Not Only Civil Rights, but Civility


He is white, male and middle-aged, and not the sort of man who describes that as his handicap.

He will not tell you that he belongs to the last group in America that can be discriminated against without fear. Indeed he calls himself a friend of feminists, having been raised that way by his mother and wife and his daughter. Nevertheless, there is something bothering him this morning.

The Supreme Court, quickly and unanimously, made it easier for women to prove sexual harassment in the workplace. The law protects women, in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's words, "before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown." What this man wants to talk about now is civil rights. Or maybe about civility.

He wants to tell me that during the past year when things have been tough and he's gone from one job to none to another, he too has been, well, victimized is not too strong a word. From time to time, he's been humiliated, demeaned, dehumanized by one or another superior.

In short, he's been harassed. He's been subject to the sort of environment which, in Justice O'Connor's description "would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived as hostile or abusive." He can match any story told to the Supreme Court in this case by Teresa Harris with one of his own.

But because it wasn't gender-based harassment, or racially based or age-based or disability-based harassment, because it was simply employee-based harassment and individual abuse there was nothing he could do about it. The boss might have HTC been obnoxious, but it was an equal-opportunity obnoxiousness. This middle-aged white man might have been outraged, but it was merely as a human being.

What he asks me is this: Why is it worse to be sexually harassed than personally harassed? Why does the law protect some workers from some abuse and not all workers from all abuse? What about him?

I could give this man the simple legal answer, and I do. The laws were passed to deal with discrimination, not labor relations. The point was to level the playing field, not to raise the quality of life on the shop floor. The courts ask whether men and women, whites and blacks, young and old are being treated equally, not whether they are being treated well.

I could tell this man and I do that the laws come from a society that's been forced to pay attention to civil rights. But I cannot tell him why there is less attention paid to civility.

Civil rights and civility. I listen sometimes to the sounds of the workplace. The way the dispatcher talks to the cabdriver, the way the restaurant manager talks to the waiter, the way the foreman talks to the clerk. It isn't always easy on the ear. There is no right to be treated respectfully. No law against being humiliated. There is no equality of politeness between boss and bossed.

Talking to this man, it strikes me that the impatience or even the anger that some men feel at women's complaints of harassment may not be hostility to women's rights. It may be because they are fellow sufferers. These men do not feel privileged. They too are "disrespected." Many men see women getting a day in court, but they toohave their bad bosses at work. They have stories to tell and nobody to listen.

Maybe the impatience is greater now when men -- white and middle-aged, white and young -- feel insecure themselves. When unions are weaker and work pressure is greater. And especially when the overall civility index is lower.

Civil rights protect individuals. Civility protects the community. Individuals plead their own case in the courts. Who pleads the case for community?

I always believed that women want change for both themselves and for society. We want equality with men in the world, but we also want to improve that world. Including the world of work.

So today women are attacking an "abusive working environment," a "sexually hostile" workplace. At long last we are making a strong progressive case for civil rights. But as this man reminds me, the rest of the work world waits to be civil-ized.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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