While it might not have struck you as a major headline, I took great interest in a story published in The Mirror last week concerning a Trader Joe’s employee who is suing the food store chain. The employee, Paul D. Roberts, believes he was fired over his reaction to receiving a gift at a company Christmas party; a gift that was, according to his Los Angeles Superior Court complaint, “a small penis with testicles which, when submerged in water, would increase in size…” What a wonderful way to say “Happy Holidays!”
Upon opening the gift Roberts was – according to his complaint -“Incredibly distraught in receiving such an obnoxious and offensive item, particularly in front of his supervisor and having received it from a female.”
Roberts later filed an internal complaint to Trader Joe’s and told supervisors that if he had given a similar gift to a female co-worker, he likely would have been reprimanded or fired. Punchline: After being told by a human resources staff member in January that his complaint was being investigated, Roberts was fired two days later. So now it’s “Holiday Gag Gift: The Litigation.”
It feels like there might be a little more to this story and some history preceding the holiday party that we don’t have yet. But for now, let me extract the elements that I think are worth some examination: Yes, if Roberts had given a similar trinket to a female co-worker that was, say, toy female breasts that expanded in size when place in water… there likely would have been a different reaction all around. And the entire episode could have been prevented if a friend had stepped in and said to the female gift-giver: “You have no taste and you will make yourself look foolish in front of everyone you work with.”
But we don’t often have those kinds of friends. And that’s where, collectively, we’re always hopeful that a certain level of civility kicks in; a kind of invisible umbrella that of late is often referred to as “political correctness.” Of even later than late, however, there are those who believe that PC is actually some sort of secret handshake meant to repress them personally and politically. If a man wants to insult a woman, these people would argue, why can’t he just go ahead and do it without being labeled a misogynist? And if he wants to go ahead and do it as he runs for public office, then PC now becomes somehow truly political.
No, not really. Civility and respect for others isn’t just one of a category of behaviors that we offer to our children, asking them to select a mode of behavior for themselves from choices that might include Loudmouth Dope or Hateful Frustrated Person or Giver of Vulgar Christmas Gifts. We teach and encourage a certain sort of social interaction because it becomes the glue that keeps everything from falling apart into anarchy or civil war.
For some time now, we’ve come to believe and then accept that exercising even a modicum of taste in such things as our comedy movies or sitcoms or online content is a complete waste of time. Phrases like “guilty pleasure” and “raunchy” cover up the fact that we’re reveling in dumbing-down various elements of our popular culture. Unfortunately, popular culture is just that; popular. It’s the one we all share. Some of us attend the opera and then discuss it over drinks, but that doesn’t mean that small pockets of exclusionary high-priced arts are going to hold society together. Put another way, you won’t stop banality from taking over the White House by keeping $200 a ticket opera alive.
But is ignoring or flaunting PC not a sign of weakness, but rather an indication that some kind of evolution is taking place? When my generation was confronted by those who felt that crowning rock and roll and R&B as the sound of the people was a mistake that would take us down, we defiantly resisted listening to those arguments. And now hip hop is the preeminent sound of American popular music, and I am often dismayed to hear some from my generation denounce it. Little Richard, good; Lil Wayne, not so good. As The Who might say, “Talking ‘bout my generation.”
But back to the Christmas party. It’s the office Christmas party, for crying out loud! Somebody is bound to do or say something un-PC… and then likely regret it in the morning. That’s human behavior. To say that un-PC thing or make a statement of some kind with a sex toy as a gift, and then hope to stand on something like freedom of speech in defense of your actions might get you off from paying some damages. But it does not dismiss or forgive your lack of taste. When you share with me that a certain banal reality show or less than artful stand-up comedian is for you a “guilty pleasure,” I am not required to keep your secret. Because in my view, all of that ultimately over time fits into a boot that tramples restraint and closes public libraries. One can argue a ‘political view’ of fighting PC. But you can’t cause me to not notice your lack of taste… going back to that penis toy gift you thought was so funny at last year’s Christmas party.