The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it

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If the results of a recent public awareness survey are any indication, then we appear to be losing our collective knowledge of the Holocaust. Julie Zauzmer reports for the Washington Post:

Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day that found that knowledge of the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II is not robust among American adults.

Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

. . . Asked to identify what Auschwitz is, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted the study, which interviewed 1,350 American adults.

Granted, it’s only one poll. But if the results are even close to representative of the overall population, then we should be filled with alarm and despair. As I wrote in 2014:

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. . . . 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.

Yes, to know about the Holocaust is to look into the darkest side of humanity. And if we don’t understand that side, then we cannot build a world that knowingly resists and opposes those instincts and behaviors and opts for something much better.

Relevance to the workplace

In previous articles I have made my case for why an understanding of the Holocaust can help us to comprehend the worst instances of bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. I have stitched together pieces of two past blog posts (here and here) to reiterate that position:

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Do the individual and collective behaviors of the Holocaust help us to understand severe, targeted, personally destructive workplace bullying? . . . I am well aware of the casual overuse of references to Hitler and the Nazis in our popular culture, especially in today’s overheated political discourse. . . . Nevertheless, I have steeped myself in the experiences and literature of workplace bullying, and I have read many works about the Holocaust. Although the two forms of mistreatment are hardly equivalent — even the worst forms of workplace bullying are a world away from genocide — there are real connections between them.

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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.

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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.

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I subscribe to the theory that most cases of severe, repeated, targeted workplace bullying originate with a nasty individual. Whether that person can be clinically classified as a psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist matters less than whether he possesses the simple capacities to treat someone abusively and to enlist others to be of assistance. More often than not, the abuser needs others to help with the dirty work. For example, if the intended coup de grâce is to eliminate the target from the workplace and perhaps to destroy her livelihood and career, the bully typically requires assistance to manipulate the employment record of a competent, even outstanding worker to make her look like a miscreant.

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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.

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When, say, human resources officers and employment lawyers knowingly — or perhaps with a sort of deliberate ignorance — side with the abusers to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target, they play institutional roles very similar to the bureaucrats of the Nazi regime. These professional handmaidens are more than simple bystanders looking the other way. They are complicit in the abuse; often they are among the key enablers leading to the final elimination of the target.

It’s about people and systems

In other words, we’re talking about a blend of individual actors and systems that enable them. The Holocaust may have been driven by Hitler and the smaller circle around him, but they needed the active cooperation of thousands of others to create a systematized killing machine, not to mention millions of others willing to look the other way.

The same applies to toxic workplaces. Here’s what I wrote last year:

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. . . (W)orkplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

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Let’s educate ourselves

The possibilities are many, but let me offer a few recommendations for those who wish to learn more about the Holocaust.

I just finished watching the 2005 BBC mini-series, “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’,” a six-episode mix of dramatizations, historical footage, and interviews. It masterfully pulls together the broader historical contexts and the often shocking, heartbreaking narrative details. It requires less than five hours of your time, and right now you can stream it on Netflix.

In terms of short memoirs, Wiesel’s Night comes out to less than 150 pages and can be finished during an evening or two. Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning also recounts his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and examines how they fueled his pioneering work as a psychiatrist.

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both the epic novels and the lengthy mini-series adaptations, are compelling fictional portrayals of the WWII era, with a heavy emphasis on the Nazis and the Holocaust.

I confess that I’ve read only parts of these books, but for those who want to go deep into the details, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust are among the many favorably reviewed historical treatments of the era.

There are plenty of other good sources, but regardless of how we learn about this signature event in human history, the important thing is to comprehend and remember.

Coping with an abusive boss: That voodoo that you do

If you’re angry about being treated like dirt by a terrible boss, then you may want to take it out on a voodoo doll. At least that’s what a study published earlier this year in The Leadership Quarterly suggests might be helpful.

In “Righting a wrong: Retaliation on a voodoo doll symbolizing an abusive supervisor restores justice” (abstract here), a team of researchers led by Dr. Lindie Liang (Wilfrid Laurier U, Canada) sought to measure whether “symbolic retaliation” might help to reduce feelings of being unjustly mistreated by an abusive supervisor.

They started with the common sense understanding that directly retaliating against a boss for perceived injustices at work might not be the best idea for many reasons. Next, they hypothesized that engaging in “symbolic retaliation,” such as taking out frustrations on a voodoo doll representing an abusive boss, might nevertheless help to reduce those feelings of injustice.

It turns out they were correct in their hypothesis. In a study involving 229 subjects, taking out one’s anger on a voodoo doll reduced feelings of workplace injustice by one third.

The research article itself is not available without subscription or library access, but reporter Sarah Knapton provides a nice summary in The Telegraph newspaper:

For the study, the participants were asked to recall and visualise a workplace interaction which had involved abuse from a supervisor. Some were then asked to retaliate using a voodoo doll . . . . Those who had been allowed to stick pins in their virtual boss were far less likely to still feel bitter . . . .

The article quotes Prof. Liang:

“We found a simple and harmless symbolic act of retaliation can make people feel like they’re getting even and restoring their sense of fairness. . . . Symbolically retaliating against an abusive boss can benefit employees psychologically by allowing them to restore their sense of justice in the workplace.”

And in related news, retailers report that sales of voodoo dolls have jumped 1,000 percent…just kidding, I think.

When meetings are used to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns

Image courtesy of clipart-library.com

Let’s start with a positive: Well-run, focused meetings can be extraordinarily valuable, productive, and participatory. They can enhance a genuine sense of community, inclusion, and buy-in. They can build positive relationships and help to ensure that different viewpoints are aired.

That said, way too many meetings are used for less-than-ideal purposes. In a more benign mode, they are simply time wasters, consuming precious minutes and hours of our lives that we can never get back. But it can get much worse than that. In fact, in my 27 years in academe, I’ve come to understand that the most morale-killing misuse of meetings is to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns. I’m sure some of you have your own examples of how this is done. Here are my leading candidates:

Ratifying Pre-Manipulated Results — Especially if a decision requires a vote or consensus agreement, the Powers That Be have already lined up their supporters and accomplice sheep. It’s a done deal before anyone enters the room. Perhaps this is “smart” organizing, but those left out of the pre-meeting dialogue won’t feel that way.

Intimidation and Bullying — The meeting serves as a reminder to not make waves, sometimes with implicit and explicit threats to back it up. It’s a form of in-your-face thuggery, sometimes done with a velvet glove, on other occasions of the bare-knuckled variety. 

Mansplaining — How many times do we have to listen to some guy drone on and on, over and again? He weighs in frequently, interrupts often, and self-promotes whenever possible. Some of these offenders have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, given the fact that some women strive to emulate their bloviating male colleagues, it’s also possible to be subjected to (wo)mansplaining as well. While this may advance the cause of inclusion in some perverse way, it doesn’t exactly contribute to the greater good.

PowerPoint Gazing — Staring at a screen as someone drones on in the dark. Slides with potentially important info are swapped out before you can grasp their significance. This is a great way for the Powers That Be to claim they were being transparent, when in reality they gave out just enough information to make the assertion a cynically plausible one.

Obligatory Filler — Instead of genuine discussion and dialogue, fill up the meeting with stuff that should be in a memo or e-mail. In the meantime, important matters are never brought to the table.

Therapeutic jurisprudence group on bullying, mobbing, and abuse across the lifespan

If you’ve been following this blog regularly, then you may know that I have been closely involved in the creation of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a global, non-profit learned organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence, “an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions.”

The ISTJ will be conducting many of its activities through Interest Groups organized around substantive topics of law and public policy. As part of that effort, I’ve joined with a small group of fellow members to form an Interest Group on Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse Across the Lifespan. The group will examine and address these behaviors from an interdisciplinary perspective, emphasizing the intersection of psychological trauma and law & public policy. Here are among the group’s possible activities:

  • Creating and improving trauma-informed public education programs and workshops about bullying/mobbing/abuse in all settings;
  • Examining how we can support targets and victims in litigation, such as providing information to attorneys and planning expert witness testimony and analyses;
  • Examining different approaches to legislation and public policy, i.e., differences and commonalities in dealing with abusive behaviors across the spectrum; and,
  • Organizing writing projects, programs, etc.

I should note that this group will not be able to provide individual counseling, coaching, or legal advice for those who are experiencing any of these behaviors. However, in the future we may be able to develop resource listings like that on this blog for workplace bullying to guide those experiencing abusive mistreatment in other contexts.

If you are interested in becoming a member of this group, then you’ll first need to join the ISTJ (memberships run calendar year, Jan-Dec; $25 regular; free for currently enrolled students). After joining you’ll either want to indicate your interest in this topic of the TJ Forum page and/or e-mail me at dyamada@suffolk.edu.

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