TCS Daily

Tyranny of the Self

By Val MacQueen - June 2, 2004 12:00 AM

In England, Birmingham lawyer Maxine Kelly is suing her former employers for sexual discrimination. Recently, Kelly and 50 other female employees received a memo banning them from coming to the office in skirts cut above the knee. The memo also listed bare midriffs, clothes that "ride up and reveal excess flesh when bending over or sitting" and body piercings as being among items of attire that failed to inspire confidence in the law firm's clients. One can only imagine the outfits that must have motivated the distribution of such a memo.

Thirty-six-year-old advocate Kelly, who is single, favored wearing handkerchief-size miniskirts and, according to some, was much given to bending over the copy machine. She was offended, especially when, on complaining that the guidelines were unfairly harsh, she was told she was the worst offender. Kelly professed herself "astounded" by this clear "affront to women".

"I made my objections known and I feel this led to my being dismissed unfairly. I can't believe I worked for an employer with such archaic attitudes and a scant disregard for women's rights," she told a newspaper.

A few days after receipt of the memo, the £55,000 ($88,000) a year lawyer lost her job.

In a bid to paint a particularly harsh, intolerant -- indeed, almost Victorian -- work environment, she has stated in public that the managing partner is a Christian, was given to quoting the Bible and opposes abortion, which the sensitive Ms. Kelly found particularly distressing. Needless to say, she is claiming sexual discrimination, although the firm says it fired her for poor performance.

In insisting on her right to wear what was, by all accounts, wildly inappropriate clothing to the office, Kelly elevated her own sartorial satisfaction above the need of her employer to present a reliable, stable, confidence-inspiring image to clients. In other words, it may have been a large successful law firm, but it was all about Maxine Kelly.

Ryanair is one of the most successful airlines in the world and it is tipped to become the largest airline in Europe within one or two years. It owes its success to paring passenger comfort and service down to the knuckle. The latest planes have been ordered without the pockets on the backs of seats, and without pull-down blinds. There will be no luggage check-in. So the airline can cut out airport baggage handling charges at departure and arrival, passengers' baggage allowance will be one carry-on bag and passengers stow it in the overhead rack themselves. Booking is online only and there are no Contact Us buttons on its website. And there's a "no refunds under any circumstances" policy.

Building on the strategy developed by CEO Michael O'Leary, who rescued it from near bankruptcy a few years ago, Ryanair offers rock-bottom prices for flights to 56 airports throughout Europe, and it has no lack of eager passengers. In fact, it may be the only airline in the world that flies full most of the time. Rather than let a seat go empty, Ryanair will, at the last minute, sell it for £1 and hope that the passenger will at least buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich on board.

In exchange for enduring mild discomfort in the air for a couple of hours, passengers figure the trade-off of being able to fly away to foreign cities for short breaks -- a pastime previously only available to those who could afford the bloated fares Europe's national airlines were fixing among themselves -- is more than worth it.

The passengers are happy. The hotel- and shop-keepers of the destination cities are happy. Ryanair's shareholders are happy. O'Leary, now with a personal fortune of £500 million, is happy.

Enter Bob Ross, "wheelchair user".

Ross, a cerebral palsy sufferer who says it is "painful to walk", did not arrive at the airport with his own wheelchair. Ryanair charged him £18 pounds, the going rate, for use of a wheelchair on and off the plane, and someone to handle it. Ross, believing that the airline (meaning other passengers, through a levy on their tickets) should pay for wheelchairs for disabled travelers, decided to take Ryanair to the Disability Rights Commission, a grudge-feeding publicly-funded organization instituted by Tony Blair's socialist government. As expected, the Commission found that Ryanair had been guilty of that Gladstone bag of catch phrases: "discrimination".

Ryanair is fighting the ruling, but in the meantime, it has added a 50 pence (around 80 cents) "wheelchair levy" to its ticket prices, making certain passengers understand that its fares haven't gone up. The extra money is to fund privileges for other passengers who do not wish to pay for them themselves.

Ross, meanwhile, is fighting to get his £18 wheelchair charge refunded from Ryanair and is also seeking damages against the airline.

And how much did Ross pay for his round trip ticket for his weekend break? Ten pounds ($17).

The vertiginous descent, particularly in the Anglosphere, from responsibility for self to the depths of frenzied individualism has been a giddy ride over the last few years and it seems to be accelerating. Competing rights have become untethered from personal responsibility.

A British woman who has discovered she's a lesbian is trying to force a sperm bank to release the stored sperm from the husband she divorced six years previously. The man lost no time in getting an injunction and trying to get court permission to have the sperm destroyed, saying that he didn't want any more children, and even if he did, it wouldn't be with her. The woman, professing disbelief in his towering selfishness, has gone to the European Court of Human Rights -- yes, there really is such an entity in the la-la land of the EU -- to demand her "right" to have her ex-husband's child. Needless to add, she is doing this for women everywhere who long for a child with their lesbian partner.

The same court has granted, in the face of overwhelming apathy, transsexuals (now reclassified as trans-gendered, as though it mattered) the right to have birth certificates changed to reflect their "desired gender". As we know, no one can change his or her gender. They can get rebuilt to look like the opposite sex, but they cannot change their DNA. No matter that registrars, those most trusted of record keepers, are going to be forced to change birth certificates, certifying to a lie; these chaps don't just want to look like women, they want the works. They're not doing it for themselves, of course. They're righting a wrong.

Non-smokers don't like smoky bars, so regardless of the fact that many people find smoky bars cozy and convivial, smoking in bars must be outlawed in New York, San Francisco and Ireland (which doesn't sound good for the rest of the EU). Any "right" that comes clad in moral indignation trumps the live-and-let-live credo we took for granted until 10 years or so ago.

The interests of the legal firm which asked that she project a professional, confident image to its clients is accused by Ms. Kelly of backwardness and being anti-woman. That her manner of dressing was jeopardizing the firm's relationship with its clients, and therefore its revenues, comes second after Ms Kelly's presumed loss of self-esteem.

Mr. Ross decided he needed a wheelchair only after arriving at the airport, despite having been a sufferer of cerebral palsy for years. Presumably he didn't want the hassle of traveling to the airport with a wheelchair and thought he'd get one free when he got there. Had he arrived with his own wheelchair, Ryanair would have provided a staff member to help him to and from his flight without charge. But that wasn't good enough.

No non-smoker was obliged to enter a smoky bar against his will, but a committed band sought to apply its will to everyone. Now smokers can no longer take a draw on a cigarette with their drink in a public bar.

There is a meanness of spirit abroad, made more invidious because it is cloaked in a mantle of concern for the rights not of oneself, but for others: breathing second-hand tobacco smoke kills; a business enforcing a professional dress code is an affront to women; charging money for an extra service (on flights in which everyone agrees to forego service in the cause of economy) like wheelchairs is unfair to the handicapped ;transsexuals should have the right to produce a birth certificate and get married -- without the man they're marrying being aware that he's marrying a biological man.

In today's chaotic moral climate, everyone's rights clash with someone else's rights, and in a society where there is no common accord, shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater has come to be regarded as the performance of an important public service.


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