Jennifer O’Connell: ‘No second date’ rule a sign of a society afraid of its citizens

It’s bad enough infantilising children; infantilising adults is bound to be disastrous

Are we now so  afraid of one another that we have to regulate our relationships?

Are we now so afraid of one another that we have to regulate our relationships?

 

Employees at Google and Facebook are not allowed to ask a second time for a date under workplace dating policies that came to light earlier this year. “Ambiguous” responses, including the object of your interest saying they’re busy, or “I can’t that night”, count as a “no”, Heidi Swartz, Facebook’s global head of employment law, told the Wall Street Journal.

Is this where we’ve arrived as a society, at a place where we’re so afraid of one another that adults are not allowed to change their minds and decide that, after all, they quite like Ed from marketing? And if Ed likes Sarah who has just asked him for a coffee, he has to stop whatever he’s doing and go with her instantly, or there will never be another opportunity?

I should point out that Facebook and Google’s policies on employee dating are regarded as among the more liberal of the big multinationals. Other companies simply forbid it, or demand that it is reported to human resources.

It’s easy to direct the finger of blame yet again at the #MeToo movement. Although it has kicked off an important and timely global conversation about what constitutes acceptable behaviour between men and women, it has left us in a state of low-level terror that if humans are left to their own devices, chaos will prevail. It has, the argument goes, cast us adrift in a neo-puritanical neverland where a hand on the knee constitutes abuse, where livelihoods and reputations can be snatched away on the strength of a whisper.

Tell young girls that they should act at all times as though they’re under threat, and don’t be surprised if they occasionally see a threat where none is meant

It’s true that we’re now living in an atmosphere of repression and suspicion, where we behave as though no one around us is to be trusted. But rather than the cause, the #MeToo movement is just another symptom of this climate of fear. The movement came about through women bucking against existing power structures and the abuses perpetuated within them. But the behaviour that made the movement necessary – the decades of sexual harassment, abuse and bullying – are, equally, manifestations of a dysfunctional, inherently suspicious society.

Regulating humanity

One of the things I found most stifling about living in the US, whose motto “the land of the free” is looking, by the day, more like an ironic T-shirt slogan, is the desire to regulate the minutiae of human relationships, which begins in kindergarten and now continues into the workplace. The rules at elementary school level are mostly well-intentioned, and designed to create an atmosphere of safety, mutual respect and courtesy. If somebody asks to play with you, you must stop what you’re doing and play with them. If someone is sitting alone on the buddy bench, you must join them. You can’t mention your birthday party in school, unless you’re inviting the whole class. Everyone gets a medal for participation. Be a bucket filler, not a dipper. Don’t tease, don’t criticise, don’t cause offence.

They mean well, but taken in their entirety, they’re suffocating. They are forcing children into an artificial bubble where everyone is kind, equally gifted in all the same areas, and life is black and white, orderly and inherently joyless. And more importantly, they’re not effective. Some rules are necessary in any community, but too many tend to have the opposite effect. Children, being children, take a delight in finding ingenious ways to cruelly reject one another, without technically breaking the rules. I always felt that if the parents and teachers just left the kids to navigate their interactions alone, they’d usually work it out, and turn out better-rounded adults as a result.

By the time these children grow up and enter university and later the workforce, they are probably relieved to find that their interactions with colleagues are, if anything, even more heavily regulated. But it’s futile enough infantilising children; infantilising adults is bound be disastrous. Take the agency of adults away, treat them as if they’re inherently bad, and they’ll probably reward you by fulfilling your worst expectations. Give young boys the message that they’re helpless slaves to their own primal urges frequently enough, and they might just behave accordingly. Tell young girls that they should act at all times as though they’re under threat, and don’t be surprised if they occasionally see a threat where none is meant.

Moment of reckoning

There are no easy answers here. The way we used to do things in the workplace and in society wasn’t right. The way we’re heading isn’t right either. Has the #MeToo movement got some things wrong? Yes, for sure, but on balance, it has still got more things right. This is a moment of reckoning, and moments of reckoning are not easy. Tolerance is hard. Equality is hard. Nuance is hard.

The solution, I think, is to stop trying to regulate our humanity away, and instead keep talking, keep listening and keep trusting that most people are not inherently bad. It’s easier to bellow from the extremes than it is to listen, and to have an honest and nuanced discussion that meets in the middle. But we owe it to ourselves, and to the next generation, not to give up now, to keep asking questions about the kind of society we want to be.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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