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What Workplace Harassment Says About Our Society

In my last entry, I said I hoped that this blog reveals who I am as a person, because those who come to me for help should have complete faith in my ideals, as well as my skills. Here's the first of those peeks behind the green curtain; it has to do with why I do this work.

I know the title references the workplace and our society, but I ask you to bear with me as I start that topic in the past - my past. There's a reason I start this discussion thirty five years ago, in Brooklyn, NY.

My mother, who's no longer with us, was Jewish, and dad, who survives her, was Catholic. Nowadays, I suppose, you could call him an agnostic. Neither of them were much religious, and our house was one in which there was no formal discussions of, or resort to, deities. The religious culture was more for both of them about family traditions than belief.

As you might expect from such a blend, holidays were many, and were celebrated in what was for our home a pretty unique manner. I remember Christmas Trees and Chanukah menorahs in the window at the same time, sausage and peppers on Passover, potato latkes on Easter, and Catholic and Jewish relatives laughing and eating - and eating and eating - the same dishes, in the same house.

I never felt odd as a little guy, having two religious cultures in the same house, because both families loved me. To a child, happily, there's not much more he needs; metaphysics and sociology come later. If there were pressures, or prejudices, between members of the family, I never detected them as a young child, and I remain happily ignorant of them in the present if such ugliness was ever there at all, now that almost all of those adults I remember as a child have left us.

But as I got older, I learned the first truth about prejudice and ignorance: it's taught, it's not in-born.

In Brooklyn, NY, during the late 60's, 70's and early 80's, my childhood and then young adult-hood was a rich blend of cultures and ethnicities. There was a little bit of everyone and everything. Most of the time, closeness, tolerance and a common sense of "we all live here and the place isn't getting any bigger so let's get along" was enough to maintain relative harmony. Sometimes, it wasn't.

"Your (or 'our') own kind" was, sadly, a phrase you might expect to hear from just about every quarter. Jewish parents used it to tell their daughters not to date me because I wasn't Jewish enough. Catholic moms said it for much the same reason. African American students didn't spend as much time mixing with Caucasian students as they might have, and vice versa. Of course there were examples otherwise, noteworthy for their rarity, and so I thought of my childhood landscape as I grew not as a porridge, where everyone became a harmonious part of the whole, but rather as a stew, in which chunks of this and that maintained a distinct taste though on the same plate.

I don't recall at what age I remember starting to hear those words - you know the ones of which I speak, or ones like them - but I remember them suddenly becoming part of the background of my life. I remember hearing them directed at others, and I remember hearing them directed at me. In my ignorance, I said them too, as much because the sense of wrongness attending their use was not as compelling as the day to day reality in which those words were so common.

Non-Jews called me a 'kike' and a 'hebe' and Jews called me 'half-gentile,' or worse, 'half-goyim.' I suppose half an insult was intended as a more accurate description. 'Gay' and 'faggot' and the like were used to describe the real thing and to imply insult when it wasn't the real thing. The labels were everywhere. All the worst ones you can imagine were sprinkled liberally into the neighborhoods, into the classrooms - though not where a teacher could hear, even if those teachers might secretly sanction the use of those words themselves - and into the homes, the street games of stickball, the bike rides to the playgrounds.

The worst - and really, as I look back now, the strangest - part of it all was that, most of the time, there was less malice in the use of those terms than there was a sense that the observer was just stating the obvious. As often as not, I remember kids using those terms to talk to each other even as they laughed, or even though they were friends. It looks odd now, but then, I suppose, it was the only social system I knew, and it was hard to imagine another. I had no reason to imagine another.

I won't bother with the justifications for this way of relating to one another, because everyone has stories like this. "I didn't mean anything by it" would make someone a billionaire if they could patent its use in that context alone.

But is that enough to explain those times, those behaviors? "I didn't mean anything by it?" "Don't be so sensitive?" Are those phrases, and the endless cousins of such, enough to justify bigotry as the background wallpaper of my life? Of anyone's life?

How does that feel to you, as you read this in private, recalling those times when you were needlessly hurt by bigotry, or needlessly hurt others? Are you thinking the above excuses work for you, should work for our society? That trying to do better is a waste of time, or represents too much 'political correctness,' or represents the 'agenda' of some group trying to undercut our way of life? Or that there are 'more important things' about which to think?

When I was a kid, I suppose it was. After all, was there something better?

Yet I went to college, I got out of Brooklyn, I learned that there's always a way to build a better mousetrap. I become exposed to ideals which, being abstractions, are never really attainable, but the striving for the ideal is what ennobles us, not the attainment; and certainly not the abandonment of the effort to reach those ideals.

So what, as I ask at the start of this entry, does workplace harassment say about our society?

I'll certainly talk at greater length in other, future entries about the specifics of the law of workplace harassment, about the elements of such a claim, about developments in the law of NJ and in the law of the nation relating to such claims. Today, in closing this entry, I'd rather talk about the disease, instead of the symptoms and diagnosis.

Disease, as I come to think on it, is a pretty good metaphor.

When we're sick, we make decisions about how to respond, and our response depends on so many unique variables, there's no point in listing them all. But one of the main issues for us in deciding what to do when we're ill is how sick we are, and what's going to happen to me if I don't do something about it?

If we have a cold, we don't do much, because we don't worry much. If we have acne, some of us care more than do others, so some treat it, some just ignore it. For some diseases, some people have surgery, some don't.

Sometimes, a disease seems chronic - it will always be with us - but not quite enough to inspire us to make big changes in our lives. If you have high cholesterol, is it easier to change diet and exercise to lower it, or take a pill and eat that pizza?

Our society is sick. The reasons for it have as much to do with myths - which persist in misinforming people about how the early business of the United States was conducted - as with traditions and grievances brought here from other nations and from other cultures and religions. The sickness is one of those conditions which is persistent and seems unlikely to disappear on its own. Yet for many people, the symptoms of the disease are just not irritating enough to warrant major intervention. They ignore it, because it's easier than addressing it.

I know some people are angry reading this. They believe I'm not seeing the good in America, or Americans, that I'm a negative person, a naysayer, what have you. I'm not. I love the ideals upon which this country was founded. But I'm a realist, and I therefore know that no society has ever been perfect, and none will ever be. The goal isn't perfection, or a rose-colored refusal to see imperfection out of some misplaced sense of patriotism or stolid refusal to recognize problems. The goal, as I said above, is the striving for a better vision of the ideal.

The problem is that the disease of bigotry is insidious. Bigotry claims victims quietly, wearing them down, burning from them the passion to grow, the strength to achieve. Worse, these victims in turn might themselves become embittered transmitters of the disease, feeling that if they suffered, so should others. And even worse, the entire society suffers when the victims of bigotry fail to make the society a better place, instead becoming at best watered down participants in it or even enemies of it.

The next gay man beaten to death might have cured cancer. The next black kid shot by a racist cop might have become the man who saves the Mars mission at its critical moment. The next woman who, in the face of sexual harassment, quits her physics research career might have been the person who finds the fusion solution to the world's energy problems.

It would be easy for me to ask if we can afford such waste, expecting a resounding 'no' from everyone. That's a cheap question, because it's an abstraction, and thus easy to answer without much effort. Here's the harder question: What are you prepared to do about it?

Think about it more often than you have. If you do, I'll be satisfied that this blog has been worth the effort. What do I do about it?

I'm a civil rights trial lawyer, and I'm trying to make a point about how to treat one another with dignity and respect, one case, and one client, at a time.

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