If you haven’t been on the internet lately — understandable, as it’s as much a barren wasteland of lost souls and vitriol-spewing keyboard activists as it is an information superhighway and social facilitator these days — let me catch you up to speed. The web, torn asunder last week by President Obama saying stuff and Beyonce not singing stuff, was once again divided into two very different factions over a couple of news items that happened to go viral. Now, I’ve learned not to expect civility from the internet; here now is my impression of everyone I’ve blocked from my Facebook in the past year. “President Obama wants to prevent my kid from packing a pistol in their lunch box! WHAT IS THIS, NAZI GERMANY? And what’s with that name? That’s awful terrorist-y. Whatever happened to presidents with nice white names like James L. Wittingforth II?” (I’d now like to take this opportunity to apologize on the behalf of South Jersey, the most terrifyingly soulless mixture of urban decay and “Deliverance”-y redneck-chic in America. “Jersey Pride” is a thing that stupid people say.)

Candid photograph taken at a South Jersey fundraising gala with a “business casual” dress code.

Last week’s episode of “Glee” was rolling along just like a normal episode of “Glee”: fresh-faced singers with their balls Autotuned off bleating over karaoke tracks of pop classics, high school and college students behaving like nobody ever does, hilariously tin-eared dialogue, and Ryan Murphy’s usual flurry of confused young sexuality lording over all. And then, gay icon Kurt is serenaded by some dude dressed like a Mumford & Son auditioning for “Once” with a folksy, ironic re-imagining of “Baby Got Back”. How clever! What a unique arrangement!

Except it wasn’t. Enter witty, Popblerd-approved troubadour Jonathan Coulton, who released this very cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ’90s novelty in 2005; Mr. Mix-a-Lot’s lyrical content remained intact, but JoCo added a melody and an arrangement all his own. The license that Coulton got to release the song still recognizes Sir Mix-a-Lot as the original songwriter, which was all that “Glee” needed to essentially only credit Sir Mix-a-Lot as the song’s original artist. Even though Coulton’s unique composition was actually the thing covered.

From “Glee” we move to a St. Louis-area Applebee’s, where server Chelsea Welch was recently fired for posting a customer’s tip receipt on Reddit. Pastor Alois Bell came in with more than eight diners in her party; this triggered the automatic gratuity function in the Applebee’s computer system, and her credit card receipt added an 18% gratuity. Incensed, Bell chose to scribble out the tip and scrawl “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” Welch, upon seeing the receipt, posted it on the internet, where service industry workers everywhere could marvel at the pastor’s rudeness and hubris; Bell complained after the photo went viral, and Applebee’s fired Welch to satisfy her anger.

“And the greatest of these is love… of yourself.” – Alois Bell 12:23 (non-canonical)

How do these two news stories relate? I’m glad you asked.

It’s no secret that civility’s stock is dwindling in today’s world. Free speech is the name of the game: it’s what gives the KKK all the freedom in the world to hold their marches, and the Westboro Baptist Church’s bottomless supply of Phelps hellspawn the right to picket funerals. In an era where personal freedoms are the subject of much debate, we’re obsessed with not necessarily what IS right to do, but what we HAVE the right to do. And this is problematic, and is at the heart of both stories referenced here.

Let’s say that closer audio analysis determines that “Glee” did not actually USE the audio from Jonathan Coulton’s recording of “Baby Got Back” to craft their version (some, including Coulton, have speculated that they may not have merely recreated his instrumental, but actually utilized it, which opens up a whole new can of legal worms). If this is the case, with Coulton’s version considered an arrangement, Sir Mix-a-Lot gets the royalties, which was always going to happen anyway; therefore, the moral question at hand becomes “should ‘Glee’ have given Jonathan Coulton credit for using his arrangement?” Legally, they’re not obligated to; morally, I’d argue that they are.

And when Alois Bell scrawled a rude note to an Applebee’s server, did she overstep any legal boundaries? Certainly not. She’s even within her rights legally to not leave a tip, as by definition a gratuity is involuntary. But just because she has the right doesn’t mean she’s in the right; her note was incredibly insulting to a person that just provided her with a service, and to skip out on the tip is never okay.

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a service industry vet. One of the many restaurants in which I’ve done time was Applebee’s; which puts me in the position to confirm that skipping out on a tip directly siphons money from the server in many ways, delineated for you here:

  • Servers are not paid a livable wage. I made $2.13 an hour as an Applebee’s server, the lowest amount allowed by state law for tipped employees. Because I was excellent at my job, I wasn’t exactly relying on those paychecks; I worked hard enough (and flirted hard enough) to walk away from each shift with a small fortune in cold, hard cash. Still, this system only works if people play into it, and tip the expected amount; if a server does their job and is not properly compensated for it, you’ve essentially required them to work for nothing (paychecks are routinely eaten up by taxes in the serving world, taxes that are deducted based on the amount you’re assumed to have made in tips). This is a theft of time, and of service.
  • Servers don’t even keep all of their tips. It’s true; a percentage of a server’s cash is funneled to the bartender for making their drinks. The calculation is based on total sales, so while 1% of each individual check is mere pennies, it adds up at the end of the night. In an ideal world, that’s completely offset by the amount of tip money accumulated over the course of an evening; but if you don’t tip, you’ve essentially required your server to pay for the pleasure of waiting on you, because your sales are still factored into the percentage owed the bartender by the server.
  • Servers have a finite number of tables to turn over. Since the hosts rotate guests between each individual server’s section, who gets the best tippers is essentially a “luck of the draw” situation. To not tip a server not only insults the server, and takes money out of their pocket; it ensures that a table is wasted on poor tippers instead of good ones. (Hence why you’ll often hear servers suggesting that poor tippers should just “go to McDonald’s.”)

Now, how much does all of this matter to you? After all, you can’t be arrested for not leaving a tip, right? And hey, it’s more money in your pocket at the end of the day.

Absolutely. And there’s the problem: when we focus on what we HAVE the right to do, as opposed to what IS right to do, basic human decency is often filtered out.

“Glee” may not owe Jonathan Coulton a dime; but he arranged and performed that cover himself, and it’s his intellectual property. Perhaps a credit on an insanely popular television show could have garnered him some positive exposure; unfortunately, to “Glee” fans (or “Gleeks”, as “Glee” fans who are also stupid call themselves), now some of that exposure is negative, because Mr. Coulton dared to challenge their infallible overlord, and suggest that the show’s behavior in this situation was kind of not cool.

Likewise, Pastor Alois Bell has her defenders; they’re the same type of people who argue “I shouldn’t be expected to tip, because it’s not MY fault you chose a job that doesn’t pay you a decent wage.” And those people are correct to say that it’s not their fault, but is it their concern? Absolutely. If you’re aware of the custom of tipping, it is inexcusable for you to go into a restaurant without participating in said custom. Is it illegal? No, but it’s wrong.

Moral of the story: legal doesn’t always mean right. It’s legal for me to point out how fat people are. It’s legal for me to cheerfully walk down the street hollering racial slurs. It’s legal for me to tell every stranger I come across that I banged their mom. I have the right. But is it right? No, no it’s not. We as a society need to stop using free speech as a crutch, as a license to be a complete turd to everyone with no legal repercussion.

I sincerely hope that Jonathan Coulton and Chelsea Welch win their battles. If they don’t, they can both take some level of solace in the fact that they have the moral upper hand, even if they don’t have the legal one; but in either event, we need to stop defending defenseless acts in the name of legality. Studies show that our population is approximately 78% douchebag as it is. Let’s not inflate those numbers any more than they already are.

Dear God, it’s too late.

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