Thursday, March 10, 2005

That's sexual harassment and I don't have to take it

One thing that I consistently fail to understand about people is what things will offend them. As someone who is offended by extremely little, it just boggles my mind that someone who uses the word "fuck" in everyday language can be so uptight about hearing the word "penis." Today a coworker was asking which of the two gender symbols he was looking at. I told him that it was the female symbol; the female symbol looks like a hand mirror, and the male system either looks like a shield and spear, or a person with a penis, and suddenly he became extremely offended, and replied, "please don't use that word in my office any more than you have to." I was very puzzled; I had not expected that kind of reaction at all. It's not like I even said it in a slightly vulgar way, like "the male symbol is the one with the pointy arrow dick." Men have penises. The symbol that indicates masculinity kind of looks like it has one too.

It has recently become time for the yearly sensitivity and harassment training, and, as always, I don't agree that there's any problem in some of the little scenarios in the videos. (But, of course, I've got to abide by the rules whether I like them or not.) One example is the group of friends who like to share detailed stories of their little sexcapades with each other. Anyone who was to overhear this might be offended by it, so such a discussion could be considered sexual harassment. On one hand, sure, it's the workplace, and that's not a work-related topic anyway. But, a workplace is a complex social ecosystem, especially at a place like Microsoft where people set their own hours, work how they want, and have tens of thousands of people to potentially hang out with. I'm not so sure that the benefits of shielding extremely sheltered and fragile people outweigh the stifling of expression that results. It makes me pretty uncomfortable knowing that some comment that I think it perfectly legitimate might be offensive to someone else. We're trading the occasional and accidental offense for oppression and constant discomfort.

I'm not trying to say that sexual harassment doesn't exist. Clearly there are examples of things that are unacceptable... continuing to talk about something that bothers someone else in their presence, surfing for porn at work, spanking the secretary as she walks by, making fun of someone's accent if they don't think it's funny, and so forth. But, I think that I'm a reasonable, friendly person. I may be blunt, but I'm not mean. I just can't imagine what it's like to be offended by something that seems so inherently unoffensive to me. I try to put myself in their shoes, but I can't.

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