The problem with an offensive fire department video that doesn't offend

The too-easily offended can become the enemy of correcting genuinely offensive behavior

Years ago I met and befriended a man who runs a small "hole in the wall" bar in Arizona. His bar definitely is not for everyone. In fact, he has a prominent sign that reads, "Something to offend everyone."

That’s a bold proclamation given how "offensive," like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Despite that, he has packed his place with enough items that most sensible people will find something to take offense at.

Part of the reason I like that joint is because I’m not someone who’s easily offended. And in my quest to be a better human – that is, to be kind to and considerate of others – I’ve had to work to understand what others are likely to find offensive and modify my behaviors accordingly.  

Those who know me best understand this is a work in progress; I have a dark sense of humor, even when it comes to the things that strike closest to my heart.

And it’s in this context that I’m struggling to wrap my head around why the city of San Luis Obispo, Calif. is spending $70,000 to investigate a spoof video the fire chief had a hand in making.

The trouble started late last year when the city and the fire department participated in an annual spoof video produced for the Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner. This video, as is true with past videos, is kind of funny and kind of corny – but something most parents would let their kids watch.

That didn’t stop some from filing formal and informal complaints that the video objectified male firefighters and was part of a culture of sexual harassment.

In the cross hairs of this investigation are the fire chief, a man, and the city manager, a woman, who both appeared in the video – the city manager sporting a fake mustache, bunker pants and a shirt printed to look like a buff male torso.

After watching this and other videos and reading up on it, my first reaction was along the lines of: “How can they justify dumping 70 grand investigating this?”

After taking a deep breath, looking at it from other points of view, my second reaction was along the lines of: “How can they justify dumping 70 grand investigating this?”

When a cigar is just a cigar

Rest assure, this money will not throw the fire department into station brownouts or cause the city to leave half of their street lamps off. The city has a population of 45,000 and an operating budget of $212 million, with $25.6 million set aside for police and fire protection.

Still, even if they can afford it, should they? I have to think that money could be put to much better use.

Make no mistake, harassing behavior, sexual or otherwise, should not be condoned in city government or the fire service. Great effort needs to go into preventing it and ferreting it out and punishing it when prevention efforts fail.

The same holds true for videos, images and the like that present fire departments in an unprofessional light. There is no shortage of examples of these bad choices.

But this case isn’t one where those making the video simply didn’t get or didn’t care how it could be offensive. The intent is clearly humor and the end product is far, far less provocative than any Super Bowl halftime show.

The problem here isn’t just the wasted $70,000 (and that figure will likely climb) and the undue bad publicity.

The problem is that this gives ammunition and false credibility to those who argue against efforts to correct cultures where harassment prevails, often under the guise that political correctness has run amok. Those who can’t or won’t see life through another’s point of view, can point to this and say, “see, see, we’ve become too soft, too politically correct.”

We have a lot of work to do to become more considerate toward those who are different. Doing so makes our fire departments better, makes us better firefighters and makes us better humans.

Dumping energy and attention on something that is clearly not harassment does not help. It’s certainly possible that those who complained about the Chamber’s video have an ulterior motive beyond being genuinely offended.

In either case, this is a situation where city officials needed to put on their big girl/boy pants, defend its fire chief’s choice and tell the complainers to stop whining.

Like the Tucson bar, the world is full of things to offend just about anyone. The key is to guard against allowing the easily offended to be used as tools to justify the genuinely offensive. 

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