The Tennie Pierce Affair: On Practical Jokes, Spurious Lawsuits, Racial Politics, Opportunism and Betrayal
It all began with a practical joke.
Practical jokes among members of close-knit groups are often demonstrations of affection and trust, as well as ritual methods of confirming that trust. Undoubtedly, such pranks perch on an ethical tightrope, for if they are too cruel, mean or hurtful, the “jokes’ can destroy a relationship rather than bolster it. Ethical practical jokes arise from an environment of implied consent, in which the victim of a prank has clearly signaled advance consent and his willingness to accept his fate—which might well include embarrassment, inconvenience or even physical discomfort— with good humor and understanding.
One of the most reliable indications of consent is participating in practical jokes directed at others in the group. The presence of implied or explicit uncoerced consent distinguishes practical jokes from hazing, which is typically directed at either an outsider trying to join a group, or a very recent addition to a group. Except in its most benign forms, hazing is unethical. In hazing, a group uses a newcomer’s desire to join a group or to be accepted by it to coerce him into agreeing to some form of abuse, or in some cases, to “prove” his worthiness for inclusion by accepting mistreatment without complaint. This represents at least an abuse of power, and frequently the infliction of intentional harm on another without genuine consent.
As a 19 year veteran Los Angeles fireman, Tennie Pierce was definitely no outsider. Moreover, he had a well-deserved reputation at Fire Station 5 in Westchester as a firehouse prankster, pulling practical jokes on his colleagues with regularity. Pierce, who likes to be called “Big Dog,” set himself up for some juicy payback during a dominating performance in a firehouse volleyball game, during which he kept telling his team to “feed the Big Dog” as he spiked winners at the net. So, at that evening’s dinner, his friends made him a special meat sauce for his spaghetti out of dog food. After he had taken a few bites, the firefighters told “Big Dog” what he was eating.
Tennie Pierce didn’t laugh, as his practical joke victims had laughed at his pranks. He sued. Because he is an African American and was the only one at the station, Pierce chose to treat the incident as an instance of discrimination, and accused his colleagues of being racist.
The Scoreboard will enumerate the ways this was unethical.
1) It was a betrayal of trust. By his own participation in practical jokes on his fellow firemen, Pierce had established his inclusion in the group and created sufficient mutual trust to give his co-workers assurances that he would accept pranks in the spirit in which they were given, which was the spirit in which Pierce had rendered his own practical jokes. Instead, he decided to mischaracterize an obviously benign joke for his own benefit and to their detriment.
2) It was dishonest. For a 6 foot 5 inch firefighter in the habit of telling co-workers to “feed the Big Dog” to claim that a practical joke involving dog food was based on his race required breath-taking gall. In essence, Pierce chose to use racial tensions and hyper-sensitivity to racial issues in his community to extort money from a city that has many better uses for it, like education, crime prevention, and yes, fire fighting.
3) It violated the ethical principle of holding oneself to the same standards one would impose on others. There are photographs of Pierce performing practical jokes no less extreme than the dog food gag that was pulled on him.
4) It perpetrated a misuse of the judicial system, the kind that gives ammunition to those who want to curtail access to the courts by legitimate victims. Don’t blame Pierce’s lawyer for this. His job is to try to accomplish his client’s objective of as long as it is legal and there is a real chance of success. Pierce is the one who decided to pounce on an opportunity to cry “Racism!” when he had to know otherwise. A lawyer took the case because, sadly, Los Angeles has a well-earned reputation for paying outrageous settlements for dubious examples of discrimination, making Pierce’s claim, though not honest or fair, winnable. Access to the courts means that citizens should be able to get legal assistance to bring their claims to court, even when their lawyers may think the clients are wrong or despicable to do so.
5) It undermines efforts to promote societal understanding and equality among races. A suit like Pierce’s stands for the indefensible proposition that actions that are acceptable and innocent when directed to an individual of one race are per se racist and hostile when directed at a member of another race. Such a policy breeds resentment and cynicism regarding society’s handling of race relations, and should. No race should assert special immunity to the routine rough-and-tumble of daily interaction. If you can shout at, fire, discipline, reprimand, judge, reject, criticize, lampoon, satirize, challenge or pull a practical joke on a member of one race, you should be able to do these things to a member of any race. To do otherwise mocks the concept of equality.
There is no mystery why “Big Dog” decided to exploit racial tensions while betraying his employers and co-workers: he smelled money. His lawyer duly found an expert who was willing to testify that giving an African American dog food symbolized 300 years of racial subjugation. Cowed by this hackneyed argument, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to settle the suit for 2.7 million dollars, thus making the next ethical misstep in the Tennie Pierce saga. It was an absurd claim, and the council had an obligation to fight it in court. Yes, the Council feared bad publicity, condemnation from community agitators, generous and sympathetic juries and many other things; nevertheless, it had an obligation not to let Pierce’s bait-and-switch double-cross of his friends pay off, with the city coffers doing the paying. Instead, it voted for those alternatives to principle so pervasive in the news lately: cowardice and capitulation.
And then just when one was needed most, an ethics hero arrived! Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement, requiring the case to go to court. As expected, shameless and irresponsible civil rights activists, ignoring their duty to distinguish between genuine racial grievances and manufactured ones, attacked him. Ron Hasson, the president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, said that the Pierce affair showed that “systemic racism and sexism pervades the Los Angeles Fire Department culture.” In fact, his comments showed the truth of the axiom that all movements for social change begin as missions, evolve into businesses, and end up as rackets. The NAACP appears to well into its racket stage, making it a natural ally for Tennie Pierce.