After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races

When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically 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.

This passage comes from Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 86, Beacon Press 2006 ed.), which I have praised in previous posts. It’s an extraordinarily gripping and perhaps odd book. Part 1, covering the first 90+ pages, is a compelling account of daily life in the concentration camps, punctuated by Frankl’s observations about human nature in such horrifying settings. Part 2, covering the remaining 60+ pages, is a more detached description of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl, a clinical psychologist. Logotherapy, as Frankl describes it, focuses the patient “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future,” while defocussing the patient on “all the vicious cycle formations and [negative] feedback mechanisms” (p. 98).

Some may quarrel with Frankl’s binary separation of humanity into categories of “decent” or “indecent” people. In fact, I reacted this way when I first read the quoted passage, thinking that human beings are way too complex to be placed into one of two big groups. Furthermore, Frankl’s own narrative of concentration camp life describes how people who have lived good, moral lives can be driven to self-preserving behaviors that may, directly or indirectly, hurt others. But then I tried to put myself in Frankl’s shoes, imagining what he saw and experienced in the camps. It makes sense to me that he ultimately drew this dividing line, however subjective.

Frankl’s description of concentration camp life and explanation of logotherapy may resonate with those who are experiencing psychological trauma due to nightmarish work situations. As I have written before, the eliminationist instinct is not limited to large-scale horrors. It can manifest itself in seemingly everyday settings such as our workplaces, too.

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A sidebar: In sharing Frankl’s words about the “races” of decent and indecent people, in no way do I want to diminish important, challenging discussions taking place over race and ethnicity in contemporary society. We can and should face the tough questions raised by our various diversities and strive to find ways to build acceptance of those differences in our workplaces, communities, and social groups. Rather, I wanted to share how someone who faced good and evil every day at the most fundamental levels came to look at groupings of human beings in a simpler way than we might today.

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

To get through this time, we’ll need resilience and resolve…and “the better angels of our nature”

Keeping a stiff upper lip (Newspaper facsimile photo: DY)

As this fast unfolding, ugly era of America’s existence becomes more of a dire reality, I find myself searching history for inspiration. For example, in terms of grit and strength, I look at the people of England during the darkest days of the Second World War. This newspaper photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London standing tall amidst devastating Nazi bombing raids during the Battle of Britain in 1940 is such an iconic symbol of that national character.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I join with many others in saying that the Trump Administration is shredding the fabric of American democracy and ethical governance. And yes, I am alarmed at what is transpiring before us.

Given my liberal leanings, you might expect me to be saying this. But plenty of traditional conservatives are deeply concerned as well at the conduct of this President and his inner circle. Each new day includes some jaw-dropping development(s). Sometimes it’s about policy. Sometimes it’s about vulgar and raw displays of power and arrogance. Washington D.C. is no stranger to preening narcissism and overreaching power grabs, but we have never seen the likes of this during the past half century…and longer.

For those who are paying close attention with a growing sense of distress, it already feels exhausting. A lot of people are wondering when they’ll burn out.

I’ve used recent posts to suggest that during this time, nurturing our most important communities, pursuing meaningful hobbies and pastimes, and not forgetting other causes and concerns that are dear to us should be part of our bigger picture. I’ve also urged that we strive to understand the age we are living in  and the political, social, and economic dynamics driving it.

In addition, we Americans must continually grow and draw upon our resilience and resolve, at least for the next four years. These assaults will keep coming. Not only must we repel them, but also we need to develop our own visions and messages for what we want our nation to be. On that latter note, we should be heartened by stories like this one, reported by CNN’s Doug Criss:

The congregation of the Victoria Islamic Center in Texas was devastated. Its mosque was destroyed over the weekend in a fire, the cause of which is unknown.

Then an act of kindness revived their spirits — the leaders of the local Jewish congregation gave them the keys to their synagogue so they could continue to worship.

The leader of the mosque said he wasn’t surprised by the gesture.

“I never doubted the support that we were going to get” after the fire, Dr. Shahid Hashmi, a surgeon and president of Victoria Islamic Center, told CNN. “We’ve always had a good relationship with the community here.”

Hashmi said Dr. Gary Branfman — a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Victoria, as well as a fellow surgeon and friend — just came by his house and gave him the keys.

In his first Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of what would become the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln urged us to embrace “the better angels of our nature.” What happened in Texas earlier this week in the aftermath of tragedy captures that sentiment beautifully.

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Transforming our “age of anger” with care and understanding

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In a compelling long-form piece for the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra writes that “we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Invoking Donald Trump (“the biggest political earthquake of our times”), Brexit, the Middle East, “insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand,” terrorism, and other disturbing events, he acknowledges that “we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.”

He concludes his thoughtful analysis with a call for understanding:

With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.

The complete article is well worth the time of anyone who is trying to comprehend our world today. Also, a fuller explication of Mishra’s analysis will appear in his forthcoming book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. For now, however, I’d like to take Mishra’s core points and apply them to clusters of events over the past weekend.

Marches and rallies

It could be argued that the marches and rallies that took place around the world on Saturday were a manifestation of that age of anger. After all, the original Washington D.C. women’s march was organized in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, fueled by outrage and alarm.

But something funny happened at these events: Though perhaps prompted by anger, the large marches and rallies were voiceful, peaceful, and — yes — loving. Here in Boston, some 175,000 people (mostly women, but with a good number of men and kids) gathered to be heard, with reportedly not a single incident requiring police intervention.

Throughout Saturday and into Sunday, friends on Facebook posted photos and personal accounts from these female-led rallies in cities and communities across the country. Yes, anger and defiance may have brought them to these places, but their posts and photos communicated a sense of bold, joyous, and uplifting solidarity.

I have been on Facebook since 2009, and I can’t remember that social media site ever feeling so energetically alive. The posts from march participants were fresh, vibrant, even jubilant. My friends felt, quite accurately, that they were participating in historic events. I was so happy for them, and deeply appreciated what they did.

Meanwhile, in a small Boston conference room…

While many of my friends were at the marches, I was participating in a two-day “Integral Practitioner Lab” in downtown Boston, hosted by the Center for Transformative Learning at Meridian University in California. Here’s a partial explanation of the program from the university:

Many of us are are called to lives of sacred purpose where we seek to join professional livelihood with personal meaning and passion. However, there is a widening gap between the challenges of complexity and our individual and collective capabilities.

To realize our potential for passionate and meaningful livelihood, we must close this gap by building a bridge of capability.
The Integral Practitioner Lab at Meridian University offers the opportunity to identify, develop and refine a unique constellation of competencies that are required for impact.

This was, in essence, a gently directed, co-created series of conversations, guest speakers, and demonstration exercises embracing the broad topic of building bridges between individual and social change, facilitated by Meridian president Aftab Omer and Meridan faculty member Zak Stein. There were about two dozen of us in all, drawn from a surprisingly varied list of locations.

The major highlight was getting to know a warm, smart, and impact-making group of individuals. Our gathering included coaches, therapists, entrepreneurs, educators, consultants, and writers. With nary a PowerPoint slide in sight, we engaged in some 16 hours of dialogue and exchange about the state of the world and how we can contribute to its betterment. During this time, we learned about each other’s interests and projects, with our final focused activity being a break-out session of small group coaching.

Another highlight for me was an interactive session, via video conferencing, with Jean Houston, a renowned, visionary author and researcher who has joined Meridian as its chancellor. Dr. Houston addressed the anxieties and concerns about the world’s current political, social, and economic disruptions felt by many in the room. Pointing in part to Saturday’s peaceful marches and rallies around the world, but without offering false hopes, she suggested that these stark challenges have led us to a singular, mythic moment of opportunity to transform our society in healthier, more humane ways.

On a personal level, I was gifted with the opportunity to participate in an extended coaching exercise involving the full group and guided by Dr. Omer. In it, I was a client of sorts, attempting to learn more about my “developmental edges,” i.e., those aspects of ourselves that we can develop in order to be more effective in matters that we care about. This session deeply clarified my self-awareness of how I can be a more fiercely effective change agent toward making our laws and legal systems more receptive to psychological health and well-being, while working through feelings of anger over injustice, unfairness, and abuse. (To any of my fellow participants reading this, thank you, I am grateful beyond words.)

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I admit it: Current events of the past year or so have sometimes put me in a funk, capped off by the presidential inauguration on Friday. But between those marching on the outside and the dialogue in our conference room, the weekend gave me a true lift, providing hope — to borrow from Pankaj Mishra — that we can better understand our society and achieve “greater precision in matters of the soul.” Our talents and commitments are needed, so let us work on ourselves and the world around us to make transformational changes.

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream

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Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the term “gaslighting” is now going mainstream. The American Dialect Society has declared it one of the “Words of the Year,” defining it as “psychologically manipulat[ing] a person into questioning their own sanity.” Wikipedia may not be as academically authoritative a source, but its current explanation of gaslighting is right on point:

Gaslighting . . . is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. . . . Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I’ll get to the Trump connection in a minute, but for now, a bit of background.

Origins of the term

It starts with an old movie.

I first became familiar with gaslighting several years ago when folks in the workplace anti-bullying movement used it to describe crazy-making behaviors at work. In my December 2012 piece about gaslighting as a form of workplace bullying (which has become one of this blog’s most popular posts), I shared Dr. Martha Stout’s explanation of the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

In the movie, Bergman’s psychological deterioration accelerates when she cannot get anyone to believe her claims.

America’s Gaslighter-In-Chief?

Gaslighting started to appear in the mainstream media last year, largely associated with Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail. Last spring, for example, U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer wrote an insightful piece about Trump’s gaslighting behaviors via his campaign tactics and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

The gaslighting tag continues. Here’s a snippet of Frida Ghitis’s commentary for CNN about Trump’s behavior, published earlier this week:

Is Donald Trump really a “big fan” of the intelligence community, as he claimed on Twitter, or did he disparage intelligence professionals when he repeatedly referred to them and their work in sneer quotes about “Intelligence” briefings and the “so-called ‘Russian hacking'”?

Did Trump mock a disabled reporter, or did your eyes, and the Hollywood elite make you think he did?

Did he convince Ford not to move a car plant to Mexico, saving American jobs, or was it all a fabrication for publicity?

Did he win the election with a historically narrow victory, or did he score a “landslide”?

. . . Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident.

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.

Trump’s behavior has pushed buttons on a very personal level as well. After the election, Suzannah Weiss, writing for Everyday Feminism, invoked gaslighting in describing how Trump’s candidacy was a triggering event for abuse survivors and now relates to our political future:

As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.

. . . Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.

Lately even the academicians are getting into the act. For example, English and journalism professor Ben Yagoda (U. Delaware) delves into the history and use of the term, leading to Trump, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:

The new prominence [of the term] came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

Significance for workplace anti-bullying movement

It appears that Donald Trump’s gaslighting behavior was not simply for the campaign trail. As Frida Ghitis writes in her CNN piece, “If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day.”

How will this modeled behavior impact the workplace anti-bullying movement? Will Trump actually validate gaslighting and bullying behaviors, in essence sending a message that if it’s appropriate behavior for the President, then it’s right for everyone? Or will the nation recoil at this recurring manipulative, deceitful conduct and realize that we need a lot less of it everywhere, including our workplaces?

These questions of personal conduct have quickly transcended political lines. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes for the Washington Post:

Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.

Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.

New Year’s Resolution: Becoming more trauma-informed

      

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At the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in December, I gave a short presentation titled “My New Year’s Resolution: Becoming a Trauma-Informed Human Being,” expanding on commentary here concerning the importance of becoming knowledgeable about the dynamics and effects of psychological trauma. I identified at least three roles that, for me, necessitate this course of learning:

  • Vocational/avocational – Understanding psychological trauma as a scholar, teacher, practitioner, advocate, and activist concerning workplace bullying and human dignity in general;
  • Friends/family/acquaintances — Being a better source of support to those close to me who have experienced psychological trauma; and,
  • Citizen and human being — Understanding how psychological trauma impacts millions of people around the world.

I also suggested several books that are helpful for anyone who wants to learn about psychological trauma and related issues. I’ll be spending time with each of them and others during the coming year:

  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014);
  • Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terrorism (2015 ed.);
  • David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2015);
  • Christina Robb, This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology (2006); and,
  • Evelin Lindner, Emotion and Conflict: How Human Rights Can Dignify Emotion and Help Us Wage Good Conflict (2009).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is perhaps the most severe manifestation of psychological trauma. For those who would like to read an informative piece about the history of PTSD, as it developed largely in the context of psychological trauma experienced by soldiers exposed to combat, this 2015 Vanity Fair piece by Sebastian Junger, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield,” is very informative.

“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

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