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Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2001 / 27 Shevat, 5761

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

When perfectly reasonable principles are carried too far -- TWO odd and recent news stories got little attention in the mainstream press. A Pennsylvania woman, fired after a long record of obnoxious behavior, sued her employer in federal court and won a key ruling. The judge said the woman was indeed "belligerent" and "unprofessional." She wrote abrasive E-mail and sassed her superiors. But because she was suffering from depression, the judge said she was protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So if a jury agrees with her at trial, her employer, Unisys Corp., will have to take her back and accommodate her somehow. The other story involved an 8-year-old Arkansas boy who was suspended from school for three days for pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying "pow, pow, pow."

Both these stories went directly into my file folder marked "extension." This is where I stuff clippings about perfectly reasonable social or legal principles that are carried way too far, resulting in essentially insane policies. When the ADA was debated a decade ago, nobody suggested that it might one day be used to force employers to accept disruptive and insubordinate workers or salespeople who curse the customers. Discussion focused on people with severe and most- ly visible disabilities. Almost no one thought that backers of the ADA would push to include neuroses, drug habits, bad backs, or high blood pressure. And when school boards passed zero-tolerance policies on weapons in schools, nobody predicted that offenders would include tots with water pistols, toy knives, key chain ornaments, and chicken fingers.

No laughs allowed. Quiet overextension of accepted principles has become a standard political tactic. It can produce a lot of social change all at once, often without the bother of consulting the electorate. Take the concept of sexual harassment. What began in 1986 with a Supreme Court ruling in a case that involved repeated sexual assaults by a woman's boss established a legal doctrine now used to go after school teasing by first graders and chuckling at the water cooler over naughty jokes on Seinfeld.

This constant ripple effect of sexual harassment theory has produced a broad, free-standing doctrine of harassment. Under many circumstances, almost any act or expression that makes someone uncomfortable can bring legal action. For instance, Britain's Human Rights Act outlaws physical, emotional, and verbal bullying at schools. It led to guidelines issued by a teachers association that ban sarcastic remarks and offensive gestures and rumors. The guidelines seem to be derived from the worst of the American college speech codes, which in turn owe a lot to our ever expanding harassment doctrine.

U.S. policies on asylum show the same sort of extension. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, foreigners are eligible for asylum if they face the risk of persecution on the basis of "race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." But the clarity of that passage is fading. The term "social group" has been stretched to include disabled people, women who fear genital mutilation, and homosexuals who fear persecution. The compassion is admirable, but identity politics and ideology are creeping in. Now feminists are pushing to include asylum on the basis of domestic violence. To establish the precedent, they have chosen to publicize an unusually strong case: a Guatemalan woman, horrifically abused for a decade by her husband. On her way out the door, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a ruling in favor of the woman, who apparently will be an early test of the new compassionate conservatism.

What's at stake behind this truly heart-rending case is a huge extension of political asylum. This expansion makes sense if you agree with radical feminists that domestic violence is gender-based persecution conducted or encouraged by the patriarchy. It would amount to a form of oppression similar to that of an abusive state. But if you have a less politicized view of the issue, the expansion means that political asylum will now be stretched to cover the social problem of incompatible, warring spouses around the world.

Many extensions have been rather breathtaking gambles to solve our race problems. One was the extension of the concept of discrimination to include disparate impact–even without an intention to cause harm, fairly constructed policies that proved to have a heavier impact on minorities were classified as discriminatory. For instance, requiring job applicants to have a high school degree can violate the disparate impact doctrine. In their book, Reaching Beyond Race, (HARDCOVER) (PAPERBACK) political scientists Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines call this a "strikingly successful" move by courts and agencies, but one that required "silently substituting a conception of discrimination which ordinary citizens do not share." This is the obvious downside of extension maneuvers. If they have no consensus behind them and if they seem to violate the common sense of ordinary people, they are almost always headed for trouble.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts : Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


02/13/01: Bill and Hill are pills
02/06/01: Partner hopping
01/30/01: Sensitivity police
01/22/01: Found in the White House dumpster on Jan. 20, 2001
01/16/01: New slogan belies what the Army really is
01/08/01: The black dissent
01/03/01: The year's best quips on life, politics – and golf
12/19/00: Supreme confusion
12/11/00: Racial rhetoric conveniently ignores election facts
12/05/00: Savage fantasy
11/27/00: Victims of the year get the recognition they deserve
11/20/00: It's a chad, chad, chad, chad world
11/13/00: The election rhetoric is running much too high
11/07/00: How yesterday's hero becomes tomorrow's heel
10/30/00: Would Bush's Supreme Court picks make a difference?
10/24/00: Yankees, go home!
10/17/00: Un-American activity?
10/10/00: A tempest in an ink pot
10/03/00: The Al Gore quiz
09/26/00: The sleeper effect
09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

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