There has rightfully been much focus in recent years on the distress felt by women about sexual harassment. This hidden and formerly ignored source of human suffering needed to be brought out into the open and the perpetrators put to the metaphorical sword. But where has this left innocent men? Those who always seek to give their colleagues due respect, but who are so shocked by the conduct of men around them that they fear they too might be implicated, even by their silent witnessing of it.
It also does not mean someone has to suffer from paranoia to realise that with so many lucrative pay-offs being awarded, or settled long before court action, a whole industry is being born of false accusation, both across the heterosexual and homosexual divides. This is only further encouraged in the UK by inability of a sacked employee to claim unfair dismissal for the first two years of employment. That is why solicitors almost invariably look for some kind of discrimination or harassment to throw into the mix of an unfair dismissal claim, however well the manager concerned has actually behaved.
One unintentional by-product of the #MeToo movement is the reluctance of people to hold one-to-one meetings or socialise individually after work. Some men are so concerned about the potential for false accusations that they are even adopting the Nixon-style approach (with permission of course) and recording all the conversations that they have.
Many workplaces too are no longer the place where carefree banter can, or ever could, take place. All language has to be filtered and measured, and any joke carefully analysed for innuendo before uttered. Of course, it is not just heterosexual relations that are under the daily microscope – the harassment of colleagues by those of the same gender can also be a constant threat. In neither case will the excuse “they cannot take a joke” any longer truly (or lawfully) stick. If something could be considered as undermining dignity, over-flirtatious or bothering people from an implied sexual angle, or there is any bodily contact whatsoever, that is enough to call it “abuse”. Even tone of voice, ambiguity or “body language” could be enough.
The western workplace is becoming even more restrictive than in the Middle East because in the West it is ok to be gay or display sexuality. It is just not ok to respond to other people’s displays of sexuality, which could be a problem for some people, especially men. Men generally do not make displays, except through a general macho-ness. The smart suit is hardly a display of anything but sex-neutrality. It has long been known by psychologists that the principal reason why most women dress up and adorn themselves is to impress other women, not men. This is not a sexual display so much as a kind of aesthetic rivalry that gets more intense with age.
But how can people conduct themselves appropriately in the workplace so as not to give the slightest offence? If sexuality is taboo then it may even disappoint some people who rely on a little flirtation as a daily “pick me up”. But no more. The law has put paid to that. The easiest way to ensure that all inappropriate behaviour is not displayed by the odd lapse of facial muscles or flattering comment is to adopt a total sex-averse view of the world. This manner is so unnatural there is not even a word for it. There is, of course, misogyny and misandry, but they describe a hatred of the opposite sex. But feelings of indifference, however cultivated, must be invented by all of us.
One way that could be an aid to this enforced emasculation of the self is to see all other people as essentially ugly or surreal. This has the possible disadvantage that we may display too much indifference or act in a seemingly patronising way, but at least it is safe. Without realising it, of course, we are preparing the ground for the future workplace where humanoid robots will be the colleagues of those of us still lucky enough to have jobs. Those automatons that misbehave can then always be taken out of service and dismantled – now that’s an idea.