Today I, like many of my co-workers across many different offices, received a message this morning telling me to take a course on workplace harassment as a “multi-state employee.” The course was about an hour long and was presented by a couple of lawyers whose expertise is in labor law and sadly not film or course design. The general gist of the video was attempting to educate employees on what constituted workplace harassment of a criminal nature and encourage us to do something about by intervening or snitching on said people as a means of improving workplace culture. The irony, of course, is that I have not worked at my workplace for about a month now and have not seen most of my coworkers now for almost ten months, as Covid has forced us to work from home, and the office is itself shuttered with more or less permanent people present to keep people from entering the office even to do mundane things like deal with the mail.
There are many layers of irony in a situation like this. For one, there is the irony of having a required course on workplace harassment at a time when everyone (or at least almost everyone) is working from home. For another, there is the more profound and also more problematic nature that a course designed to inform people on what to do when workplace situations made them feel uncomfortable was itself deeply uncomfortable to watch for a variety of reasons, including the music as well as the terrible and cringeworthy acting. In fact, as someone who has experience in trying to perform in such scenarios, it is a sad reality that it is virtually impossible not to be extremely cringeworthy when dealing with such scenarios because the didactic intent of the people who make such scenarios pretty much torpedoes any of the actual verisimilitude of the scenario itself. The longing of the people who made the course to present material to discourage harassment ended up being harassment itself because of the insistence and shrillness of the approach and the obviousness of the setups included in the videos.
How is it harassment to make videos against harassment? There are, unfortunately, several ways this took place in the video I watched today. For one, there is the coercive nature of requiring such a course in the first place, which forces people to watch material of a deliberately and intentionally uncomfortable nature. It is unpleasant to be harassed by others who do not have respect for one’s worldview and perspective and belief system, as these videos were certainly guilty of. It is unpleasant to watch other people being harassed, even when is dealing with fictional scenarios as is the case here, and there is a great deal of harassment that is shown on the video, including, but not limited, to a stalker trying to seduce a presenter at a conference, an old man being teased for being old and slow, a person upset with being “misgendered,” a presumably Jewish man who was told he had to start work on Yom Kippur, people being propositioned in their entry interviews or told that sexual favors might help them keep their desired shift or having coworkers post photos for others to “rate my coworker” and so on and so forth. To coerce people to watch material of that kind of unpleasant nature is, in fact, itself a type of harassment and the creation of an unpleasant work environment, even when it is simply on one’s screen. Furthermore, the course’s attitudes towards identity simply being a matter of stereotype rather than related to objective reality was itself harassment directed against protected religious identities.
Moreover, the course itself stumbled when it came to its desire to promote civility as an aspect of company culture. The issue is that the course itself defined harassment in the perspective of the person being harassed. This is, after all, the way that our contemporary age views matters of respect, not in the intentions of the person communicating but in the subjective feelings of the person who is subject to what they view as being unpleasant and unacceptable and disrespectful. The course was itself full of many examples of people who were being targeted by co-workers, strangers, and even managers and executives in ways that was deliberately set up as various sorts of harassment. Yet the design of the course itself, and the fact that the course was mandatory, meant that employees were both coerced by management into watching material of a harassing nature, but also were harassed because the material itself was not sufficiently respectful of views of identity that were not based on contemporary follies and stereotypes that neglect objective physical reality. When one preaches civility without demonstrating civility, one’s credibility as a guide is drastically limited.
Of course, it is very possible that there are stark limits to civility in a world where disrespect is judged on a subjective standard. Where people possess diametrically opposed views on issues, including issues of identity and morality, it is impossible for issues to be brought up and discussed, and certainly not judged on, in a way that would be thought respectful and civil to all. Any presentation of issues of religious or personal identity that would be acceptable to me would certainly be offensive to others, and anything that would be acceptable to others would likewise be offensive to me. And so civility would demand that such issues not be brought up at all, unless those who subject others to harassment, especially with the full support and coercive power of employment, be subject to the same penalties and remedies that they menace towards others. This seems unlikely to happen, alas, as those who seek to enforce civility seldom recognize their own conduct and approach as being uncivil, for we tend to assume ourselves to be in the right, and seldom think how we may wrong others in speaking what we think to be obvious truth, no matter how offended we are at what seems equally obviously true to others who happen to think differently from ourselves. It appears all too often that to be a human and to act in a human fashion is to be a hypocrite.