In today's Times, journalist Katie Roiphe discusses the ongoing debate over what constitutes sexual harrassment when it comes to things like dirty jokes and "inappropriate" language. The topic is in the news, of course, because of revelations--which, considering that they have been in the public record all along, are hardly revelatory--that Republican presidential "candidate" Herman Cain has had some problems conforming to current societal norms regarding acceptable workplace conduct.
Sexual harrassment falls into the categories of "quid pro quo" ("If you don't have sex with me, you're fired") or "hostile environment" (when an employee is made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome because of an iappropriately sexualized atmosphere). According to one of Cain's accusers, Sharon Bialek, Cain engaged in an act of quid pro quo harrassment, suggesting he would find her a job if she "performed" satisfactorily.
To be clear, this sort of behavior is unacceptable. Indeed, from what Bialek has said, Cain's actions probably crossed a line from harrassment to outright assault. Even if he had simply made a verbal proposition, however, this would count as a clear-cut example of quid pro quo harrassment.
Problems arise from the "hostile environment" idea. I've always questioned this rule, myself. It's always seemed like a violation of that most useful of childhood rules, the one about sticks and stones breaking bones but names (or boorish comments) never hurting. Clearly, there are things that I, as a man, should and should not say to a female co-worker or student. Generally, men can safely comment on a woman's hair, dress, or breasts (I know--I was surprised, too), but that's about it. I sympathize with women (or men) who feel uncomfortable because of colleagues' crude jokes or conversations. I encourage these offended people to discuss the situation, and I encourage the jokesters to take their colleagues' feelings into consideration. But if they choose not to? Is there a law against being a jerk?
Whenever we start criminalizing language, we risk sliding down that proverbial slippery slope. We may not like "patently offensive" language, but who decides what is patently offensive? Doesn't "offense" reside in the judgment of the offended? Is it possible to know ahead of time what may or may not offend someone? We would like to think that it's a matter of common sense, but it isn't. Is it appropriate to say that someone "looks nice today"? I would think so, but what if it isn't? Does it depend on the way the words are said? It could, but then are we not legislating line-readings?
Sensitivity to others is an important quality of an enlightened society. Some people will remain unenlightened, but society has its ways of dealing with such people without legal consequences. The rude, the crude, the sleazy, and the profane have been falling out of favor for years. Like smoking, male chauvinism is no longer cool. Social sanctions will do the job better than courts and lawyers, leaving us free to focus our legislative energies on truly harmful harrassment of the Cainian variety.