Sunday, October 15, 2006

On the Offensive

If you work for a large company, as I do, there's an excellent chance that at some point or another you've had to sit through that dreaded waste of time known as the Diversity Meeting. This typically involves a group comprised of you and your equally disinterested co-workers, sitting around a conference table littered with the remains of the management-sanctioned free lunch while being lectured by the highly-paid company lawyer about the need for each of you to never -- under any circumstances -- tell a joke whose punchline is "throw them a basketball."

In the television news business, a certain thickness-of-skin is not only encouraged but expected; most of us have the kind of gallows humor which simply isn't tolerated among polite society, and although I don't doubt that many other professions are wont to make this same claim, few others willingly travel to foreign countries to get shot at. Your average news junkie is of a pretty twisted breed. Years ago, a close friend of mine who works for NBC in Miami put into words a truth which I'd always understood, but never quite knew how to articulate; he said it in the most perfectly economical and gloriously revelatory way: "The qualities that make you a good newsperson make you a lousy human being." They're definitely the same qualities that make you a God-awful employee; I for one have never envied a man or woman whose job is to manage a room full of bitter skeptics and cynics -- the kind of people who argue simply for the sake of arguing. True, there's idealism amongst them -- amongst us -- but it's usually the kind that's wielded with a fierce vengeance, as opposed to the more socially-acceptable brand of idealism which, to the average newsperson, brings to mind the doe-eyed, slack-jawed and completely out of touch with reality.

The fact is, if ever there was a business in which one is expected to "suck it up" when it comes to being offended by every little thing -- news is it.

This is the age of the frivolous lawsuit however, and the pretense of concern for diversity persists in any large company -- more as a way of covering the corporation's ass and giving its management a certain level of plausible deniability than actually hoping to see a workplace where every type of citizenry is represented and can live free from persecution.

Hence, the Diversity Meeting.

I personally don't offend easily, and I can never quite understand people who do -- which means that I'm a corporate lawyer's arch-enemy. It's not that I walk around the office making racist or sexist jokes or keep an open copy of Hustler on my desk; it's simply that I can tell the difference between a comment from a rational person who intends to offend no one -- even if his or her words might indeed do just that -- and a cruel remark from an ignorant fuck who not only doesn't realize what he's saying, but doesn't care either way. I understand that many will claim that it's this latter type of person for whom diversity training was created, but the fact remains that the focus of these classes is generally on the need not simply for anyone to offend, but for anyone to be offended -- as if a broad stroke can somehow lessen or even eliminate the myriad little things you can say or do that might send a co-worker into apoplexy. It's as if in the office -- as in life -- we're trying to create a world in which no one is ever offended by anything.

And therein lies the irony.

By preaching the gospel of diversity -- by insisting that every person's every little hang-up be respected and that no one ever be made to feel the least bit uncomfortable -- we create a completely homogenous workplace which is actually devoid of any real diversity. True tolerance of the uniqueness of each culture and personality would allow for the occasional insensitive act or rude comment. That's not what we're after though -- not these days; instead, corporations are attempting to stave off ludicrous lawsuits by opportunistic employees and in doing so are catering to the culture of victimization which now holds us all hostage.

Case in point:

Chances are you're aware of the curious case of Andrea Mackris; she's now -- as far as I can tell -- the wealthiest television news producer in the world. A couple of years ago, she was at the center of one of the most ridiculous non-stories in America. Her claim to fame rested solely on the fact that she was the recipient of the laugh-out-loud funniest sexual advances since the invention of the loofa: She was talked dirty to by Bill O'Reilly. Obviously, I won't defend O'Reilly -- he's basically little more than a harmless Vaudevillian boob, with an audience whose median age is dead -- but it's safe to say that if he weren't a television host and were instead Bill the Burger King Manager, his lustful telephone propositions involving showers and falafels probably would've been met with a hearty laugh followed by a dial-tone, rather than a tape recorder and a multi-million dollar out-of-court settlement. Mackris saw her chance to cash in and took it -- ensuring that she need never work in this business again. Unfortunately, those she left behind are forced to pay the price for her opportunism. It would've been easy to simply go to management and inform them of Big Bill's sexual self-absorption (or even more to the point, just tell Bill himself to stick his falafel up his ass) but instead she got rich -- and what's worse, it's safe to say that O'Reilly's boorish behavior hasn't changed one bit since the Mackris Affair.

It's also safe to say that no amount of mandatory diversity training in the world would accomplish what public humiliation failed to; it would simply be what it always is: an ineffectual gesture meant to mitigate the responsible, allay the offended and project the illusion of actual, honest concern to all.

But hey, the free lunch is always nice.

1 comment:

damnyanqui said...

Ah yes, sensitivity training.
I've always been very proud that I got through my 7 years at a major network news organization without ever setting foot in one of those moronic sessions. Somehow the scheduling was never QUITE right and it never happened.
The definitive book on sensitivity tyranny is, of course, Ray Bradbury's "Farenheit 451," now approaching its 40th birthday. No doubt you recall the story clearly marks the origins of an anti intellectual book-burning dystopia in the desire of a few paranoid losers never to be offended and the willingness of a spineless broader society to indulge them.
The process is, of course, well underway in the early 21st century, aided and abetted by courts that give nutcases big damages awards instead of the jail time they deserve for their abuse of court system.
I recall a great explanation once given out to some inexperienced news writers unsure about the correct definition of "plantiff" and "defendant."

* A "plaintiff" is one who brings a frivelous lawsuit.
* A "defendant" is one against whom a frivelous lawsuit is brought.

In today's civil courts, the use of the word "frivelous" may be redundant, but it does provide some valuable context, doesn't it?