Sunday, March 4, 2012

Censorship U.S. style

CENSORSHIP U.S. STYLE; Or, Yet Another Example of the Unbridled Power of U.S.Corporations.....

A casual remark, intended ironically (or even sarcastically) has now ended my patronage of The Coffee Shop, a famous US coffee shop whose name I dare not mention.

I had been chased out of my parents’ house by a phone call from my older sister.  Her husband has put forward the claim that “the Jews” were responsible for World War Two, and he is a man who seems to have definite Nazi tendencies.  (Someone in his lineage once owned slaves, and he is proud of that fact.)  My sister, not to be outdone, it seems, by her husband, was overheard to tell my mother:

       Unlike you (my mother) and I, there are Hispanic
       immigrants in this country who do not understand
       the laws---or, perhaps she meant to suggest that
       these other people do not respect the laws.

       People (quite reasonably I understood her to mean)
       don’t wish to pay taxes if they will go to allowing       
       the children of illegals to be educated....

       The conversation was not intended for me.  However, as my father’s hearing is getting worse, my mother and father choose to use the “speaker phone” option in order to increase the volume.  Consequently every phone conversation is broadcast all over the small house.   At the time of this conversation I had actually quickly turned on my Ipod and put the headset on, but it only partially drowned out the conversation.

       Other points my sister made:

       People who support abortion (and the tone of her
       voice suggested that they were ignorant (or perhaps        deceptive, but surely spitefully willful)
       “refused” to describe a baby as a “baby”,
       but insisted (willfully, spitefully) on calling
       it a “fetus.”

The tone of the conversation was very disturbing with the powerful hateful emotional content, and the severe “us-versus-them” mentality.

Offhand, I find it disturbing, but isn't it simply unchristian to so thoroughly view other human beings as so very OTHER?---to deny their common humanity? I’m no Christian myself, I believe there are Christians who espouse that religion and manage to feel more sympathy for other human beings.

Trying to escape that nastiness, I had gone to The Coffee Shop.  I don’t say I ever successfully settled down to work on this particular day.  But, I’d been there before and know some of the workers by name.  I have talked to them before about various topics, and I’ve not hesitated to express controversial opinions.  Moreover, I have, on more than one occasion, explained that my conversational style was rather open or free or even “crazy”,  hoping thereby to prevent unintended offense in advance.  And I had even apologized, on at least two occasions, when I feared I might have caused unintended offense.

Alas, all that was not enough.

Today when I heard a worker repeating an order (Skinny Latte with double froth, etc., etc. etc......or some such nonsense), I was amazed by the length of the description.  So, speaking aloud I said something along the lines of “Coffee with viagra”—not having any particular audience in mind, but plainly intending to mock or echo in a sarcastic fashion that original lengthy description.  (Supplying drugs in the coffee would be a natural progression in the unending desire to offer customer choices.)

I said it, and as no one reacted, I forgot about it.   Ahhh, but I was wrong to think that no one was listening.

I returned to my table, did a little work, and maybe ten or fifteen or more minutes passed.  I decided to phone home to make sure the parents were ok.  And, then I packed up my belongings and moved toward the rest room.  At that point a young woman interrupted me.  In fact, she has an unusual name (unusual in my experience) and I had bothered to write it down and try to use it because I wanted to be polite.

She informed me that she was some sort of manager.  She had a more precise expression to use, but that sort of officialese from Corporate Headquarters never slides between the entry doors of my memory with ease.
And she informed me that this was a “sexual harassment free zone”—or something along those lines.

She had heard me say something about “viagra”.  And, I explained to her mine was an “echoic” utterance--it needed to be understood as a reflection on something said earlier---- something she seemed to fully understand.  It was just a joke.  She seemed to agree.

And, I reminded her that I had warned her and other workers that my language was a bit free, but that I had no evil in my heart.  Again, she seemed to understand.

But I believed the word she used was “warning”.  She was warning me.

In other words, she was doing me a favor, a kindness.

In Kafka’s “The Trial”, when the lower officers of the court come to K's home one morning, he is warned:  We are being nice to you, we don’t have to treat you this way...It was exactly the same sort of niceness I experienced in this gentle “warning”....  Because, there could be no appeal to her decision.  She had decided what I could and could not say, and I simply did not have the right of appeal.   Even while she listened to me explain myself, and (essentially) argue it was not in any way offensive, it was not a real conversation.  We were not two equal conversational partners. She stood closer to the real sources of power.  I would not be allowed to do or say anything which challenged the corporate image.

(In retrospect, I say now:  She listened to every word I said, and apparently even understood.  But it was a meaningless exercise---a waste of time.  In fact I was just as big a fool as Kafka’s K!  K had foolishly imagined that he could present his case, defend himself!  So, too, I thought I could somehow appeal the manager’s decision.---  What a fool I was!]

At which point I asked her a few questions,

“Did you imagine that I had any intention to sexually harass anyone”?

Her answer: “No.”

Did anyone else think I was sexually harassing them?   Her answer: “No”.

Then, what’s the problem?  Her answer, more or less, was that someone overhearing what I said might think I was engaged in sexual harassment.  (Not that anyone actually had thought that, but only that “someone” “might”....)

Well, I said:  In other words, someone might misunderstand.   (And, again, she seemed to agree.)

In all seriousness,  Dear Reader, if one is forbidden to say anything that someone overhearing might possibly misunderstand, there won’t be much left to talk about.

And, if it only applies to sexual subjects, or subjects possibly connected to sexual matters, then that is equally a serious limitation upon freedom of expression.

I am sorry that I didn’t think to ask:  Plainly, this doesn’t apply to words like “Hitler” or “Nazi”.

If I talked about Nazis, would the company be afraid that I might be one, and I would I also be warned?  (Or, since they haven't declared themselves a "Nazi Free Zone" would it be irrelevant?

In other words, at this particular coffee shop, at any rate, one must constantly be on one’s guard lest one offend someone.  One must engage in self-censorship.

Well, I shall not be going back there.  And, I don’t believe that for one minute the plan is to protect people from sexual harassment, rather than to create a certain image, to protect profits.  (Certainly it’s not a company that doesn’t hesitate to exploit people.)

Since I had gone out of my way, from the very first day, to guard against giving unwanted offense, I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.  But I know two things: I won’t return to any coffee shop bearing that company’s logo, and I cannot remain in this country.

However limited the casual conversations I might have had from time to time with friendly non-supervisory coffee house employees, they were something good.  Now, it seems, I can’t even enjoy that degree of social contact in this sick country.

This is not a “free” country----not by a long-shot!

Recommended Reading:

Milan Kundera, The Joke

The more I think about it, the more I think that this manager does not understand what "sexual harassment" is!
She merely has a vague idea that there is a company policy and that she's got to enforce it.
 I made a joke (or attempted to make one). My joke betrays or reveals certain of my attitudes.  I am not, for example, a fundamentalist Christian or a conservative Catholic.  And people of those religious persuasions might be offended by what I said, but, in essence what offends them is that I think differently about sex, not that I was thereby harassing them.  (I wasn't attempting to highlight a particular individual's gender,nor was I engaged in making a joke about women,or pointedly alluding to sexual acts while making eye contact with a particular individual, or any such thing.) Someone might find it offensive that I believe that sex is not something holy, but psychological and biological and still very important.  But they would have no right to be offended by those beliefs, or by my public expression of them; to do so would be tantamount to demanding that I share their religious outlook.  Nonetheless, my joke was not essentially sexual; it was essentially mocking the insincere pretense at customer-satisfaction that motivates a capitalist firm.  
Secondly, she is, in effect, laying down a policy:  No one is allowed to say anything related to sex which another person might not like.  That is a policy which makes it impossible to have a serious discussion about a controversial subject--such as abortion--because there is always the possibility that someone is offended merely by the existence of another point of view distinct from their own (as was my sister above).  
Of course, these overly broad (and inaccurate) interpretations of "sexual harassment" guarantee that the company image is preserved, and that is following a fundamental law of psychology.  It works in biology as well as the social realm.  A degree of hyper-sensitivity is a way of protecting a privileged value--in this case, I say, it is the company image, or what it sells itself as. (I don't believe for one minute the company cares--about women, or workers, or the people who grow coffee....It's all just marketing.....) In other words, this particular manager was protecting the BRAND, not women. AKA, this is a case of FALSE POSITIVES.  Better err on the side of claiming something is sexual harassment rather than RISK DAMAGE TO THE BRAND. Anything that threatens the distinctive brand must be stomped on.  Dear me.  I've been there before!


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