I'm a day behind the curve on this, but in my defense I've been traveling and drinking heavily.
I'm somewhat cautious about claims that workplace harassment laws are here to oppress our white men and crucify our freedoms on a cross of sensitivity workshops. I think a lot of such talk is political rather than substantive.
However, there are instances of workplace discipline that make it tempting to abandon nuance and wave the crimson Limbaughesque flag. The Fire reports one such instance. In short, a student and employee at Indiana University was disciplined for reading a historical book about the Klan near coworkers, after the coworkers refused to listen to the employee explain that the book is actually an account of how Notre Dame students fought against Klan prejudice. Read the case history through the link, it's stupefying. The notion that people should be able to work without enduring racial or sexual harassment is an important one, if difficult to achieve. But when a system produces a result like this, it's difficult to see how it is worthy of anything but scorn.
Updated: Volokh has the full text of the letter sent to the employee — a janitor named Keith Sampson — by the IU bureaucrat, Lillian Charleston. The Volokh post (written by David Bernstein, who has written a lot about the tension between free speech and anti-harassment values) also includes a follow-up letter that constitutes a fairly complete retreat from the first letter. The tone of the second letter — which pointedly does not admit fault by IU — is rather amazing. Frankly, I find it infuriating. The letter admits in a distinctly begrudging tone that Sampson is not prohibited from reading books in the break room, but insinuates that he may have been reading this one in order to harass others with its subject matter — only to admit that there is no evidence of this. Combined with the first letter, it's a breathtaking exercise of bureaucratic thuggery.
Some people — and in my experience they are of both genders, all ethnicities, and all education levels — just don't like to read, and view with distaste and suspicion anyone who does. To such people, if you are reading, you must be doing it to convey a message or achieve an outward-directed goal. That a university of all places would indulge this mindset is wholly contemptible.
You do have to hand it to Lillian Charleston, though — not many people are willing to take up the banner of promoting ignorance and condemning reading, particularly in the university environment. Every cause deserves its champion, I suppose.
Edit again: This incident illustrates that a rational anti-harassment policy cannot possibly be tethered to subjective offense, or it will become a laughingstock. Some people are idiots and will be offended by idiotic things — like by someone reading a book that decries racism and celebrates people who stood up to it. If an anti-harassment policy is not strictly limited to addressing conduct which is offensive when viewed from an objectively reasonable standard, it will inevitably run into this sort of nonsense. (And that's not to say that even a policy based on objective reasonableness is without problems.)
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time - September 12th, 2014
- The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained, But It May Have A Litmus Test - September 11th, 2014
- [Rerun from 2011] Ten Things I Want My Kids To Learn From 9/11 - September 11th, 2014
- Yale Might Want To Look Into Some Sort of Basic Civic Literacy Course - September 10th, 2014
- U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Very Wrong - September 6th, 2014