Over the weekend I read Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958; new translation 2006), a defining personal account of life and death in Nazi concentration camps. Even with a Preface, Foreword, and Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech included, the book comes out to less than 150 pages, so this hardly counts as a reading marathon. Nevertheless, my intention was to start it on Saturday evening and to finish over the coming days. But once I began reading, I kept going until reaching the end early Sunday morning.
As an amateur student of history, I’ve read a lot of books and watched many films and documentaries about the World War II era, including the Holocaust. However, what should’ve been so self-evident to me beforehand finally sank in as I read Night: We need to understand the Holocaust because there is no more documented, memorialized, and analyzed chapter of widespread, deliberate, orchestrated human atrocity in our history. If we want to grasp how human beings in a “modern” era can inflict horrific cruelties on others — systematically and interpersonally — then the Holocaust is at the core of our understanding.
I know there are many other episodes of genocide and oppression that we must consider. The Armenian Genocide of 1915. Rwanda in 1994. America’s history with slaves and Native Americans. The list goes on. But for a variety of reasons, the scale and driving hatred of the Holocaust, and the body of remembrance, documentation, and interpretation about it, are singular.
About bullying, mobbing, and workplaces
Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.
Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work also has extended into the general realm of human rights. She recounts in her 2007 book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide how she used a talk at the University of Rwanda to explain “how it was a short walk from schoolyard bullying to criminal bullying (hate crime) to genocide,” invoking the roles of aggressor, bullying target, and bystander.
In 2010, when Coloroso spoke to a group of South Hadley, Massachusetts, residents and school officials in connection with the much-publicized bullying-related suicide of high school student Phoebe Prince, she referenced this theme and distinguished bullying from ordinary conflict. As reported by Hannah McGoldrick:
“Bullying is the dehumanizing of other human beings with intent to harm,” Coloroso said yesterday during her third talk in South Hadley.
Coloroso, who did work in Rwanda during the mass genocide, explained that genocide “dehumanizes” people in the same way bullying does to “targeted” children.
“There is no remorse [in bullying]; it’s contempt for another human being,” she said. “As adults, we fail to distinguish the difference between conflict and bullying.”
Coloroso then explained that bullying, like genocide, cannot be resolved through conflict resolution.
Kenneth Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose case studies of mobbing in academe are worth the concentrated study of any serious student of workplace abuse, uses the term “elimination” to describe the process of removing targeted professors from their jobs. Ken also draws comparisons between severe mobbing behaviors at work and perpetrators of larger-scale eliminations and genocides, including the Nazis.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.
I have distinguished a form of mistreatment that I call “puppet master” bullying from situations that appear to be mobbings. In 2012, I wrote:
Let’s start with…puppet master bullying. In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. For example, if the aggressor is a mid-level manager, he may recruit HR to help out with the dirty work and encourage the target’s peers to shun or bully her.
…By contrast, genuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few. It may have started as puppet master bullying, but regardless of its origins, this is now a mob, with individuals owning that animus in ways that fuel each other’s antipathy toward the target.
In cases of puppet master bullying, removal of the “master” has a dramatic effect: “Typically, much of the malicious energy that fueled the puppets fades away, and so with it much of the bullying behavior.” Surely conditions in Nazi Germany help us to understand this line between bullying and mobbing, even though the behaviors differ significantly in scale and impact.
And back to Night
Wiesel experienced Nazi concentration camps as a teenaged boy, yet the stories he shares do not require a more mature moderator beyond the author’s voice. In Night you will see extreme cruelty, calculated psychological terror, bystander inaction, the breakdown of civility and society, and willful ignorance and denial, along with acts of kindness, love, bravery, and self-sacrifice. It is good that this book is a short one; anything more might be overwhelming.
In any case, Night is definitely worth the time of anyone who wants to understand how the extreme realms of cruelty exist in modern society, in small and large ways. I wish that I could say that our workplaces are free of such behaviors, but that would not be true.