The Ties That Bind: 14th Annual Workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict

A key lesson of spending the past decade combating workplace bullying has been comprehending the ties that bind us when it comes to addressing trauma, humiliation, and human dignity in our society. This was brought home to me very meaningfully at the 14th annual workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanHDS) network, a wide ranging group of global citizens, scholars, activists, and practitioners.

Two Day Gathering

The workshop was held on Dec. 10 and 11 at Columbia University in New York City.  Newly installed HumanDHS director Linda Hartling presided over the gathering, with the ongoing support and assistance of founding president Evelin Linder.  Participants were treated to two days of presentations and discussions on topics ranging from genocide and international relations to training police officers and mental health policy.

There were many highlights to the conference, but it is worth singling out a framing address by psychologist Michael Britton, a long-time HumanDHS board member, who talked about the destructive impact of contemporary neoliberal policies and practices on human dignity. Britton identified the need for community in settings large and small, bringing together “macro” and “micro” perspectives in a very insightful way.

I must admit, I was somewhat concerned that my presentation on workplace bullying might be regarded as trite after hearing discussions about the Holocaust and international human rights abuses.  But no, these folks “get it.”  They understand that abuse can take place in any number of settings, including the workplace.

Enduring Themes

Four conference themes, more implicit than explicit, resonated with me:

First, we all too often draw a dichotomy between “social change” and “individual change.”  In reality, they part of an interrelated collection of priorities and practices.  The workshop helped to illustrate that point.

Second, pain and wounds can drive positive change.  A number of presenters spoke from the heart, and it was clear that they carried or inherited some painful emotional baggage.  Such transparency can make people uncomfortable, but if we want to understand the human costs of mistreatment, we should not relegate these experiences to “academic” descriptions.

Indeed, as I listened to some of the talks, I thought about a favorite line from Those Who Save Us, a novel set in WWII Germany by Boston writer (and good friend) Jenna Blum: Who among us is not stained by the past? 

Third, and related to the first two points, individual growth over one’s lifespan can lead us to this good change. Several speakers spoke of how their personal growth and development helped them to understand their own and others’ behaviors and the prospects of changing them.  Perhaps this is natural in view of how many people at the conference had been trained in psychology, but I’d guess that most standard brand gatherings of psychologists and psychology professors don’t get so personal.

Finally, I think we are moving, ever so gradually, toward a common understanding of the effects of trauma and abuse in our society.  If you can grasp the dynamics of domestic abuse, then you’re well on your way toward understanding workplace bullying.  If you understand the Holocaust, then you know how some individuals are capable of eliminating others on small and large scales alike, without an ounce of remorse.

Take a Look

I hope that readers interested in some of these broader connections will check out the HumanDHS link to the conference proceedings: http://www.humiliationstudies.org/whoweare/annualmeeting14.php

You’ll get a sense of the program agenda and individual presentations. Lots of pictures too, including those of people in a circle holding hands. A little “touchy feely”? Yup, but I’ve been to enough lifeless, uptight academic conferences to welcome this blending of heart and mind.

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