Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Do We Really Need To Think That Hard About Bigotry?

I like to tell jokes. I don't do a lot of setup-punchline material, but I do toss off quips and cracks whenever I can--which is a good thing when it comes to workplace productivity:
Read more ›

The point is, I love humor and levity, and consider it an integral part of a good workplace.

However, I don't believe there's a good reason for making racist, sexist, homophobic, or religions jokes at work. The tricky part is defining what crosses over the line.

A recent post on Kotaku highlighted a blog post from a game developer who accused a former employer of tolerating a wide array of off-color jokes:
Read more ›

According to the post, which has since been removed (on advice of legal counsel, I'll bet), the blogger (who is African American) brought up what he felt were instances of racist, sexist, and homophobic speech, only to be told that he was being too sensitive.

He alleges that he was even told (in a sentence that made my blood run cold), "Let me tell you, it's ok to make jokes about slavery because that's over."

I don't know the truth of the allegations, though as Kotaku points out, the company in question actively celebrated its "brogrammer" culture. But I do want to address the issue of "being too sensitive."

The folks who wield that phrase as a weapon are trying to get away with a false dichotomy--the implication is that if you judge humor based on whether or not people get offended, you're attacking free speech, and giving the easily offended unwarranted veto power. Their preferred alternative, wrapped in the First Amendment, is to allow any speech, and to ask people to "lighten up."

That's BS. Just because it's hard to draw distinctions between free speech and being an asshole doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And just because we get it wrong sometimes doesn't mean the effort isn't worth it.

I think a lot about company culture, and I have yet to find an example where bigotry helped improve the bottom line.

Here are some simple principles that you should always follow:

1) Try not to hurt people.
2) Err on the side of caution
3) Listen to people, even when you disagree

If someone at my company told me another employee's jokes were making him or her uncomfortable, I'd ask for an explanation. Then I'd ask the joker to stop.

Does it really need to be any more complicated?


ranndino said...

This time I'll disagree. Everyone has their own threshold of offensiveness similar to that of a pain threshold. Work places where you're made to feel that you have to watch every word result in a bad atmosphere where people walk on egg shells and don't feel like they can be themselves. Some people really are way to easily offended. They'd find any standup comedian offensive & try to argue with the joke.

Chris said...

I agree that it's possible for people to be oversensitive, but I've never seen it happen in practice.

People usually err on the other side, not speaking up when someone jokes about religion, ethnicity, or "vaginas."

I've heard all of the above in the past year. I always gently remind people not to say things that would offend others. They don't always listen, but I always speak up.