A workshop as annual ritual

The annual group shot, here honoring a request to ham it up a bit. (Photo: Anna Strout)

For over a decade, the annual December workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS) has become an increasingly significant event in my life. HDHS is a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, artists, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing humiliation in our society. The two-day workshop occurs each year at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City, attracting dozens of people from across the country and around the world. I have written about this workshop regularly on this blog, and for good reason: It is one of the most welcomed gatherings of the year for me.

Last week, the workshop beckoned again, and I hopped on an Amtrak train from Boston to New York. My participation would begin with a Wednesday board of directors meeting. In recent years, I have become more deeply involved with HDHS. Service on the board is now one manifestation of that closer engagement. The board meeting also serves as a nice lead-in to the workshop.

In a marvelous little book titled Rituals For Beginners (2016), author Richard Webster defines a ritual as “an action, or series of actions, performed in a prearranged, prescribed manner.” He adds that rituals help us to appreciate life. Most of them “involve an element of gratitude” for experiences that we might otherwise take for granted. 

Well, last Thursday morning, as I exited the subway stop at Columbia’s campus and walked up Broadway toward Teachers College for a Day 1 of the workshop, I had an epiphany: This is no longer “just” an annual event for me. Rather, it has become a meaningful ritual, a renewing, educational, and connective experience with friends old and new. While each year’s workshop provides plenty of variety, its essential format and timing provide a reassuring continuity, in the company of a pretty amazing group of people.

Here’s a brief rundown of my experience of the workshop:

Approaching the halls of Columbia University Teachers College (photo: DY)

With a breakfast sandwich and coffee from a nearby food truck in hand, I walk over to venerable Teachers College, whose International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution graciously hosts this gathering. Founded in 1887, Teachers College was the nation’s first full-fledged graduate school of education. It has since branched out into offerings on health, psychology, and conflict resolution. Its buildings aren’t shiny new digs, but rather older, unpretentious structures that speak of tradition and history. Those surroundings add to the ritual element of the experience.

Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner open the workshop (photo: Anna Strout)

Our workshop opens with a warm welcome from two individuals who are at the center of HDHS, Linda Hartling (director) and Evelin Lindner (founder and president). Evelin is a social scientist and writer, trained in both medicine and psychology. She travels the world doing workshops, giving lectures, and supporting the work of other change agents. Linda is a clinical psychologist and authority on relational-cultural theory. I frequently cite her brilliant paper, co-authored with Elizabeth Sparks (link here), describing organizational cultures in a relational context.

A pre-planned dignilogue in action (photo: Anna Strout)

The closest things we have to formal panel discussions are “pre-planned dignilogues,” which allow speakers to briskly (as in seven minutes each!) describe a project, publication, or initiative they’re working on, followed by Q&A. Pictured above, criminal justice professor Tony Gaskew (U. of Pittsburgh) is describing his “Life Support” project for individuals in Pennsylvania who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles.

I used my dignilogue talk to describe a new course that I’ll be teaching at Suffolk University Law School next semester, a “Law and Psychology Lab” that offers students opportunities to do practical projects applying psychological insights to law and public policy. 

A co-created dignilogue on improvisation and movement (photo: DY)

Our workshop also features “co-created dignilogues,” i.e., extended group discussions and presentations on topics developed each day by workshop participants. In the photo above, Beth Boynton, a nurse and medical improv instructor, is helping to facilitate a co-created dignilogue performance on improvisation and movement.

The gift of music from students at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn (photo: Anna Strout)

One of our Thursday evening traditions has been a musical performance by students from P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, led by their devoted music director, Fred Ellis, who happens to be a notable singer, musician, and song writer in his own right. Here are the kids doing one of their numbers, with Fred on the guitar.

Reporting on the HDHS conference in Brazil (photo: Anna Strout)

In addition to organizing the annual NYC workshop, every year HDHS holds a conference outside of the United States, typically in a country facing compelling social and political issues. This year’s conference was in Brazil, and it turned into something of a roving caravan in the Amazon. In the photo above, Gabriela Saab, a human rights and international law scholar and the newest member of the HDHS board, is sharing stories of her Amazon experience. (Go here for more.)

Michael Britton presents the annual Donald Klein lecture (photo: Anna Strout)

Psychologist Michael Britton is the presenter of the annual Donald Klein Memorial Lecture. Each year, Michael delivers a masterful, wise, and deeply humane talk about the state of the world, using an integrated perspective. This year, he focused on global warming and climate change and our roles in responding to it. It was the most cogent, holistic assessment of the topic that I’ve heard yet. (To watch the 43-minute lecture, go here. It will be time well spent.)

Claudia Cohen accepting her HDHS award (photo: DY)

Every year, HDHS presents a member of this community with its lifetime achievement award. This year’s deserving awardee was Claudia Cohen, a longtime HDHS workshop contributor. Claudia recently retired from a distinguished career at Teachers College, where she focused on organizational cultures and conflict resolution, and she is now doing anti-racism work in her home state of New Jersey.

Special guest Bill Baird (photo: Anna Strout)

On occasion, we are blessed with cameo appearances by noteworthy people. This year’s surprise guest was Bill Baird, often touted as the father of the reproductive rights movement. His pioneering advocacy work includes three victories before the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s pictured above with Evelin Lindner.

Good friends reconnecting (photo: DY)

The workshop serves as a reunion for old friends and an opportunity to make new friends for everyone. Pictured above, Linda Hartling and Bhante Chipamong Chowdhury, a Buddhist activist/monk and HDHS board member, share a moment. These impromptu conversations occur throughout the workshop and fuel both fellowship and future collaborations. 

I am grateful for the many treasured connections I have made through this workshop over the years. For those who are regular participants, these ties build and strengthen. We may also keep in touch through emails, social media, and occasional face-to-face get togethers during the rest of the year, but it’s this December workshop that brings us together in the most meaningful way. 

Our closing circle, with some singing to conclude our time together (photo: Anna Strout)

In recent years, we’ve been closing the workshop with music as well. Above, I’m helping to lead our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” which has become something of a tradition. Infusing the workshop with more music and singing helps to counterbalance the difficult subjects that are often the focus of our discussions.

In both direct and indirect ways, the HDHS workshop supports the work I do on workplace bullying and mobbing. Overall, the event reaffirms the critical importance of advancing human dignity in our society. It is deeply instructive and inspiring to hear others talk about their work in addressing abuse, mistreatment, and injustice in so many other settings. In addition, I have frequently discussed my workplace anti-bullying initiatives and found that topic to be very well received. It is validating to me that folks who are doing such important work in their own realms understand the significance of workplace abuse. On occasion, I’m able to share more of my work with fellow participants who are experiencing difficult work situations in their own lives.

Even I can be a work of art! (photo: Anna Strout)

And if you’ll excuse a personal indulgence, we’re now adding some art to the mix as well! Anna Strout, our devoted photographer and a gifted educator, activist, and artist, masterminded a project of trace drawings from photographs she took during the workshop. Here I am posing with her drawing of me!

So, this is a snapshot of what this workshop has come to mean for me. Such is the good power of this gathering that each year, I return to Boston reinvigorated for the work that I get to do. Rituals delivering that kind of energetic renewal are very special indeed. 

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Want to learn more? You may go here for a closer look at our 2019 workshop agenda. You also may go here to access videos of workshop events.

MTW Revisions: September 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (orig. 2012; rev. 2019) (link here)  — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine. You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; (3) disproportionally come from privileged backgrounds; and (4) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured, competitive educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of analytical thinking. . . . You then unleash them into the world of work.”

Are calls for more resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming? (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Bottom line? Resilience and grit are good. Targeted bullying, mobbing, and abuse are bad. Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.”

After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races (orig. 2017; rev. 2019) (link here) — “When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically can be divided into two races: ‘From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.'”

“Let’s run it more like a business” (The problem with many non-profit boards) (orig. 2014; rev. 2019) (link here) — “If running a non-profit group ‘more like a business’ means empowering effective, inclusive, and socially responsible leaders and holding them accountable, then I’m all for it. . . But all too often, the ‘more like a business’ mantra translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that at least some board members who are drawn from the private sector may embrace in their respective roles as executives and managers.”

When a workplace bully gets his comeuppance, should we be gleeful?

A month ago, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg took particular satisfaction over president Donald Trump humiliating his national security advisor, John Bolton, in the midst of diplomatic negotiations over nuclear arms (link here). She didn’t pull any punches:

Say this for Donald Trump. He may be transforming American politics into a kleptocratic fascist reality show and turning our once-great country into a global laughingstock, but at least he’s humiliating John Bolton in the process.

Why the glee over Bolton being savagely undermined by his boss? It may be the spectacle of witnessing one bully being outdone by another. You see, John Bolton is a longtime presence on the American diplomatic scene — with apologies for using the terms “Bolton” and “diplomatic” in the same sentence. I first heard about Bolton during George W. Bush’s administration, when he was appointed the U.N. Ambassador. His Senate confirmation hearings for the position were replete with stories about his raging temper and bullying tactics.

In fact, I referenced Bolton’s record of workplace bullying in an online piece published in 2005:

Allegations of intimidating and angry treatment of co-workers lodged against John Bolton, the Bush Administration’s newly-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations, have put a spotlight on the problem of workplace bullying. While Bolton has not quite done for bullying what Clarence Thomas and his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings did for raising awareness of sexual harassment, it is clear that this story struck a responsive chord with many workers who have experienced abusive treatment at the hands of bosses and co-workers.

…In recent months, many of these behaviors have been attributed to Bolton by current and former State Department co-workers and contractors. Ex-State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford, a Republican appointee, called Bolton a “serial abuser” of subordinates, adding that he showed a talent for stroking superiors while kicking down underlings.

The most publicized allegations came from Melody Townsel, a woman who worked with Bolton in Moscow under a government contract in 1994. Townsel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton chased her down the halls of a Moscow hotel, threw a tape dispenser at her, made disparaging remarks about her appearance, left threatening letters under her hotel door, and pounded on her door and yelled at her.

Bolton is said to have pursued the removal of two intelligence analysts simply for disagreeing with him. He sought to have them fired, claiming that their work had deteriorated. Internal agency reviews of the analysts’ work found no merit to the claims. Other reports indicate that Bolton has a talent for shouting down diplomats from other nations and throwing last-minute monkey wrenches into delicate treaty negotiations.

Should we celebrate a bully’s comeuppance?

I’m not about to wag a finger at someone who takes delight in a bully’s downfall, especially if said bully was a personal tormenter. In fact, in writing this piece, I recalled once sounding a war whoop of delight upon hearing that karma had come around to bite someone who was responsible for bad things happening to people at work. I’m neither proud of, nor apologetic for, that emotional response.

I have no hard and fast rules for when the celebration becomes excessive. That said, I hope we can all summon our better natures in not letting such responses go too far. Public humiliation, in particular, has a way of becoming cyclical, leading to more of the same. This may include, among other things, unintended and negative consequences of bullying bullies.

France Télécom executives are on trial for workplace bullying associated with dozens of worker suicides

Former France Télécom executives are on trial for alleged violations of France’s “moral harassment” code, in a case alleging that systematic bullying tactics were employed to reduce the company’s workforce. During the time in question, 35 workers died by suicide, and many left notes explaining that working conditions had pushed them beyond their ability to endure. Angelique Crisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom could face prison over organised workplace harassment that led to a spate of staff suicides a decade ago, as a two-month trial that shocked France draws to a close this week.

French state prosecutors have urged judges to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and hand down the maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines, after details emerged in court of the turmoil felt by workers over systematic bullying tactics aimed at pushing staff to leave.

Workplace bullying: Does adversity nurture compassion?

 

Does experiencing bullying at work or another form of interpersonal mistreatment make us more compassionate towards those who going through similar situations?

Ideally, we’d like to think that experiencing such adversity would build our sense of empathy for others who are dealing with like challenges. However, a 2014 study (link here) by Rachel Ruttan (Northwestern U.), Mary-Hunter McDonnell (U. Penn.), and Loran Nordgren (Northwestern U.) advises us to check those assumptions. Here’s the article abstract:

For those who are struggling with a difficult experience and who seek the support of others, it is a common assumption that others who have been through the experience in the past will be more understanding. To the contrary, the current research found that participants who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment) more harshly evaluated another person’s failure to endure a similar distressing event compared to participants with no experience enduring the event. These effects emerged for three naturally occurring distressing events, as well as one experimentally-induced distressing event. The effect was driven by the tendency for those who previously endured the distressing event to view the event as less difficult to overcome. Taken together, the paper’s findings present a paradox such that, in the face of struggle or defeat, the people we are most apt to seek for advice or comfort may be the least likely to provide it.

Let’s understand that this study is not claiming any absolutes. It suggests that those who have “previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment)” may be less likely to support others who going through similar experiences. It’s not a blanket characterization of all people who have experienced mistreatment.

Personal observations

In fact, I know darn well that people who have experienced bullying and mobbing can be extraordinarily supportive of those who are enduring like abuse at work. The core of the workplace anti-bullying movement has been built on the shoulders of these folks. This includes countless numbers of people who, on a professional or volunteer basis, have helped and are helping targets of workplace mistreatment through counseling, coaching, and informal support.

Of course, as the study suggests, this is not always so. And I have witnessed this, too. For example, years ago, I took part in an extended online conversation in which a self-identified workplace mobbing target dismissed the experiences of self-identified targets of workplace bullying, claiming that her suffering was much greater than theirs. It was not an easy exchange.

In essence, the psychology of abuse is complicated and yields a variety of responses from those who have been subjected to it. Nevertheless, the large cadre of bullying and mobbing targets who have joined together to support each other and to advocate for change embodies our efforts to enhance the dignity of work and workers.

Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)

For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”;
  2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”;
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”;
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; and,
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.

I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.

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Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):

  1. “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
  2. “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
  3. “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
  4. “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
  5. “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”

Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.

Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.

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Cross-posted with my “Musings of a Gen Joneser” personal blog.

Decades of repeated sexual misconduct complaints finally lead to a resolution at Harvard

Here in Greater Boston, the local news is reporting that Harvard University has stripped retired professor Jorge Dominguez of his emeritus status, following a review of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct towards women at the university spanning decades. From the Harvard Crimson (link here):

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced in an email to FAS affiliates Thursday that she has stripped former Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez of his emeritus status and disinvite him from the FAS campus following the conclusion of a months-long investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under the sanctions Gay imposed, Dominguez will lose the rights and privileges afforded to emeritus faculty members. He will be unable to hold an office on campus, teach and advise students, or receive support from administrative or research assistants.

The Office for Dispute Resolution investigation into Dominguez found that he engaged in “unwelcome sexual conduct” toward several individuals multiple times over a decades-long period, according to Gay.

. . . In a February 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report, at least 10 women publicly accused Dominguez of repeated acts sexual misconduct. A follow-up Chronicle story revealed that Dominguez faced sexual misconduct allegations spanning four decades from 18 women.

“Emeritus” status is a courtesy title commonly given to retired professors who have provided long service to a university. While presumably the university’s actions do not affect his past compensation, they essentially render him persona non grata on the Harvard campus and serve as a very public rebuke of his career.

Four decades?

Okay, so it’s good that Harvard stepped up, did a real investigation, and acted upon its results.

But I think the lede is being buried here: The real story is that it took them four decades — with allegations from 18 women — to engage in real action on this professor.

Why so long?

I’m not privy to the inner workings at Harvard, but I’ve been studying and experiencing academic life for years. It’s safe to say that, on balance, colleges and universities are not the most courageous organizations around, especially if they are led by senior administrators and boards who are primarily focussed on preserving and advancing institutional reputations.

For example, as the horrible revelations of sexual abuse at Michigan State University (Nassar scandal concerning sexual abuse of women gymnasts) and Penn State University (football program and child sex abuse) have documented, academic administrators repeatedly swept concerns under the rug in order to save their schools from public scrutiny and accountability.

Through it all, there’s an ongoing belief system that holds sway, namely, that those who are subjected to abuse and mistreatment count for much less than the reputations of the institution and those who hold privileged positions. It’s about moral and ethical failure.

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