We understand human dignity only if we also comprehend humiliation and abuse

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I recall a conversation some time ago with a business management professor who, after hearing about my work on workplace bullying, responded by saying that maybe someday she’ll teach about the “dark side” of work in her classes. I was a little perplexed by her comment. It wasn’t the right place to get into a longer discussion with her, but I thought to myself, how in the world can you teach students about good management if you glaze over the destructive effects of bad management?

Last year I wrote about this question of emphasizing the positive vs. the negative aspects of work:

The bottom line is that we need to understand the light and dark sides of work in order to be effective change agents. If we don’t acknowledge that psychopaths, almost psychopaths, and narcissists constitute a narrow but sizable and destructive bandwidth of CEOs and managers, then we often will be blind to the darkness coming out of certain corner offices and boardrooms. If we overlook the possibilities of creating healthy, even (yes) happy job situations and of transcending debilitating fight-or-flight work environments, then we often will find ourselves stuck in a dark place for an extended period of time.

These themes connect to broader frames of how to create a society that embraces human dignity. If we do not understand the effects of dignity violations, then we really can’t grasp what dignity is all about in the first place.

This is among the reasons why I’ve been forging a closer connection with Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, multidisciplinary network of scholars, activists, practitioners, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. I have served on the HumanDHS global advisory board for several years, and recently I agreed to join its board of directors.

Humiliation is a powerful and uncomfortable word. Interestingly, it’s also what has drawn me to this group. During my early exchanges with HumanDHS founding president Evelin Lindner and director Linda Hartling, I learned that the decision to include humiliation in the group’s name was an intentional one, signaling the importance of comprehending how dignity violations affect individuals and society. It made eminent sense. After all, we can affirm, support, create, and defend human dignity only if we acknowledge, prevent, and respond to humiliation, abuse, and mistreatment. Otherwise, our supposed embrace of dignity may be a shallow one.

So how do we keep the balance? How do we avoid turning dignity into a superficial, feel-good concept, without letting the dark side of human behavior consume us? I have an answer-in-progress: Join with others who are striving to attain that balance. Toward that end, in December I will once again board a train for New York City to participate in HumanDHS’s annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, held at Columbia University Teachers College. There I will join a wonderful group of people from around the world to share various projects, writings, initiatives, and research, as well as each other’s good company.

Readers in the New York City area may want to attend the workshop’s public event, “Honoring Alfred Nobel’s Message,” on Thursday, December 3.

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Recent posts about Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

Digging deep into the meaning of dignity and humiliation (2015)

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity (2014)

7 responses

  1. This is a great initiative. I cannot get over how good this blog is. Outstanding. Thank you, it helps keep me sane, as well as informed so that I can give others hope: that they are not imagining a problem, and that solutions are being sought for by some very smart people. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, for your insigthts and resources, David. I think both fighting FOR dignity and AGAINST humiliation (and abuse of power) are really important while maintaining a mindset or momentum for forward movement towards positive change. Since this work involves human behavior change which is notoriously difficult and holds varied needs among us, we need to make room for conversations, different perspectives, and learning curves that may be difficult and gray. Having a vision about what we want and don’t want will help navigate the challenges of our growth.

    Robert Fuller makes this point in his work on dignity, i.e. knowing what we are for and knowing what we are against. http://www.confidentvoices.com/2014/01/02/robert-fuller-on-rankism-the-march-on-dignity-lets-bring-it-on-in-healthcare/

    HumanDHS conference and work sounds awesome.

  3. Thank you so very much for keeping this stream of conversation alive. May we never cease to talk about bullying and mobbing and the negative effects on the human and the corporation as a whole. I could probably write a book on my perspective of the topic as well because I was in management and I was also bullied, but I really enjoy reading this blog because it reaffirms that many others have lived this and survived.

    I have seen more good than bad management. I have also been bullied/ mobbed on two separate occasions. The first, I had strong ceo support and she made things right with the world in this large corporation until she herself got mobbed by the corporation and media. The second time was a horrifying experience for me, and dealing with a son with mental illness at the same time and a relocation, I found it too much and I nearly broke. But, I did fight the corporation. The investigation opened up the mobbing circle and the financial audit displayed the fraud they were hiding. I did leave the workplace, my choice, and I have still not reentered the workplace due to some lingering fears that I never thought I could harbour.

    Your blog gives me faith that what wat happened to me was real, and not just a living nightmare, it was not my fault! And there is hope for improvement.

    I do hope that you make it to canada one day, I would love to attend one of your conferences! Thank you for all you do!
    Gail

  4. Maybe someday she’ll teach about the “dark side?” And yet, we all have Machiavelli to examine for a major introduction to the dark side. Every management professor could easily start there. What a lame excuse! Thank you again for introducing me to a new resource. Great blog!

  5. I think I’d need to better understand what she meant by ‘the dark side’ of work before jumping to conclusions that she isn’t interested in talking about, or deliberately avoiding, the topic of work abuse. For many, many people, it’s not until they personally experience abuse that they have a clue about the injustice and abuse that can occur. It’s like their lens isn’t “in focus” to be able to understand – not until it hits home.

    For all we know, the business management professor had no real frame of reference to truly understand workplace bullying or abuse. She may have lumped her total understanding into that one phrase, i.e., ‘the dark side.’ All it may have been was an easy comeback to a topic about which she has little awareness.

    Mr. Yamada says it best: “If we do not understand the effects of dignity violations, then we really can’t grasp what dignity is all about in the first place.”

  6. David, your continued and unrelenting focus on human dignity and how work place bullying diminishes our very sense of vital connection with one another has given all of us so much hope for a healthier workplace environment. We are social beings and we need to find a constructive purpose in our professional and personal lives as well as in our interpersonal lrelationships with one another.

    I don’t know what we would do without you, David. Any recognition you receive from your dedicated work on this topic is more than richly deserved.

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