Next April, I’m going to turn 50. I’ll be 50 years old.
Somehow, I’ve managed to get this far without working in a large corporate office. So today I got my first taste of a world that most of you are already much more familiar with than I am: the world of modern American big business. So what lit me up like a Fourth of July skyrocket was something that seemed to mean nothing at all to the other 23 people in the room, because today, for the first time, I had to attend a mandatory sexual-harassment training course.
Now, before I get up a really good head of steam and a decent running start, let me say a few things.
First of all, I work for a great company, full of creative and terrific people, and, by some miracle of chance, not a one of them are stupid, boorish, authoritarian or in any way less than smart, well-meaning people. I understand, also, that the reason for these sessions is to provide legal protection to the company, so that if a harassment claim is made, they can say, “look, we did everything we could to combat this sort of thing.” I get all that.
I also understand that other companies are not this fortunate, and that racial, sexual, and other forms of harassment go on daily and cause great harm, both in terms of productivity, and more importantly, spiritual and mental well-being. No one should have to endure attack or intimidation. So if you think this is going to an appeal to “lighten up,” you’re going to be disappointed. For me, this is not about actual harassment, which needs to be ruthlessly exterminated from the workplace. This is about something else again.
Where do I begin?
Well, first of all, I find it deeply offensive to my personal sense of honor and integrity to be punished or otherwise lectured on something I did not do. Period. And to be subjected to two hours of second-grade style, “who can tell me what Johnny did wrong by telling Sarah she has a hot body” lecturing infuriates me on many levels.
To begin with, I do not need to be told this is inappropriate behavior. I already know that is inappropriate behavior. I learned that was inappropriate behavior not from the state of California or a battalion of corporate lawyers, but from my parents, who raised me to be polite, well-mannered, and who spent much of their own youth trying to form me into a civilized gentleman. I know, I can see the smiles on many faces already. It’s like I’m speaking in Aramaic.
I was treated to a video that had precisely the same emotional pitch and condescension as the old ABC After-School Specials, which is appropriate when aimed at 10-year-olds but in a room full of adults was unimaginably cloying and infantile. In this helpful lecture on the evils of hateful stereotypes, a clueless, insensitive white male managed to offend everyone without the dimmest awareness of his own boorishness until confronted and re-educated (with a rising string section!) by emotionally advanced, sensitive (yet strong!) women and his solemn, understanding (but firm!), black male superior.
But what really set me off was learning that there are “protected categories” of people who apparently have special claims on being harassed, and that these groups include, but are not limited to:
“Race, color…” [in case you happen to be green or of some color not associated with your race] ”…religious creed, sex, national origin, ancestry, citizenship status, pregnancy, childbirth…” [this being different from pregnancy presumably only if you are actually giving birth right there in your cubicle] “…physical disability, mental disability, age, military status or status as a Vietnam-era or special disabled veteran, marital status, registered domestic partner or civil union status, gender (including sex stereotyping and gender identity or expression), medical condition (including, but not limited to, cancer-related or HIV-related), or sexual orientation.”
These — including but not limited to — “protected categories” are areas in which “harassment” is especially hurtful, as far as I can understand it… which is not very far at all. Can you — offhand — think of any kind of harassment that does not fit into these categories? I suppose saying hateful things about the Florida State football team is okay as long as I don’t use the word “Seminoles” (which would then become offensive on the grounds of race, color, religious creed, national origin, ancestry, and military status; to which, I will add as a Gator fan regarding FSU grads, mental disability, and — what the heck — sexual orientation.)
All of this is mere sophistry and cover of course, for the essence of the 22-page workbook I received (and for which I was not given a crayon with which to write nor a gold star when it was completed) was boiled down to a single sentence, in bold italics at the bottom of page 15: It is not the intent of the alleged harasser, but the impact on the recipient.
It doesn’t matter if you meant to hurt someone. As long as someone was hurt, then harassment took place.
Now at the end of all this, the facilitator — who is clearly a lovely person, for this is not aimed at her — smilingly told us not to be paranoid but just to be careful not to offend anyone. And the other 23 people nodded happily and made jokes and goofed around to show how lighthearted and un-paranoid we suddenly all were. And yet, this harassment and sensitivity training did not succeed fully, because there was one person who was offended, and who in point of fact felt extremely harassed. And that person was me.
Perhaps, in future editions of the handbook, we can add another victim group to the protected category: rational adults. Perhaps I might contribute a chapter to this sensitivity training. Something like:
“The rational adult is a small and shrinking minority in the workplace. His cultural heritage — which is just as valuable as anyone else’s! — has taught him that “personal responsibility” means he has a right to feel insulted, offended, and harassed when being lectured on things that he did not do, nor would ever contemplate doing. In this ancient and primitive culture, a person’s “honor” and “integrity” are relied upon to govern behavior. If such a person unknowingly gives insult, they will “apologize.” According to their tribal ethics, people who intentionally harm, insult or harass others deserve to be fired on the spot.”
I am told this course was “preventative” — to stop harassment before it happens. Fair enough. Tomorrow, perhaps, we can have a course on how to prevent office electrocutions by sticking screwdrivers into the sockets, or a poison-prevention class involving two role-players and a gallon of copier toner, or perhaps we can facilitate a upper-level meeting to try and determine what warning placards may be missing from every object and sharp corner in the building, or a support group for those people rendered incapable of speaking or smiling for fear of giving some kind of unintentional offense to someone. These are all areas ripe for new legislation and demanding of state funding. Because when you really get down to how much unintentional offense there remains left to give, you can see we have a genuine crisis on our hands.
Look, there are two ways to prevent young children from drowning:
Place barricades, gates, locks, and other restraining devices around any body of water large enough to immerse the child’s head in; in addition, provide education, audio-visual instruction, role-playing, and other methods to inform young children on the dangers of inhaling large amounts of water — whether it be fresh water or sea water — and to provide the funding, continuing outreach and community activism necessary to make sure that ALL Americans are prevented from encountering these deadly dangers wherever they may be found.
Teach your kid how to swim.
My parents — remember them? — taught me at an early age that what people said or thought or wrote about me did not have the power to hurt me — only I can allow them to do that. My self-worth, self-respect, and self-esteem are earned, and not given, and are therefore mine — impervious to anything in the outside world, which is why I am willing to sit at this desk, as the only one of 24 happy, smart, creative people, and look like some reactionary nut case for being enraged about the fact that we willingly submit ourselves to insults to our personal honor and integrity that our forefathers would never, ever have countenanced. And I am ashamed on behalf of them. But just me. No one else thinks anything of it at all.
And so, with smiles and good will all around, behind a plate of donuts and cartons of morning orange juice, we again fall another step from the adult world of action and consequence, to the warm, friendly, everlasting childhood of kindergarten, where no one’s feelings can ever be hurt and teacher is always there to make sure — in her gentle but firm way — that there will never be harmful consequences to your actions because your actions will be so curtailed in advance that offending someone — like feeding and housing yourself — are things that we simply no longer have to worry about any more.
And the endless sleep, in the warm, clean, fluffy bed, continues unabated.
– Bill Whittle lives in Los Angeles. You can find him online at www.ejectejecteject.com.