One of the many things that’s changed since I was a child is the kind of attention directed to youthful experience. Schools are more punitive, with a well-worn track between schoolhouse and jailhouse for infringements that would previously have warranted some extra time in study hall. Yet they may display more attentiveness to children’s feelings in moments of crisis: when something terrible, especially something highly visible, happens in a school setting—an accident, an attack, the death of a student or teacher—many helping professionals and much advice descend on the situation in the hope of ameliorating harm and giving comfort.
I still remember the eerie lack of attention to our childish feelings when I was in grade school. Back in the dark(er) ages, there was a kind of default assumption that kids didn’t remember things, that their infinite plasticity would overcome whatever trauma they had experienced. Now, it is more commonly thought they need a little help.
Just so, it’s now a common feature of schoolrooms that children are prepared to recognize bullying when it rears its ugly head, and coached in safe methods of alerting responsible adults to the distortions of personal power to which some children fall prey. There are some excellent resources for classroom use.
Yet if the classic definition of bullying is preying on those weaker than oneself, the bullying at the top of the school food chain that sends children to prison for playground spats has not been recognized as the same phenomenon. And beyond school, in the organization or workplace, the same attention has not been paid.
What are we doing to create this climate, in the larger society and in the little worlds of our own organizations and workplaces?
The whiplash effect of amplifying both punishment and support confuses me, and I bet it confuses kids too. I wonder what impact this will have on the way they behave in civil society when they grow up. I don’t see older generations doing much at the moment to clear up the confusion. Instead, we seem to be drinking daily of that strange cocktail, equal parts proclaimed caring and impassioned punishment. Consider the way we treat the unemployed: large (and largely empty) expressions of public caring, such as workshops in how to improve one’s resume and conduct oneself in an interview, reducing the problem to personal inadequacy; and a punishing shame that attaches to the condition of being unemployed, no matter how many people join those ranks.
Indeed, as I have had many occasions to remark lately, C. Wright Mills was oh, so right when he talked about the American proclivity to treat public issues as private troubles. The link he made was between individual human misery and social policy: in our world—still, still—the unemployed person is made to feel a failure, even when unemployment is epidemic, even when it stems from moral and other failures on much higher levels. But the reduction of public issues to private troubles is also expressed on the small scale of an organization or workplace, when individuals are singled out for some form of bullying by bosses and coworkers who are moved to cruelty to avoid facing the larger truth of their own situations.
Some targets are already marked for bullying by fortune: perhaps they stutter or suffer from shyness or belong to a vilified social category, a racial or sexual out-group. By the time we attain adulthood, most of us have experienced a great deal of persuasion and pressure to treat suffering as punishment that has somehow been earned, as license to punish further.
Some targets are the opposite: energetic, ambitious for social change, singling themselves out through hard work and accomplishment, thus attracting envy and acrimony from those whose own efforts feel inadequate by comparison.
The point of political organizing is to midwife into being the collective understanding that what happens to the many is a matter of policy, not personal luck or transgression, and that regardless of the individual remedies any of us might employ to float our little boats, there are overarching interventions that can lift all ships. While many people who came up in my generation have been dedicated activists and healers, we have not yet managed to shift our national culture of punishment many degrees toward compassion. The privatization of suffering continues.
Nothing in this larger situation impedes our ability to practice democracy and compassion on the small scale of our own personal and working relationships. Yet I have observed in decades of working with organizations that the practice of small-scale democracy, the habit of infusing our working relationships with caring, with the self-awareness that is the best antidote to an excess of self-regard—these skills are not universally practiced.
Instead, far too frequently, people who crusade for justice in the big world exercise their surplus powerlessness in the little world of the organization. Frustrated in their larger aims, restless after a lifetime of struggle, they easily fall into exercising their frustration through abuse and domination of coworkers. And far too often, this is allowed to continue, not out of malice, but self-protection: the resentment that animates scapegoating is permitted to flourish because so many people would rather look the other way and let a bully reign than risk becoming targets themselves.
Because I’ve worked for so many years with progressive groups, people tend to tell me their stories, the way the doctor at a cocktail party tends to learn about other guests’ physical symptoms. And here is the hard nut of it: there are too many progressive groups espousing (and practicing) social justice and compassion in relation to a particular issue—healthcare, environmental justice, immigration, and so on—yet allowing petty jealousies, bored fantasies, and mob psychology to generate workplace bullying. As far as I can see, there is only one difference between this and the type of big-world political scapegoating that generates so much outrage among progressives: scale.
When you sow these behaviors in an organization, you harvest bitterness. The shy or odd or easy targets back away, lacking the stamina to persevere. The go-getters take their energy somewhere else, somewhere they will be less susceptible to friendly fire. And everything recedes to that species of running in place so typical of organizations in which such behavior is neither acknowledged nor repaired.
When you sow these behaviors in the larger society, you get a garrison state, Incarceration Nation, a society in which the suffering of the weak incites the punitive impulse, over and over again. I feel certain that the values of compassion and fairness progressives are working for in the big world have to be practiced on the smallest scales, or the whole enterprise will fail. Not long ago, someone sent me a Web resource on the issue of workplace bullying. Take a look. Is this happening to you? Are you standing aside while it happens to others? Have you allowed yourself to get caught up in the lust for punishment? Every day is a good day to notice this, and if need be, change it.