Tony Jackson is a champion of equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace who is concerned by a growing tendency for people to choose to be offended by things that really aren’t that offensive—particularly when it comes to “sexism”.
I think my track record on diversity and inclusion qualifies me to comment on this. I hope so.
I have strong personal, professional and commercial reasons for believing in and fighting for inclusion in workplaces and in society. That said, I’ve spotted a trend which does a disservice to the cause.
Artificial offence. People choosing to take offence. Opting in, deliberately, to a contagious reaction. “Ooh yes – I’m offended too”. Switching on a programme deliberately to be offended. Watching the Twitter feed and joining in. “Me too. Me too. Outrageous”.
In case you are wondering – no I am not joining the crowd who say “it’s just banter”. In my experience that is usually a cover for downright odious thinking and behaviour. Behaviour which excludes others in the workplace and in social gatherings.
And I am alert to the fact that there can be specific things which might be offensive to only a small number of people and that even the law says it is for the person impacted to decide whether something is unacceptable to them. Quite right too – otherwise, for example, the white majority in an office can over-rule the black minority in deciding whether something is out of order.
Man flu is not funny but….
A personal one: I have always hated the expression “man flu”. It is bandied about by unthinking men and women when a male colleague has been off work. Demeaning, disrespectful and potentially very hurtful (I once heard it used relating to someone who turned out to have a life-threatening disease). But others don’t see it that way so I choose to temper my response whilst making my point about it. Maybe I’m even emotionally intelligent with my response? Gosh.
But with every right comes responsibilities and one of these is a sense of perspective.
So I ask you – are you guilty of choosing to be offended? Of getting something so out of proportion, electing not to see the bigger picture, deliberately stirring up trouble where there is no need.
I cite two recent examples:
A man is part of a team which has succeeded in landing a robot onto a comet. Imagine. Just think of the enormity of that task. My brain hurts thinking about the calculations involved. The patience. The commitment.
He shows poor taste in the shirt he wears for a press conference. Pretty bad. Ill-advised. But the guy was overwhelmed by the situation and clearly needed better advice or just a friend to prod him in the right direction.
Reduced to tears by groupthink
The “groupthink” reaction. Outrageous. Let’s call for his head. Reduce the guy to tears. Make him prostrate himself. Ignore his achievement.
I ask you: where is the same clamour, the same volume of tweets over the real outrages on this planet right now?
Secondly: a marvellous charity which punches above its weight in its sheer drive and passion towards helping people affected by bowel cancer. It is running a fundraising initiative to raise a quantity of cash which is huge for them but would be tiny for, say, a tax-dodging multinational.
The hashtag for their campaign is #realmengrowbeards . I read this as ironic, self-deprecating, a challenge to the one where you “just” grow a moustache. It’s inclusive – I’m having a go but already have beard-envy compared to those fine examples you see around these days. The campaign offers opportunities for women to get involved (wear a false one) or for men to decide what their response is to the challenge. All with very positive intent. This is about helping any man or woman who develops the second-biggest killer on the cancer spectrum. It is not suggesting for a second that you are less of a man if your beard growth is less good than the next person’s.
Do real men get offended by normative constructions of masculinity?
And what happens? A chap on Twitter, an academic, launches into a social media campaign against the charity for “amplifying the daily compulsion to ‘normativity’”, being ‘essentialist’, sexist and so on. He screamed how offended he was from his pulpit. How this is “a blinkered approach to constructions of masculinity”.
To be fair to the guy, I don’t doubt his intentions either and he has since tempered his initial comments in a more reflective blog. But he would not let go. When I asked him if he might be looking or choosing to be offended, without any sense of irony he told me my question had offended him. It’s a whirlwind of offence. How exhausting. With all the real battles we have to fight, surely we have to choose the ones that matter?
And look what it’s done – it’s made me use up half an hour writing a(nother) blog. So what is the learning point?
It’s a classic element of a coaching relationship: helping people understand that they have a choice in how they react to what is going on around them. They can choose to be offended if they want. But, by definition, they can also choose not to be. They can save their energy for the time when something really offensive happens.
You can support Tony’s fundraising attempt to grow a beard (like a real man) by making a donating to Beating Bowel Cancer via his fundraising page now.
Tony Jackson is founder of Chelsham, “the home of action-oriented, impactful, values-based executive coaching & consulting”. Chelsham works with leaders, business-owners and rising stars to help them realise their potential. You can follow them @ChelshamConsult and find out more at the Chelsham website.
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