Thanks to regular commenter Peter for suggesting this topic. I’ve written previously about how, as individuals, we have a right to free speech and how our values and behaviours in our personal lives should not be used to discriminate against us in the workplace, particularly when what we say or do has no impact on our employer.

I’ve documented numerous examples of morally or ideologically driven discrimination against employees who have done nothing to harm their employers yet who have been persecuted by them, most commonly for expressing themselves sexually. Is Tamar Iveri a victim of these circumstances? Has she been treated unfairly as an employee?

To summarise, in 2013 Georgian opera singer Tamar Iveri posted some homophobic comments on her Facebook page. They seem to have passed mostly unnoticed at the time (at least in the English speaking world). In 2014 Opera Australia hired Iveri to sing in two forthcoming productions (presumably without knowing about the comments).

Awareness of her comments then went viral in Australia and the public backlash resulted in her employment being terminated. Opera Australia was slow and ineffective in dealing with the online backlash against Iveri. Many people called for her to be dismissed, but this did not immediately happen. The main problem was that Opera Australia failed to address the issue of homophobia quickly enough.

When it first acknowledged the issue, Opera Australia did not condemn her comments, and this was a fundamental public relations failure that turned observers against Opera Australia, where previously they were mainly opposed only to Iveri. Fury at Iveri’s homophobia became fury at Opera Australia, and this led it to address the negative publicity it was receiving by dismissing Iveri.

It was apparent from Opera Australia’s initial response that it wasn’t motivated primarily by her opinions. It was only in its subsequent statement dismissing Iveri that Opera Australia finally described Iveri’s values as ‘unconscionable‘. This suggests there was another motivation for its actions.

Without wishing to reiterate cultural cliches without evidence to support them, for the sake of the argument here, assume that many gay people work in the arts and that gay people attend the opera at a greater per capita rate than straight people. Gay people may be considered prominent customers of Opera Australia.

Again for the sake of the argument, assume temporary roles like Iveri’s are akin to freelance contracts, not standard employee contracts where employees are protected against arbitrary dismissal by anti-discrimination laws. I’m not sure if it’s legal to dismiss someone for merely expressing homophobic opinions in Australia (without acting on them, such as by discriminating against a gay colleague), but let’s assume Opera Australia was not constrained by such laws.

On the surface, it appears that Iveri was dismissed because of her homophobic comments. However I believe that this is not exactly correct. Opera Australia’s delay in dealing with the issue appears to be the result of ineptitude, but it may also have been the result of needing time for their lawyers to examine Iveri’s contract to determine how they could sever relations with her without being sued for unfair dismissal or having to pay out her contract.

Iveri’s own explanation of her values and behaviour suggests that maintaining her commercial value in the opera world is her priority. Suggestions of western hatred of traditional patriarchal values prevalent in eastern European countries like Georgia are merely a distraction. If Iveri’s main employers are western opera houses, it makes no sense for Iveri’s homophobia to be excused in the context of Georgian opposition to western cultural imperialism as manifested in the form of gay rights.

Opera Australia continues to publish an artist page about Iveri that summarises her international standing. If Iveri participates in the international world of opera, and is aware of its popularity in the western gay world, then her actions in publicly expressing her private opinions can be considered nothing more than rampant stupidity. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

I believe that Opera Australia dismissed Iveri primarily for commercial, not ideological, reasons. The threats from regular attendees to boycott her performances could have financially crippled them. Opera Australia is significantly subsidised, like other niche legacy ‘high art’ forms of entertainment, by taxpayers. It is further sustained by paying customers. These stakeholders are effectively Iveri’s employers and they exercised their power to dismiss her. It may have been lawful, based on Opera Australia’s legal deliberations, but whether it was ethical is another matter.

This is a complex issue at the heart of the postmodern condition. We middle class progressives have all the time in the world to ponder whether watching Roman Polanski or Woody Allen films makes us apologists for rape or child abuse. Iveri is in the same category. We don’t want to endorse her ideas or personal behaviour in any way, yet some of us want to consume her professional product.

If Iveri wasn’t dismissed directly because of her homophobia, can it be argued that she was unfairly treated as an employee? It seems the answer is no, but it’s not as simple as that. It’s simply not plausible to compare someone who’s public name as an entertainer is inseparable from their professional reputation to a nobody whose name has no public importance. It’s also not plausible to compare ranting online using your real name with doing so via an anonymous account.

So it’s pointless to compare the actions of an ordinary man, using a pseudonymous Twitter account, to describe a well known anti-abortion activist as ‘rootable’, to a famous opera singer calling homosexuals sewage on her own Facebook page. When the man did what he did, it had no impact on his employer. There was no direct or relevant connection between his employer (the ATO), his online audience (fellow Twitter users) and the individual he was describing.

The only reason he was in trouble with his employer is because of a draconian federal public service policy that censors what its employees say as private citizens outside of work. His behaviour was irrelevant to his employer and, consequently, it is reasonable to describe his treatment as unethical and a form of discrimination (despite it being lawful – legal and just are not always the same thing).

In contrast, what Iveri did had an immense impact on her employer, and there is a direct connection between her employer (Opera Australia), her online audience (fellow Facebook users including Australian gay or gay friendly opera lovers) and the people she was describing (gay people). It is reasonable to assume that Iveri was already aware of the popularity of her art form with gay audiences, and regardless of this she insulted them as a group.

Members of her social media audience (including gay people) are financial supporters of her employer. She bit the hand that feeds her and it slapped her back. Her treatment was therefore not unethical and it was not discriminatory. Despite appearing ideological, her dismissal was primarily pragmatic and operational due to the financial risk her continued employment posed to her employer.

Tamar Iveri, homophobia and the public – private divide on social media

5 thoughts on “Tamar Iveri, homophobia and the public – private divide on social media

  • 30 June 2014 at 2:53 pm
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    I think the use of the “harm to the employer” test is a good yardstick for assessing whether these sorts of comments become more than just an individual’s personal opinion.

    One thing I haven’t been able to confirm is whether the Facebook page on which the comments were made were open to anyone, or limited to her Facebook friends, one of whom outed her. Would it have made any difference?

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    • 30 June 2014 at 3:09 pm
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      I think it would make a difference if the writing was in a private post or message and not accessible to the public. Private correspondence is often exposed of course, but intent is clearly important here. If Iveri’s speech was not intended to be made public then she could better argue that she had no intention of harming her employer.

      If employers were required to prove objective harm, rather than take moral or political exception to harmless private opinion and behaviour, most of these cases would be determined in favour of employees and the federal public service policy would be declared illegal or unconstitutional or similar.

      The latest case of the football player photographed allegedly urinating into his own mouth is a good example. I defy an employer to indicate how this causes harm to them. He’s breaking no law and not attempting to offend anyone (people taking offence at this are forming an opinion about his behaviour). His eccentricities are his own. Is anyone really going to boycott a game of football because of this? I doubt it.

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  • 30 June 2014 at 10:01 pm
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    Another complication with the Iveri case is that the comments were made well before she became an employee/contractor of OA. It would be therefore impossible to argue that her comments were made with an intention to harm her employer, as she didn’t have a relationship with them at that time. What is the decent interval after which such comments shouldn’t be relevant? Is there a statute of limitations which applies in these cases?

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    • 30 June 2014 at 10:14 pm
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      In his Artshub article Richard Watts suggests that such contracts are often made so far ahead that she may have signed with Opera Australia before publishing her comments. I can only surmise that freelance artists are in a relatively weak position legally and contractually with their employers, for it seemed very easy for Opera Australia to dismiss her. I wonder if she was compensated for going away quietly?

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