeffries, promptly fired Ruminski. He offered the Ottawa Citizen this explanation for his decision:
“People who work for us are responsible for helping us maintain those community relationships. We expect even folks here for a short time to help us with that, and treating other people respectfully is a part of maintaining good community relations.” (See here.)
It seems to me that this sort of thing is a creeping disease in the world today. Increasingly, employers are holding employees accountable for personal views expressed outside the workplace. The message is clear: If you work for us, you’re not allowed to say anything, anywhere, that we might not like. If you work for us, you’re never outside our authority over your behaviour. This is not employment – this is slavery.
And where does it stop? What if some opera singer expresses political or religious views that Opera Lyra finds inconvenient?
Yet, ironically, this kind of oppression is promoted in the name of niceness. It’s tempting (to some people) to think that the world would be a much better place if nobody ever offended anyone else. But the constraints on personal freedoms that such a society would need to establish to eliminate all unpleasantness would be like something out of a dystopic novel by Kafka or Orwell.
Happily, we don’t live in such a world (yet). But enforced niceness already has a chilling effect. When the Ottawa Citizen contacted another member of Opera Lyra’s cast, soprano Michele Capalbo (singing the title role of Tosca) to ask her what she thought of the incident, she offered a terse response.
“Valerian is a colleague and a friend. He made a mistake and the price has been paid. Whether or not people on either side believe the price was appropriate is up for debate. That’s as much as I will say.”
These fence-sitting words drip with fear. And, under the circumstances, is it any wonder that Capalbo is afraid to speak her mind?
We have various hate-speech laws in Canada (Some have recently been debated in the courts – see here.) And although I’m not a lawyer, from what I’ve been able to read about these laws, Ruminski didn’t even come close to violating them. While London may have been deeply offended by Ruminski’s remarks, offense is not injury.
Neither has Opera Lyra been injured by Ruminski’s words, in any way that can be clearly demonstrated. (I doubt Opera Lyra would have lost one dollar in revenue if Jeffries had simply left the matter alone.) The only truly injured party I see here is Ruminski – who was fired for expressing a nasty personal opinion completely unrelated to his work or employer. It would be a fine thing for free speech in Canada if Ruminski sued Opera Lyra Ottawa, and won. But that’s up to him.
© Colin Eatock 2014