Slate article on the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, Virginia literary editor

Emily Bazelon of Slate magazine, whose article on the school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince I discussed earlier on this blog (link here), has weighed in with an investigative commentary (link here) on the suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey, a tragedy that has attracted national attention due to allegations of workplace bullying at the hands of his boss.

Bazelon adopts the same skeptical mindset towards bullying that she demonstrated in the Phoebe Prince piece. I’m not going to engage in a line-by-line critique of her article, but time and again I saw how she used clever selection and juxtaposition of facts and quotes to cast doubt not only on the possibility that bullying contributed to Morrissey’s demise, but also on the general need to respond to workplace bullying effectively. Indeed, I even saw how she deftly used quotes from my own lengthy telephone interview with her to undercut the importance of enacting legal protections against severe workplace bullying.

The challenge for an emerging social movement

Bazelon reveals, once again, a sharp intellect and a lawyer’s ability to present facts persuasively. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us in view of her background: Selective private school, Yale College, Yale Law School, granddaughter of legendary federal judge David Bazelon, and distant cousin of feminist Betty Friedan. But her writings also suggest that her analytical skills outpace her demonstrated understanding of, and empathy for, people who have been on the receiving end of psychological abuse that falls under the category of severe bullying.

Herein lies a challenge to those of us who recognize the destructiveness of workplace bullying: How do we persuade smart people who, for whatever reasons, don’t yet understand the dynamics of this form of abuse and what it can do to others?

The raw material, unfortunately, is growing in abundance. We have an expanding body of published and documentary accounts of workplace bullying that tell the stories of those who have been bullied (sadly, sometimes to death).  We have an even larger collection of studies that identify the frequency of, and harm caused by, bullying at work, with more on the way.

Somehow, someway, we need to make our case more persuasively.


Addendum: The online comments to Bazelon’s article take time to work through, but they capture the span of attitudes toward, and understanding of, workplace bullying. Some of the critiques of Bazelon’s commentary (I really can’t call it reporting) are much more articulate than my efforts above. The exchanges are sharp at times but mostly civil, and overall they present a very interesting back-and-forth dialogue.

6 responses

  1. Empathy comes before intellect and is learned only if received. In the absence of empathy intelligence makes a poor substitute. Whit and cleverness may sell, but it will be off the mark. No wonder the intelligencia of so many countries in so many time periods were made the enemy of populist movements. We see that happening in this country, now, with the Tea Party. It is as if to say: “All those pretty words and grand concepts got us to this point! Wipe them all away!”
    Our movement, on the other hand, looks to reasoned discourse based upon facts and research. People without empathy are not able to meaningfully participate. They just don’t get it!

    • Greg, when I talked to Bazelon over the phone, within minutes I realized that she already had written her article and was merely looking for the right quotes and facts to put in it.

      I’ve found that most journalists, even ones who are skeptical about workplace bullying as a phenomenon, are fair minded. But I could tell she had a predisposed agenda.

  2. Very abrasive articles which did not paint a pleasant picture of the author. Bazelon obviously cannot comprehend that people (thank goodness) are not all like her.

  3. Thank you for pointing out this article — and your blog in general! I just posted this comment on the Sl jlw
    I urge readers to consider the discussion of workplace abuse in (often referred to as bullying) the article above cautiously. If the causes of suicide are complex, as they certainly are, so is the issue of workplace abuse — and certainly not adequately covered by the short discussion in the article above. Critically, any situation of imbalance of power, as undeniably occurs in the workplace, invariably lends itself open to opportunities, and unfortunately also incidents, of abuse of that power (unless it could be said that that power is totally unbounded, which, of course, it is not). Those of us who are interested in protecting others against the abuse of power as it can occur in the workplace, as I am, are placed in the position of first urging others to consider these two important facts — the complexity of the issue and the correlation of any imbalance of power with the sometimes overstepping of the legitimate bounds of that power. The movement against workplace abuse (otherwise known as the healthy workplace movement) is in its early stages, but, as with spousal abuse and child abuse, whose dynamics it shares, I believe that we will see over time, that consciousness of the rights of persons and how they are violated psychologically will have to cross the threshold of the workplace door too — and not just when they are attached to current unlawful discriminatory actions. And, contrary to the assertion of one of the other commenters, overwhelmingly evidence shows that productivity and quality of work is enhanced, not dimininshed, when performed by employees who are treated respectively. So economic considerations, as well as political and ethical ones, support the emerging healthy workplace movement and the legislation it is advocating.

    • Rhonda, thank you for sharing this very thoughtful response here — as well as your other comments, all welcomed.

      I do hope we are reaching that consciousness threshold to which you refer!

  4. My response above was posted as a comment on the Slate article on its website (I mistakenly cut off part of that description).

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