Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You Can’t Legislate Manners

Why do I like Victorian society? To be honest, it’s not the clothes. Well, not the ladies’ clothes, at least. Gentlemen looked dashing in coats and tails, starched white shirts with cufflinks, neckties, top hats, and walking sticks. The ladies, in contrast, look odd (bustles) or uncomfortable (corsets). No one in a bustle ever asked the question, “Does this make my butt look fat?” because the answer was self-evident. And don’t get me started on the hair.

What I do like is the emphasis on manners and decorum, at least in public. Whatever nastiness goes on behind closed doors is between a gentleman and his wife. Or mistress. Or another gentleman. But out here in the public eye everyone knows how to behave, and faces social opprobrium for violating the code. Polite is good. Tolerant is good. Cursing, abusing the weak, airing dirty laundry: not so good. A hearty “I say, old chap!” or “Really, Mr. Smith!” goes a long way in informing an offender who has grossly deviated from the acceptable path.

Now, I am certainly not condoning all Victorian attitudes, including the unfriendly attitude toward women in the work force. That women now have the freedom to choose to work in virtually any field is not only good for working women, but good for economic productivity as well. (Perhaps not so good for some men, and perhaps not all that good for healthy family life, but life is full of tradeoffs.) And no doubt there was much about the Victorian work place that would shock the modern conscience. Nonetheless, whether in the work place or on the street, Victorian society had a well-structured code of conduct that governed social interactions.

I bring this up because my typist has had inflicted upon her a modern indignity called “Workplace Harassment Training.” The only positive aspect is that the course was entirely Aetheric. Otherwise, it was an example of well-meaning but ill-conceived legislation designed to formalize inherently gray areas and punish by force of law those who run afoul of its Byzantine logic. For example, a gentleman (or lady) may get one free shot at bad behavior per victim: a pat on a lady’s bottom, or a “Hey, sexy” while the eyes focus on the bosom, and all is well until the lady objects. On the other hand, one cannot tell an off-color joke if there exists the chance that someone will hear it and be offended – and “offended” is defined entirely subjectively. For example, the Merry Widows of Caledon Calendar would be condemned as “offensive” and banned if even a single person found it so, despite the fact that, objectively, the calendar is sensual, not sexual, and can hardly be said to arouse one’s prurient interest. (Would it not be more sensible to require that a “reasonable” person find it offensive? Or a majority? Or a “substantial” minority? The legal standard is being determined by the most radical outlier of the group.) How can one navigate through such a world?

The real problem is that government cannot legislate good behavior. If polite intercourse (one hopes that word does not offend anyone!) between men and women – or between gentlemen who prefer gentlemen, etc. – is not enforced through the social code, the alternative seems to be to scare employees into submission.

(The obligatory disclaimer.) Of course, no one wants the egregious behavior that is the stuff of tabloids: the casting couch, the incessant leerer, ethnic stereotypes, religious zealotry (or anti-religious zealotry) that creates an intolerant and unappealing environment. And I don’t deny that such environments exist. My point is that the law is a blunt instrument, and the fear of running afoul of the law can change the work environment in a way not necessarily for the better – especially when no problem existed. For example, I find that humor helps in many situations. But sometimes jokes fall flat. I don’t mind that my act bombs on occasion, but I would prefer not to be unemployed as a result of an ill-advised jape. I work with good people who are usually congenial, and even when tempers run are almost invariably restrained in their outbursts. The level of insult is more along the lines of “You’re an idiot!” rather than “You lazy [stereotype].”

Then again, this episode was not as painful as the Clinton-era mandatory safe sex lecture, but that shall remain a rant for another day. Suffice it to say that “uncomfortable” and “offensive” were two appropriate words. Too bad we didn’t know about harassment laws. Or do they not apply when it is the government doing the harassing?


Hotspur O'Toole said...

Ah, Miss Jameson, you should have showed up a year earlier. Neo-Victoriana is not what it once was. O tempora, O mores!

Rhianon Jameson said...

Um. Does that mean people are more restrained or less restrained than they once were?

I happened to stumble across a land description in Caledon Prime that read something like "Rumors of orgies here are greatly exaggerated," so perhaps my question answers itself, as the closest I've come to seeing one was one lonely gentleman in SSC wearing his absurdly-sized genitalia on the outside of his clothing. (He disappeared before I could ask whether he thought a city of sky pirates and other villains in a neo-Victorian community was the best place to find willing partners.)