If you’ve been following the (Canadian) news, you have probably heard about the kerfuffle raised by Nova Scotia high school student William Swinimer, and his “life is wasted without Jesus” T-shirt. The issue is already resolved, but there are a few things I would like to say about it.
As I mentioned before, there seems to be rash of overreaction by freethinkers to imagined bigotry – and now, it seems that spree seems to be a particularly Canadian phenomenon, what with Ashu Solo in Saskatoon threatening human rights complaints over a prayer at an awards dinner and now Swinimer’s school suspending the kid for over a week over a T-shirt. I hope it’s not going to turn into an epidemic.
Before I go any further, let’s get some of the facts of the case clear.
First of all, the shirt in question (just in case you can’t see the image) is a bright yellow T-shirt with the words “LIFE IS WASTED WITHOUT JESUS” on it. The word “WASTED” is rendered in a sort of slimy, dirty-looking typeface, all the other words are a fairly basic sans-serif typeface. “WASTED” is the largest word, around twice as large as the next two largest words “LIFE IS”. The words “WITHOUT JESUS” are rendered very small – less than half the size of “LIFE IS”; you almost can’t read them in the picture to the right unless you zoom in.
And yes, without question, Swinimer was looking for a fight. He wore the T-shirt every day for several weeks, despite repeated requests from the principal to stop. Both students and teachers were complaining (to Swinimer? I don’t know – maybe just to the principal). The principal even offered a compromise: adding the word “my”, to get “my life is wasted without Jesus”. Swinimer didn’t budge. He was given an in-school suspension… and continued to wear the shirt throughout. He was given a full suspension for a week, and continued to the wear the shirt. And, according to the CBC report:
He says he will continue to wear the shirt and is prepared to be suspended the rest of the year. And yes, he was goaded on by his pastor, Varrick Day, of the Pentecostal Jesus the Good Shepherd church.
To be clear, and fair, the superintendent of the regional school board has stressed that Swinimer was not suspended for wearing the shirt, but rather for disobeying an order from the principal (to remove the shirt). In other words, most of the coverage of the story is technically wrong. That’s splitting hairs, and avoiding the question of whether it was wrong to insist that Swinimer remove the shirt in the first place. Nevertheless, let’s get this absolutely clear: Swinimer deserved his suspension. The principal said he was being disruptive, and asked him to stop his disruptive behaviour, and he didn’t. Bam. Suspension. The proper thing for him to do when he got complaints was to stop wearing the shirt temporarily while he and the school sorted out his rights between them… and only get dickish if it was determined he did have a right to wear the shirt (which, as I’ll get to in a bit, I think he does), but the school refused to acknowledge his right. As I said, though, Swinimer was not looking for justice, he was looking for a fight, and the school, stupidly, complied.
Even though Swinimer deserved his suspension, that does not absolve the school of any wrongdoing here. Oh, hell no. They didn’t bother to even check into whether Swinimer was right when he said he had the right to wear the shirt… until after the media shitstorm began. (Actually, I’m surprised they took their heads out of Conrad Black’s ass long enough to even cover this.) South Shore Regional School Board superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake and everyone else involved, pay attention: class is in session. Welcome to Not Being a Dumbass 101. When a student is doing something that you don’t like, but they insist that they have a right granted by the Charter to do that thing… you should seriously fucking look into whether that is true before starting the suspension barrage. (Pynch-Worthylake actually explicitly told The Toronto Star that whether the shirt crosses the line into offence was
unclear.) Because, seriously you nimrods, the Charter trumps the piddly little bit of power you have been granted – know your place, people. If and only if you have determined that the student’s claim is invalid, and you’ve got your ducks in a row… then you can bring the hammer down. Seriously, when the fuck did the policy become “punish first, figure out whether the student was right later (after pressure from the media!)”?
So to summarize:
- Swinimer was being a dick.
- Swinimer was looking for a fight.
- Swinimer was being used by his church.
- Swinimer was suspended for ignoring orders from the principal, not for the shirt.
But of course, there’s still the elephant in the room: Swinimer was being a dick… but did he have a right to be a dick in that particular way?
Should the shirt be allowed?
One of the things mentioned in the case is that Swinimer said the principal
would have accepted a shirt with the slogan, “My life is wasted without Jesus” (emphasis mine). I just want to dismiss this as idiotic before even beginning the real discussion: if the message is intolerant, personalizing it does not make it less intolerant. “It’s better to be not black” doesn’t get “fixed” by turning it into “it’s better for me to be not black” or “i’m better for not being black”.
Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta suggests that “Life is great with Jesus” would have been an better alternative. His explanation is that “life is great with Jesus” has
positive tones. True, and to be fair to Mehta, he doesn’t come right out and say that “life is wasted without Jesus” has “negative tones”, or that it’s unacceptable. But he does waffle around the question of whether it is acceptable.
Another thing I’ve heard – and I can’t source this, because I either heard this in the discussions of the case on CBC, or possibly read it in one of the viewer Twitter opinions they like to mention – is that “life is wasted without Jesus” is makes readers feel “judged” because they’re reading it as “your life is wasted without Jesus”. I can’t think of a gentler way to say this while retaining my contempt, but if you’re going to rewrite things you read to say things they don’t say, and then get offended by the interpretations in your head… dude… you’re a fucking idiot. Seriously.
What the shirt actually says is essentially: “it is my opinion that life is wasted without Jesus”. Hell, any time you see someone displaying a statement on a placard or T-shirt or whatever, it implicitly begins with “it is my opinion that”: “(it is my opinion that) abortion is murder”, “(it is my opinion that) Obama is a Nazi Muslim”, “(it is my opinion that) God hates fags”, and so on. In other words, Swinimer’s shirt is not a “judgement”, it’s an opinion, and Swinimer should have the right to express it unless it is threatening or disparaging – ie, unless it’s hate speech.
Now, it’s clearly not threatening, but is it disparaging? Well, no, not really. Certainly it’s not disparaging toward any particular person or group. Some people have tried to interpret “life is wasted without Jesus” as disparaging all non-Christians, but that’s a stretch. Mehta makes an interesting point when he says:
I would oppose an atheist student wearing a shirt that says, “Life is wasted with Jesus.” Unfortunately, it’s not the point he thinks he’s making. Because “life is wasted with Jesus” would not be an atheist shirt… it is an anti-Christian shirt (it could just as easily have been made by a Sikh). In contrast, Swinimer’s shirt is not anti anything. What, exactly would the X be in the statement: “the message “life is wasted without Jesus” is anti-X“? You could fill in pretty much anything you wanted, but the point is that you would then be creating the disparagement against that target… it is not implicit in the message, and you can’t blame the message, or the source, for intolerance you’re putting there.
Another important point is that the message says nothing whatsoever about other people, or their beliefs. Messages like “life is wasted if you’re not white” or “life is wasted if you’re not Christian” are disparaging other characteristics and beliefs, albeit indirectly. “Life is wasted without Jesus” is not; it is disagreeing with other beliefs, but not disparaging them. Jesus is certainly an aspect of Christianity, and a fundamentally important one, but Jesus ≠ Christianity. Saying “life is wasted without Jesus” is not the same thing as saying “life is wasted if you’re not Christian”. I don’t doubt that Christianity and Jesus are inextricably intertwined in the minds of most Christians, or that Swinimer intended for the message of his shirt to be that everyone else’s beliefs suck, and they should convert. But those things aren’t in the message, and it is wrong to put them there then judge the message by them. (Consider: I would imagine that most atheists who wear “you can be good without God” shirts intend for the message to mean that God is useless, and everyone should abandon him and “convert” to atheism… but that’s not what the message actually says, and guessing the intentions of the atheists who wear that shirt doesn’t make it so. Besides, the atheists wearing those shirts may have benign intentions… and so might Swinimer.) “Life is wasted if you’re not Christian” and “life is wasted if you’re not Sikh” are disparaging statements; “life is wasted without Jesus” and “life is wasted without a dastar” are not.
Note, too, that the shirt doesn’t say, “life is wasted unless you have accepted Jesus as your saviour”. It just says “life is wasted without Jesus”. Really, that message is essentially “the existence of Jesus in the world has made life worth living”, which is obviously non-disparaging and non-threatening. It’s essentially the same as “the existence of Justin Bieber in the world has made life worth living”, or “life is wasted without Justin Bieber”. It is simply not a condemnation or disparagement of other people or beliefs.
So, so far I’ve clarified that “life is wasted without Jesus” is not judgemental, it is not threatening, and it is not disparaging… to anyone, unless they reinterpret the message to be personally about them, and if they do then the judgement, threat or disparagement is coming from them, not the message. But what about Mehta’s concern… about the message not being positive?
To Mehta I would say: messages need not be positive to be perfectly acceptable. “Meat is murder” is negative, but do you think it’s necessary to encourage a change to “vegetables are nice!”? Indeed, some perfectly legitimate messages have to be negative. How would a student express an opinion that Harper is a terrible prime minister positively? “Could be worse; coulda been Hitler!”? If people have to be protected from negativity, we’ve become a pretty sad and pathetic species. I agree that people should be protected against being threatened or disparaged… but protected against negativity? Come on, Mehta. You call yourself a teacher?
In summary, “life is wasted without Jesus” is clearly a non-threatening and non-disparaging message; as written, it’s little more than a statement of opinion that Jesus has made the world a better place. In order to find any kind of insult or threat in it, one must put it there; it’s not part of the message. Granted, Swinimer may think of the message as equivalent to “your lives are pointless without Christianity”… but that’s irrelevant; it’s not what the message actually says. It may be a little imperious and overbearing, but so would be “North High is the best!” – should that shirt be disallowed? Of course not; being dickish is not enough to make a message unacceptable. It may not be a positive or uplifting message, but there is no requirement that a message must be positive or uplifting to be tolerable. The school was wrong to ask him to remove it. Those who complained are the same calibre of people who complain at “atheists exist” and “you can be good without God” messages; they’re creating the insult, not discovering it.
I don’t agree with the shirt, obviously, but I think the only thing offensive about it is its aesthetics. It is opinionated and provocative, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And if you look at how the shirt is laid out, it’s particularly inoffensive, because you have to get right up close to Swinimer to even read the “without Jesus” part… and if that kid’s been wearing the same shirt for weeks, who the hell would want to do that? (Actually, that might suggest a second thing about the shirt that’s offensive, but I’m far to classy a blogger to speculate on Swinimer’s personal hygiene.)