Is it wrong to compliment a man on his speedos?

The war on workplace banter is puritanism posing as progress.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics UK

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Is it sexual harassment to say a man looks ‘fit’ in his speedos? Apparently so.

This, at least, was the ruling of an employment tribunal in the UK this week. Nikoloz Papashvili, a male teaching assistant, successfully won a sexual-harassment claim against his female headteacher, Shelagh O’Shea. Papashvili has been awarded £9,309 in damages for the horror of enduring lewd ‘remarks and innuendos’ from the older and more senior O’Shea.

This is nuts. Virtually every man I know would feel flattered by being told he looked attractive in his swimming gear. And even those who would not be happy with the attention would at least recognise that it was just a bit of light-hearted banter.

Not so, according to Papashvili and Gary Tobin, the employment judge who oversaw this case. Tobin proclaimed O’Shea’s comments to be unacceptable, even if they were made in jest. He ruled that ‘both language and attitudes to colleagues change over time and comments that might have been prevalent and acceptable in a workplace 30 or 40 years ago are no longer justifiable or tolerated’. This attempt to police language is particularly disturbing. Who is Judge Tobin to decide what can or cannot be said?

I’m hardly surprised by this outcome, however. A crackdown on banter has been going on for years now. New rules, codes and regulations have been consistently creeping into our private and working lives, attempting to dictate the language we can use and the kinds of personal relationships we can have. A self-appointed morality police target spontaneous interactions between colleagues and aim to turn the workplace into a banter-free zone.

This crusade has come at a very real cost. When workmates engage in lighthearted insults and sarcasm, it builds rapport and creates an unspoken bond. These kinds of interactions are often spontaneous and heretical. They exist outside the culture of micromanagement that is so prevalent these days. But this kind of fun, free workplace is increasingly a thing of the past.

This war on banter verges on the hysterical. One human-resources coach warns that banter can be a slippery slope to ‘discrimination’ and ‘microaggressions’, and that it can be ‘the enemy of inclusion’. Studies have even claimed that workplace banter can have a negative impact on women’s mental health and career prospects.

This panic isn’t restricted to the adult world of work, either. According to one education expert, ‘tackling classroom banter will not only stop bullying – it will also prevent the racist and sexist trolling of public figures’. These people genuinely believe that words are akin to violence and that friendly joshing can soon spin out of control and lead to rampant racist and sexist abuse.

Once, more people bristled at having their private interactions policed in this way. It struck most as joyless and puritanical. But the war on banter has been recast as a blow for progress, as a means to protect women and ethnic minorities. And now, as the speedo case makes clear, men are also trying to get in on the victimhood act. Everyone, it seems, must be protected from ‘hurtful’ words.

This obsession with our most innocent and private interactions is ridiculous and wrong. Banter, teasing and even the occasional lewd joke are not the end of the world. Indeed, they are often how we build bonds between one another. In any sane world, the speedo case would have been laughed out of court. It’s time everyone got a grip.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

Picture by: Nicola Barts.

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Topics Politics UK


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