Ryan Sullivan, a Salinas High School math teacher, picketed Hillary Clinton’s campaign visit to Hartnell College in Salinas May 25 while holding a sign that said: “Hillary Clinton not fit to be President. President equals a man’s job.”
The sign, naturally, was photographed and quickly went viral on social media, where I encountered it. All of the respondents to the sign’s posting on social media pronounced Sullivan a vile, sexist fool who was unqualified to teach. There is a “fire Sullivan” hashtag on Twitter. I immediately guessed that the sign was probably intended as satire: it was just too stupid. Sure enough, satire is what Sullivan, with the social media screaming for his metaphorical head and to end his teaching career, claims the sign was. It was a joke! Don’t you get it?
“Disgusted by the statement on my sign? Good! I’m happy to hear you disagree with such outlandish statements.Unfortunately, I have several family and friends who express the point made on my sign (mostly behind closed doors), I wanted to bring their message into the public forum to show how ridiculously outdated it sounds in 2016. Glad to hear it bothered so many—opinions like that should.”
Of course, if Sullivan meant every word of the sign, he could still say the same thing, and if his job was on the line, he probably would. Sullivan reportedly wrote his thesis on the gender gap in high school mathematics classrooms to help teachers create a more equitable environment for students. Does that prove his sign was a joke?
Did he hand out his thesis at Hillary’s speech?
Your nearly impossible Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…
What should the school do with this guy?
Well, let’s start with this: if he carried this sign and did not mean it as a joke, he could not be trusted to teach young women, and young women would have good reason not to respect him or his judgment. Would a teacher who held up a sign saying that blacks or gays were not qualified to be President even be allowed to keep teaching? It’s a firing offense.
He says it was a joke, and indeed there is some evidence that he doesn’t believe what the sign says. Does that mean, then, that it is OK for a teacher to carry racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic or homophobic signs as long as he doesn’t really believe what’s on the sign?
Hypothetical: Two men, both teachers, carry that sign outside Clinton events. No one who sees the signs in person knows either of them. Both signs go viral. Upsetting women, giving comfort to bigots….and only one of the men gets fired? What sense does that make—they did exactly the same thing, and communicated the same message! What if they both claim it was a joke, and neither has ever seemed to behave in a prejudicial fashion towards women? What if one has written a female-friendly thesis, and the other wrote his thesis on the mating habits of shellfish? Should that matter?
What if they trade signs at one of the events? Is the sign that was once a joke become serious misogyny because of what the sign’s holder didn’t write in his thesis?
Here is another big problem: carrying the sign was irresponsible and stupid whether it was a joke or not. Really, really stupid. It was lousy, incompetent satire, if satire was what was intended. The message wasn’t a bit funny, if it was supposed to be a joke. Does Sullivan really think this is why people oppose Hillary Clinton? That may even be dumber than what the sign says. Who was his intended audience for the sign, anyway? Who would think it was funny? Who would read it and think, “Gee, I should reconsider my sexist views on the Presidency, because now that I see them in print, I see the error of my ways!”?
I am almost, but not quite, ready to launch a companion to the Naked Teacher Principle, which holds that any secondary school teacher who allows photos or videos of herself or himself naked to be seen by his or her students cannot complain when he or she is deemed untrustworthy and unfit to teach. The new principle would be the Biased Teacher Principle, and would hold that any teacher who allows himself or herself to be associated with a statement or message that denigrates or indicates bias against any group that one or more of his or her students may belong to similarly cannot complain when that teacher is subsequently deemed untrustworthy and unfit to teach….even if that statement or message was intended as satire.
I am torn on this one. Help me out.
If I were Sullivan’s boss, however, I’d fire him. He brought negative attention to himself and the school, he was irresponsible and reckless, and…oh yes: he’s an idiot.