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Allergy to obfuscation causes some of us to choke

August 5, 2002

Frequent Flyer magazine once ran a poll showing that nearly four out of 10 executives who fly a lot had witnessed at least one example of “air rage” in the previous year. So anger on airplanes is a growing menace? Probably not. The poll’s definition of air rage included attempts to sneak a smoke on a plane and “verbal abuse” (i.e., criticism) of a flight attendant, a passenger, or any airline employee on the ground.This version of air rage might include an exasperated passenger who says something sarcastic when told that his luggage has been sent to Saskatchewan. The complainer would be part of the rage stats along with people who assault pilots. This is like including “unnecessary honking” in the definition of road rage.Many of us are suffering from “statistics rage” or “battered stats (BS) syndrome.” These numbers are produced by muzzy definitions, which in turn affect policy and law. A current example is the hullabaloo over bullying. To goose the number upward, advocates produce the broadest possible definition of bullying, including starting a fight, refusing to include a klutz in a schoolyard basketball game, and spreading rumors. Anything that hurts anyone’s feelings seems to qualify. That ought to cause the stats on victims of bullying to hover somewhere between 99 percent and 100 percent.

In its excited 1993 report on sexual harassment in schools, the American Association of University Women claimed that 80 percent of students had been harassed. But given the broad definition, it surely should have been 100 percent. Jokes, teasing, gossip, ogling and winking all counted as harassment. That report was silly, but the press took it seriously, and it led to the rigid school policies and grim workshops we have today.

We are headed in the same direction on bullying. A prosecutor in Dakota County, Minn., recently announced that any student 13 years of age or older who picks a fight “will be looking at” at least one night in jail. The prosecutor must have attended an unusual school. At the one I went to, half the fights involved boys who were friends one day before and one day after the big tussle.

Don’t laugh. All harassment definitions are infinitely expandable. The Chicago Tribune reports that joking in the workplace has become so perilous that some companies have called in consultants to rein in office humor while other companies hire humorists to help employees lighten up. Maybe it’s safer to have no laughing at all.

Disability is famously expandable, too. Infertility, AIDS, and many diseases and illnesses have been pushed into the category of the disabled. Canada’s transportation agency decided that allergies qualify as serious disabilities. This is an outgrowth of peanut allergies — a serious matter — but it means passengers may be barred from Canadian flights because of their perfume, aftershave, flowers, pets, or any carry-on item anyone might be allergic to.

Broad definitions by advocates have given us some odd concepts. We have the nonbattered woman’s defense (the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that battered-woman’s syndrome does not have to include any physical violence — verbal abuse will do), rape-free rape (some feminists say that touching a woman’s breast qualifies as rape), and nonviolent domestic violence (name-calling, unilateral economic decisions, treating pets badly and “limiting access to information” have all been listed as examples of domestic violence).

The changing of definitions is now a normal (and slippery) part of our politics. Under pressure from advocates, the definition of political asylum has been stretched to cover women fleeing abusive husbands and homosexuals eager to reach gay-tolerant America.

Another example: The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a broad and dubious conspiracy statute, was supposed to be used against organized crime. It has been used to target abortion protesters and aggressive political fund-raisers, most notably the Clintons and Republican congressman Tom DeLay. The Clintons and DeLay may not be political saints, but racketeers?

The redefiners are at work in the welfare debate, too. The 1996 welfare-to-work reform has worked spectacularly well, so the anti-reform lobby is reluctant to attack it head on. Instead they want to redefine work to include training and education and other work-delaying measures of the pre-1996 status quo. The Bush administration is playing this game, too, defining work to include family time, sports, and programs sponsored by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Good idea, but this isn’t work any more than sassing the luggage handlers is air rage or spreading rumors is bullying.

From → Media

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