The Provocative T-Shirt Problem

Dress codes+grievance-mongers+freedom to be rude...oh, it's hopeless.

An ethical dilemma occurs when a clear ethical principle clashes with a strong non-ethical consideration. An ethical conflict occurs when multiple ethical principles suggest diametrically opposed results. The question of what is ethical conduct when it comes to wearing apparel bearing controversial messages has the elements of both a dilemma and a conflict.

                                                                                Welcome to Dollywood!

A same-sex couple visiting Dollywood Splash Country with friends and their children was told by a park gatekeeper that one of the women had to wear her T-shirt inside-out because its message—“Marriage is so gay”— “might be objectionable” to some visitors at the “family-friendly” park.


The woman wearing the shirt complied, and raised a complaint later. Her (very valid) point: there were many other visitor wearing T-shirts in the park that could offend someone, including those with Confederate flags and other political messages. Dollywood replied that if a patron had complained about any of those shirts, those visitors would have been asked to cover them too.

Wait—that’s the standard? Any patron can complain about what’s on a T-shirt, no matter how unreasonable the complaint is, and thereby force another visitor to alter his or her clothing? This carries the no-offense, political correctness obsession to a new and ridiculous level.

Meanwhile, Dollywood is applying an incomprehensible, inconsistent and unfair rule. Nobody complained about “Marriage is so gay,” but officials launched a pre-emptive strike. Why is that T-shirt inherently offensive and a rebel flag only offensive if someone complains? Is it because Dollywood caters to only certain species of bigots?

The ethical dilemma: Dollywood has a legitimate non-ethical consideration; unfortunately, it is impossible to accomplish. The park has a legitimate interest in making its theme park a comfortable and pleasant place for leisure, entertainment and relaxing escapism, and thus has a right to prohibit patrons bringing messages and political advocacy into the park when they might upset or annoy others. The problem is that some people are annoyed or offended by almost anything. If the park is going to ban “Marriage is so gay,” it has to ban a picture of a man and woman on a wedding cake, which could be seen as a pro-“Defense of Marriage” Act statement. If Dollywood is going to ban pictures of Osama bin Laden, it has to ban the Obama “Hope” T-shirt, which might offend Glenn Beck fans. If it is going to ban a Mexican flag, it has to ban an American flag. The only fair policy is “No T-shirts with any social, political, or philosophical message or image, perceived or real.”

That policy, however, is calculated to make patrons about as comfortable in Dollywood as they would be in a gulag. Who wants to go to an amusement park with so strict a dress code? There is no middle ground if the park is trying to deal with something as subjective and vague as “offensiveness.” Either ban any message that can make anyone uncomfortable—that is, everything—or pick and choose what is likely to be offensive, an assessment will be inevitably biased and unfair, or accused of being so. In contrast, banning lewd and sexual content is relatively easy. The park can make a reasonable assessment of what crosses the line, publicize it and if some hyper-sensitive patron thinks a T-shirt with a picture of Lady Gaga is offensive, it’s just too bad.

The ethical conflict: there is an ethical issue raised by the wearing of a politically themed T-shirt, as well as by the arbitrary banning of it. Yes, of course—one has the right to wear a shirt  espousing a political or social position. Displaying a political or social statement in a setting with completely apolitical purpose approaches rudeness, however. It is like shouting out one’s political and religious affiliations. Why should I have to hear it? My family is at a theme park—why should you force me to see or listen to an announcement of your preference for open borders, or legal pot, or free health care, or prayer in the schools? These bumper-sticker equivalents don’t persuade anyone; they just declare loyalties and divide us into camps. Nobody should be announcing that they are Republicans, Muslims, transsexuals or Michael Moore fans at Disneyland; if anything, they should be wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts.

I feel the same way about the pro-gay marriage shirt at Dollywood. What’s the objective of doing this? Getting in someone’s face with an argument is offensive, whatever that argument is. Isn’t the intent of such a T-shirt to get in the face of those who oppose gay marriage? There are places to do that; I don’t think Dollywood is one of them. The Golden Rule is helpful here: would the couple appreciate having to see a patron wearing a T-shirt with the text of the Defense of Marriage Act on it? Presumably not.

When I was a freshman in college, the freshman dining hall had a strict dress code—jackets and ties, or no meal. Being in the Age of Rebellion, several students set out to destroy the long-standing policy. They would show up with ties, but no shirts, or a jacket and tie, but no pants. Or they would take off their ties as soon as they sat down to eat. They would have jackets and ties, but also have stuffed animals or balloons tied to their heads, or they would arrive in jackets, ties, neatly pressed shirts, slacks—and wearing skis or flippers instead of shoes. The college spent so much time parsing policies and arguing over what was and wasn’t “appropriate” that it eventually gave up: a dress code that had been accepted for a few hundred years was gone forever, because if the students were determined to violate it, so no rule would work.

The funny thing is, most of us kind of missed the dress code. The meals were more civil and dignified when there was a conscious effort to look good and to respect the surroundings. Meals seemed special when we had to take them more seriously; now everyone came to meals dressed as slobs.

                                                                                           Some victory.

Decorum in public places is like that. If people won’t respect each other and are determined to test the boundaries of acceptable deportment, there is little Dollywood or anyone else can do about it, and it is futile to try. Base enforcement on what individuals say is offensive, and the grievance bullies will take over. Make rules, and the lawyers will find ways to get around them. Pick and choose, and bias and unfairness is inevitable.

Dollywood’s intentions were good, but its methods of pursuing them were wrong, because there are no methods that are both fair and effective. As for the couple, I can’t say that it was wrong to use a visit to Dollywood to advocate same-sex marriage.

But I can’t say it’s right, either. Ethics conflicts are like that.

17 thoughts on “The Provocative T-Shirt Problem

  1. Just this past weekend I very nearly spoke to a young man wearing a horrible t-shirt with white stick figures performing sex acts. Sure, it’s within the manufacturer’s rights to make the shirt; within the store’s rights to sell the shirt; within the wearer’s rights to put it on and leave the house. But come on, what about MY rights, as a mother, to not have to turn to my children and explain that shirt, right there in the grocery store? OK, it’s a non-issue for me now, my kids are old and don’t come shopping with me AND they know exactly what the pictures mean now. BUT I have been there before, explaining bumper stickers and graffiti, and, yes, shirts, and I don’t appreciate it at all. That little Calvin figure peeing on a corporate logo? Just don’t do it, people. Watch a 3-year-old stare, figure it out, and either giggle or gasp, and realize what you’re inflicting on society.

    • Lianne,
      Except that none of your rights are being violated. There is no protected “right” against being offended. You’re the one asking someone else to change, not the other way around ..


  2. With T-Shirt Hell in business, there will be no end to the objectionable / provocative t-shirt. If you haven’t yet found one that offends you, head over there. My friend got me one for my birthday that’s basically the Pillsbury dough boy with a red armband, a mustache and it says “White Flour”

  3. “Nobody should be announcing that they are Republicans, Muslims, transsexuals or Michael Moore fans at Disneyland; if anything, they should be wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts.”

    No! Viva el Pato Donald!

      • “If Mickey’s a mouse, and Donald’s a duck, and Goofy, Minnie, Daisy they can all walk and talk, then why is Pluto just a dog? Is Mickey keeping a mentally handicapped guy as a pet?” – Bo Burnham

        • Did Bo steal this line of argument from “Stand By Me” or vice-versa? Mickey also had a non-speaking kitten (the impetus for the immortal good and bad Pluto debate, parodeied in “Animal House”), which raises the related question: what the hell was Bill the Cat?

  4. It strikes me that attempting to draw clear lines of demarcation in terms of either content or location is inherently fraught with peril. The best determinant may indeed be the Golden Rule. But that inevitably touches on intent. The purpose of a “marriage is so gay” t-shirt isn’t to “get in the face of” opponents of gay marriage; it’s to make a mildly humorous point about an issue without being strident.

    The guy who wore the “I’m a Muslim. Don’t Panic” t-shirt to the Ground Zero celebration after the killing of Osama bin Laden—not terribly clever, but not at all offensive, either.

    I wouldn’t be offended by a t-shirt backing a political candidate I’d never support (I might have an indication of whether to engage in conversation with this person as we wait in the queue, but that’s another matter); I would be by a t-shirt defaming that same candidate: comparing him to Hitler, for example. Yes, intent matters.

    So does locale, but that’s an even dicier business. Dollywood is out? How about a public park? McDonald’s? Are they specifically apolitical, too? You refer to bumper stickers. What about them? Is it OK to drive into Dollywood’s parking lot displaying my political predilections all over my bumper and rear window, but not to walk through the gates with those same sentiments on my shirt?

    It’s inevitable that if I proclaim my intention to vote for Candidate A or cheer for Sports Team X that some supporter of Candidate B or Team Y won’t like it. But whereas you and I might not vote for the same people or cheer for the same teams, we can respect the other’s choice. The PR people at my university were very upset last year when a really great photo of the crowd at one of our big rivalry football games couldn’t be used for PR purposes (to their credit, they weren’t going to doctor the image) because there was one idiot whose shirt wasn’t for our team, but rather against the other guys, and in rather vulgar terms, at that.

    I don’t think there’s anything at all problematic about what that couple did at Dollywood. Nor would a different couple have been out of line for wearing shirts clearly linking them to, say, a church known to be actively opposed to gay marriage. It’s time to invoke the “reasonable person” test. Would a reasonable person take offense at a shirt with overt sexual content, for example? Sure. Would that reasonable person be bothered by something as innocuous as “marriage is so gay”? I don’t think so.

    • I tend to agree with everything you write here, Rick, but I’m still dubious that a reasonable person exists in these settings any more. Hence the dilemma-conflict problem. I’m from Boston—we don’t much like public displays of opinion and loyalties, unless we’re disguised as Indians or in Fenway Park. I have always found bumper stickers annoying.
      Especially Yankee bumper stickers.

      By the way…congrats: another Comment of the Day.

  5. Jack,
    I’m confused as to why you and your fellows couldn’t have continued the dinner dress-code on informally? In fact, wouldn’t that have made it all the more considerate and special, as it was no longer being enforced by way of administrative fiat? Your argument here seems akin to the broken window analogy and, similarly, seems to assume people are automatons who will simply do as they see others do. Yes, bad examples can lead to further bad examples, but it doesn’t necessarily represent a softening of standards or a lowering of the proverbial bar. Arguing otherwise only removes personal responsibility from the equation altogether as they’re simply imitating the behaviors of others.

    What’s more, I fail to understand how refusing to dress myself in accordance with subjective rules of fashion and propriety for the sake of other people’s piece of mind makes me more or less ethical. What I wear has no direct bearing on those around me save for the fact that they’re all forced to bear witness to it; thus, the only real harm seems to be that it might hurt their sensibilities. Dressing comfortably should be one’s primary concern instead of worrying what others are going to think of my selections.

    Though you’ve once again argued for the right of the offender to wear the objectionable clothing, you nonetheless continue to suggest the Golden Rule would seem to urge them to be more considerate. However, why apply it so rigidly? Couldn’t I just as easily argue that the Golden Rule should be interpreted as “I won’t be offended by your shirt if you’re not offended with mine” ? It seems to me a much more equitable application of the principle as it doesn’t place any sort of negative requirements anyone (except NOT to get offended). After all, it would seem the offendee more than the offender is at fault as they’re the one making it an issue in the first place.

    Something to think about, anyways ..


  6. THERE’s that comment! Worth waiting for, too, because these are all good points. The dress code question comes down to rules, and why they can help people do what they might prefer to do otherwise. Dress sends messages. There were students who continued to dress formally for dinner, and they were all regarded as nerd, oddballs and elitists—because, for the most part, they were. I always (well, almost always) wear a jacket when I go to my theater company performances, and it just makes me feel old. Dress is a perfect example of how culture gets made—it’s fine (and true) to say that “everybody does it,” but when everybody really DOES do it, then it’s part of the culture. The same with everyone saying “fuck” every third word (so we gradually sound like the cast of Deadwood) or everyone dressing like slobs on the airplane or everyone talking during movies.

    The idea of looking good when you are in public involves respect for others. Sure, you can stand it on its head, as libertarians do—“let me dress how I want”—and there’s the conflict/choice: making small accommodations in the interest of the community, which i would call ethical, or insisting on autonomy above all, which I would call selfish…and you would call ethical.

    Since you have entropy and the slippery slope on your side, there is no question that you win. I won’t go down with out a fight, however.

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