“Dignitizing” conferences and workshops

A HumanDHS workshop dialogue session (photo courtesy of Rambabu Talluri)

Every December brings a post or two (or three) about the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Teachers College of Columbia University in Manhattan. It is one of the most meaningful events of the year for me.

HumanDHS is a transdisciplinary, global network of educators, writers, activists, artists, practitioners, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experiences of humiliation in society. The annual New York workshop typically includes a mix of these activities:

  • “Pre-planned dignilogues” with invited participants giving very short presentations (seven minutes!) about work they’re doing to advance human dignity;
  • “Co-created dignilogues” comprised of small group discussions on topics selected by workshop participants, culminating in short presentations shared with the full group;
  • A mix of extended talks, award presentations, and musical performances, along with break and lunch periods that foster a lot of individual conversations and connections.

This year’s just-completed gathering was a deeply engaging experience, grounded in a spirit of learning and fellowship. I’ve been participating in this workshop for around ten years, and they’ve all been good experiences. But for some reason this one had an unusually personal meaning to me. And I came away with valuable insights and knowledge, some of which I’ll be sharing in posts soon to come. Equally important, it was heartwarming to connect and reconnect with fellow workshop participants.

The general theme of this year’s workshop was “What is the language of dignity?” In keeping with the theme, during my brief dignilogue presentation, I drew upon two recent blog posts, “Dignity work” (November 2018) and “Instead of ‘weaponize,’ let’s ‘dignitize’” (December 2018), to invite us to think about how we work and talk about dignity in our daily lives.

Dignitizing conferences and workshops

When it comes to recurring conferences and similar events, I’m more likely to return to those that engage both my heart and mind — fueled by interactions with fellow participants who make such events rewarding, while hoping that I can contribute in the same way. My short list includes:

  • This workshop, as well as smaller HumanDHS get-togethers in New York City;
  • Therapeutic jurisprudence events, such as small workshops held in North America, e.g., 2016 in Toronto, and the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, which includes a dedicated stream of TJ-related panels, e.g., 2015 in Vienna;
  • The biennial “Work, Stress, and Health” conference co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology, e.g, a memorable 2015 conference in Atlanta that was the subject of my guest contribution, “Conferences as Community Builders,” to the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog; and,
  • Conferences sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research, e.g., 2017 in the Bay Area.

In sum, I’m drawn to events that aspire to dignitize and enlighten those who attend and participate, rather than the other way around.

Paying attention to conferences

I think we need to pay greater attention to the role of conferences in sharing and disseminating knowledge and creating networks and communities. 

All too often, conferences are simply competitive marketplaces. In his 2017 book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities, Donald Nicolson offers “the argument that academic conferences are a (neoliberal) commodity; that is, they are something of use/value, being bought and sold.” Building on this point, he asserts that conferences serve as marketplaces for knowledge, compete with other conferences for attention and participation, and reinforce the core notions of the neoliberal academy.

I find these tendencies especially in play at the flagship conferences of academic and professional disciplines, replete with individual and collective status obsessions and insecurities and varying airs of superiority, ambition, striving, and desperation. The unhealthy cultures of these events can be exhausting to witness, engage, and navigate. They can be impersonal, stiff, and cold. Some involve a lot of “badge watching,” whereby the perceived prestige of one’s institutional affiliation equates with an individual’s worthiness. Others are simply dull and disengaging.

Three years ago I wrote an essay on the value of smaller academic gatherings that allow for genuine interaction on a human scale (“Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which may be freely accessed here). I’m more convinced than ever before that conferences should serve a community-building purpose. In such settings, shared knowledge and insights can create even deeper understanding, and the associated human connections are enriched in the process.

Instead of “weaponize,” let’s “dignitize”

I’ll take the opposite, thank you (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The word “weaponize” has been appearing frequently in our public discourse in recent years. John Kelly, in a 2016 Slate piece on the topic, had this to say:

But it’s outside of military contexts that weaponize has really proliferated in the last decade. We’ve weaponized: women, architecture, black suffering, anthropology, the facts, texting, femininity, marketing, secularism, religion, ideology, traditional forms of dress, virtue, sadness, social constructions, iWatches, and fictional experiences in video games. The word, of course, has enjoyed glibber applications: Writers have weaponized everything from flatulence to kale salads. This website appears, to some, to weaponize the narcissism of small differences.

The 2016 presidential election has been a hotbed for weaponization. . . . This weaponization has transformed just about every political act “into a powerful means of gaining advantage,” as Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark argue in their election glossary, Doubletalk.

In essence, it’s about using words, communications, and artistic expressions as weapons to hurt others. “Weaponize” thus becomes an easy way of describing the act and its underlying intention.

Given the work I’ve been doing concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, I’m well aware of how words can wound. We can weaponize annual reviews, e-mails, and meetings. We don’t need missile launchers to do incredible damage to others. 

Well folks, put me down as someone who yearns for a more peaceful, humane opposite of weaponize to enter our conversations with greater frequency. However, an internet search did not yield an appropriate antonym.

Okay, so here’s my suggestion: Dignitize. It’s not a perfect opposite, but it’s close enough.

Thus, instead of weaponizing our everyday interactions at work and elsewhere, let’s dignitize them. How does that sound?

“Why do we reward bullies?”

In a New York Times op-ed piece from earlier this year, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), ponders why our society all too often rewards bullies for their behavior. He offers three reasons:

First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.

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Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.

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The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In a famous study published in 1999 in the Journal of Adolescence, three psychologists investigated how children act when they witness an act of bullying. Hundreds of schoolchildren were videotaped on the playground, and nearly 200 bullying incidents were recorded. . . . And how did the peers react? Twenty-one percent joined the bully, while 25 percent defended the victim. The rest — 54 percent — watched the incident passively, neither joining in nor defending the victim.

Brooks’s perspectives on bullying were shaped by his experiences performing with a professional symphony orchestra during his twenties. He calls orchestra conductors “notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding” who “turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence.”

One of the most telling aspects of this op-ed piece is how the experience of being bullied can stick with people for decades. Brooks in his mid-fifties. He is a regular contributor of op-ed pieces to the New York Times. His editorial voice tends to be deliberate and pointed, rather than overtly emotional. Accordingly, his sharp criticisms about orchestra conductors show, in hard relief, the lasting impact of bullying.

Brooks suggests that standing up to bullies is the best way to curb their power and ability to abuse others. He may be right in some instances, but there are plenty of stories where taking on bullies has backfired badly. There is no magic response; power dynamics and surrounding circumstances all matter. What we need are more people who oppose bullying and abusive leaders, thereby creating a broader and deeper cultural norm that does not tolerate such mistreatment as a matter of course.

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Related posts

Toxic workplace cultures and bullying at work (2018)

Creating a society grounded in human dignity (2018)

 

Kindness and compassion at work and elsewhere

Dear readers, I’ve collected six previous pieces on kindness and compassion at work and elsewhere. Consider it food for thought as we enter the holiday season!

Valuing kindness over emotional intelligence in today’s workplace (2016) — “For years I’ve exhorted the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace. But Bariso’s piece reminds us that a high EQ isn’t enough. By contrast, Rex Huppke, writing for the Chicago Tribune, suggests that kindness and being ‘a decent human being’ will contribute to better, more successful workplaces . . .”

Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us (2015) — “Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down. . . . “

Cultivating heart quality in professional practices (2015) — “Carolyn Thomas, a heart attack survivor and women’s health advocate, writes about the importance of kindness in health care practice in her popular Heart Sisters blog, starting with a story about her visit to the emergency room and subsequent placement in the cardiac care unit . . . .”

Does “mainstream indifference” undermine compassion and dignity at work? (2015) — “In The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004), home-brewed philosopher Charles D. Hayes (and one of my favorite authors) writes about how “mainstream indifference” fuels a lack of compassion and kindness in our society. . . .”

Imagining the “compassionate mind” at work (2013) — “In a thoughtful, compelling piece on the ‘compassionate mind,’ Dr. Emma Seppala draws together a wealth of research and analysis on the role on compassion — defined ‘as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help’ — in advancing the human condition.”

A 12-step program for compassion (2010) — “Karen Armstrong is a noted author on religious affairs. Her latest book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010), a mix of faith, philosophy, and self-help. In it, she offers a 12-step program to help make the world a more compassionate place . . . .”

Dignity work

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’ve been toying with a simple phrase lately: Dignity work. What does it mean? How might we define it? What if we made the nurturing of dignity our primary purpose as human beings? What kind of world would we see?

I see at least two angles on this:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

In considering these two possibilities, I suggest that we define dignity broadly, as a quality that embraces the better angels of our nature, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln. Providing attentive and loving caregiving to another is an obvious example of both strands of dignity work. But so is, say, starting a business that serves a community’s needs and treats its employees well, or creating an inclusive network or group devoted to a creative endeavor.

We live in a world where dignity is too often neglected in favor of raw exercises of power and the quest for profits, at times to the points of abuse and exploitation. In the meantime, opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.

Creating a society grounded in human dignity

A Sunday morning contemplation from Boston: How can we envision a society that embraces human dignity? I’ve gathered some wise words from four individuals, all of whom have been featured on this blog before, to help fuel our thoughts on this question.

Evelin Lindner

Evelin Lindner is the founder of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, transdisciplinary, non-profit network of scholars, practitioners, artists, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation in society. (Note: I serve on the HumanDHS board of directors.) A self-styled global citizen who writes, lectures, and engages in dialogues around the world, Lindner urges us to start with the principle of equal dignity for all. In her latest book, Honor, Humiliation, and Terror: An Explosive Mix And How We Can Diffuse It with Dignity (2017), she writes:

I have coined the term egalization to match the word globalization and at the same time differentiate it from terms such as equality or equity. …The term egalization is short for equal dignity for all. It does not claim that everybody should become equal and that there should be no differences between people. Equal dignity can coexist with functional hierarchy as long as it regards all participants as equal in dignity; it cannot coexist, though, with a hierarchy that defines some people as lesser beings and others as higher beings.

Robert Fuller

Robert Fuller, a physicist, human rights advocate, and former Oberlin College president, calls for the building of a “dignitarian” society that embraces individual dignity. In his 2006 book All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity, Fuller writes that the main obstacle to creating a dignitarian society is the ongoing presence of “rankism,” which he defines as “abuses of power associated with rank.”

Rankism may grounded in demographic constructs such as race, sex, or age, as well as general hierarchies in “schools, businesses, health care organizations, religious institutions, the military, and government bureaucracies.” Fuller asserts that reducing rankism and unnecessary hierarchy will help to create a society that values human dignity.

Bertram Gross

Especially because of current political conditions in the U.S., the late Bertram Gross’s book, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), is attracting a lot of attention for its assessment of how political and economic forces have created a form of “friendly fascism” in America. As a contrast, Gross also identified a secondary social and political movement grounded in community and service:

The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. This trend goes beyond mere reaction to authoritarianism. It transcends the activities of progressive groups or movements and their use of formal democratic machinery. It is nourished by establishment promises – too often rendered false – of more human rights, civil rights and civil liberties. It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition. It affects power relations in the household, workplace, community, school, church, synagogue, and even the labyrinths of private and public bureaucracies.

John Ohliger

Finally, for a slightly more impressionistic view, I appeal to the work of a dear late friend, John Ohliger, co-founder of a small, community-based think tank in Madison, Wisconsin called Basic Choices in the mid-1970s. In a  1982 essay, “Adult Education in a World of Excessive riches/Excessive Poverty,” John shared a vision of society that ran counter to the technocratic, materialistic forces that were garnering power:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Ohliger’s essay preceded the advent of the digital age by roughly a decade and thus may sound positively Luddite in light of today’s gadgeted and wired world. Nevertheless, his core vision of a less materialistic society where we lead “more relaxed and modest lives” is enormously appealing.

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The main focus of much of my work is on how to use law and public policy to advance human dignity. Of course, there are limits to how the law may shape a society committed to affirming human dignity. The state of having one’s dignity, and the act of conferring dignity upon another, require human interactions that go far beyond public mandates. However, it is also the case that our laws reflect our core values as a society, and to that extent our legal and policymaking systems can play their respective roles in advancing dignity and reducing denials of the same.

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This post is an edited passage from my forthcoming journal article, “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy,” to be published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. You may freely download my author’s draft of the piece here.

The Kavanaugh confirmation as a mirror onto America

(image courtesy of getdrawings.com)

Here in America, we have just endured an extraordinarily ugly and partisan confirmation process for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Events leading to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court now comprise a terrible episode in our political and legal history. This will reverberate on many levels for a long time.

Kavanaugh, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, was nominated by Donald Trump to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Late in the confirmation process, several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was in high school and in college.

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford was the first and most prominent accuser, alleging that during high school, a drunken Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to rape her. She and Kavanaugh both testified about these allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27. The debates over these allegations and Kavanaugh’s suitability for confirmation have dominated the national news coverage and everyday conversations across the country.

I make no claim to objectivity on this topic. I was among some 2,400 American law professors who signed a public letter expressing concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament and urging the U.S. Senate to reject the appointment. However, my purpose here is to pull back on the camera a bit and examine the destructive impact of this episode on America’s civic, political, and legal culture. Here are some of the key dimensions:

A deeply divided country

If America needed yet another painful reminder of its deep political and ideological divisions, this was it. It’s too early to predict exactly how this will affect future national elections, but it will play a major role in shaping political discussions.

Trauma and abuse

For trauma survivors, especially women who have experienced sexual assault, these events may have been alternately re-traumatizing, empowering, sorrowful, clarifying, angering, depressing, and validating. It has been a very difficult and trying two week period for many. It remains to be seen whether this will galvanize a movement to call greater attention to sexual assault, psychological trauma, and the rights of abuse victims.

Toxic masculinity

The mocking and trashing of women who courageously gave credible accounts of sexual assault was horrific and outrageous, especially when it came from men in positions of power. It’s time to mainstream the term toxic masculinity and to understand that this behavioral dynamic is very much a part of American culture.

Getting to the truth

Thanks to boundaries set by the White House, the FBI’s investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh was grossly inadequate and gave all appearances of providing cover, rather than searching for the truth. Neither the accusers’ allegations nor Kavanaugh denials were subjected to a thorough vetting, and numerous possible witnesses were ignored.

High school

Believe me, a lot of people people experienced vivid flashbacks to high school during these events. For some this was accompanied by uncomfortable memories and contemplations about behavioral excesses during adolescence and early adulthood.

Class privilege

Matters of class privilege played out prominently. Media coverage of student life at elite private high schools and Ivy League career networks gave detailed, snapshot examples about how such advantages manifest themselves early in life and continue through adulthood.

Public job interview

My own impressions of Kavanaugh notwithstanding, I would not wish upon anyone this equivalent of a job interview in the form of a public ordeal, with millions of people watching the proceedings and discussing very personal and normally private aspects of an applicant’s life. It made for a tawdry spectacle.

Institutional credibility

The reputations of both Congress and the Supreme Court took well-deserved hits. And thanks to Kavanaugh’s highly partisan language and angry, threatening tones towards his opponents in his September 27 testimony, his credibility as an impartial judge is forever suspect. With that suffers the credibility of the Supreme Court as a judicial body.

Bullying behaviors

Accusations of bullying behaviors flew back and forth between both sides. While few incidents rose to the kind of virulent bullying discussed often on this blog, the proceedings were rife with incivility and name calling.

Conservative bloc

The Kavanaugh confirmation gives the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court the votes it needs to advance a sharply right-leaning legal agenda for years to come. We are very likely to see reversals in civil rights and workers’ rights as a result.

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The events surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process will be studied and discussed for many years. Kavanaugh’s votes and judicial opinions will be scrutinized closely against the backdrop of how he was confirmed. I don’t have much optimism for the civic aftermath of what we’ve just experienced, but I hope that I’m wrong.

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