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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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.

Workplace bullying, social connection, and social support

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

Last week I mentioned an excellent 2015 Vanity Fair article by Sebastian Junger, detailing the history of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a diagnosis, primarily as it has applied to soldiers in the military. As the piece moves toward its conclusion, Junger thoughtfully and provocatively looks at PTSD in a social context to explain why so many returning veterans struggle with psychological trauma upon their return:

In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “lack of social support” was found to be around two times more reliable at predicting who got PTSD and who didn’t than the severity of the trauma itself. You could be mildly traumatized, in other words—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan—and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.

He even appeals to anthropology for a deeper understanding of trauma:

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

This long-form piece is well worth your attention if you want to learn more about PTSD in a deeper historical and societal context.

Relevance to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

All of this, of course, carries great significance for workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. We know that PTSD is one of the major impairments associated with this mistreatment. An underlying reminder of the Junger article is that strong social support, both in and out of the workplace, can make a positive difference to targets of work abuse, perhaps even to the point of preventing long-term PTSD.

Unfortunately, we also know that for too many targets, social isolation rather than a human safety net is the norm. Some may not have had a strong social base before the abuse began, which left them instantly bereft of support once things turned bad. Others experienced the disintegration of their social base during the bullying, with co-workers abandoning them or diving for cover, while close friends and family couldn’t get their heads around the dynamics of the abuse.

This is among the many reasons why greater public education about workplace bullying is an absolute necessity. We need to make the public more aware of the prevalence of bullying and mobbing at work and its pernicious effects on individuals and organizations. Moreover, we need to be part of that broader movement to educate the public about PTSD and similar mental injuries and conditions.

Even early 401(k) supporters believe the U.S. retirement funding system is broken

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Slate‘s Helaine Olen summarizes recent articles and research studies to paint a scary view of America’s retirement funding crisis, including a Wall Street Journal piece reporting that early advocates of the 401(k) retirement account are now admitting that it’s doing a lousy job of helping folks save for retirement:

The Wall Street Journal’s Timothy Martin tracked down several early proponents of the 401(k) and asked them what they think of their innovation, which has supplanted the traditional pension at most companies. . . .

Herbert Whitehouse, a former Johnson & Johnson human resources executive who pushed the then-new savings vehicle in the early 1980s, now says even he can’t retire until his mid-70s if he wishes to maintain his standard of living, because, Martin writes, his 401(k) “took a hit” in 2008. He’s 65. And Ted Benna, the man most frequently credited for the 401(k) as we know it, says he doesn’t believe “any system currently in existence” can help most Americans finance their financial needs in retirement.

Olen summarizes recent research studies documenting the depth and breadth of this crisis:

The Center for Retirement Research currently estimates that about 52 percent of households are “at risk of not having enough to maintain their living standards in retirement” with “the outlook for retiring Baby Boomers and Generation Xers far less sanguine than for current retirees.” The Economic Policy Institute says just under half of households headed by someone between the ages of 32 and 61 have nothing saved for retirement.

Cassandra Calling

In a Slate piece from last March, Olen reveals her exasperation in writing over and again about a retirement funding crisis that America is sweeping under the rug:

News flash: Americans still aren’t saving enough money for retirement.

No doubt you are tired of reading this story. I’m certainly tired of writing it.

“The United States is on the verge of a retirement crisis,” I proclaimed in 2013. I repeated myself in 2014. And again in 2015. And, now, 2016.

I can relate. On a much more modest level (in terms of readership, that is!), I’ve been sounding this call for many years on this blog:

Two tales of the Times (2016)

Two articles published in last Saturday’s New York Times drive home a pair of contrasting narratives about aging and retirement prospects in the United States. One paints an idyllic picture of retirees who have the flexibility and financial resources to engage in adult learning activities for pleasure and intellectual company. The other details the challenges facing women who became unemployed in their 50s during the Great Recession and who have struggled to find work since then.

Is America “On the Beach” about its retirement funding crisis? (2015)

Is America simply waiting for the huge, coming crisis in retirement funding to overtake us? What happens then?

The situation reminds me of the 1959 movie, On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In the film, Australians are attempting to carry on with their everyday lives, while knowing that massive, deadly nuclear fallout, which already has wiped out most of the rest of humanity, is heading their way. When that occurs, they, too, will have no hope for survival.

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Many members of “Generation Jones,” that span of late Boomers and early Gen Xers who are in their middle years, face tough times right now. This cohort has been hit especially hard by the ongoing economic crisis, with many losing jobs in mid-career and finding it difficult to obtain new employment and to save for retirement.

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few) (2013) 

In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack, and much of this broadside is coming from well-monied corporate interests, aided by supportive far-right politicians.

This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together because, frankly, concerns about America’s retirement funding crisis tend to be examined in silos, such as (1) Social Security; (2) public employee pension funds; and (3) 401(k) balances.

Retirement expert: “Most Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

According to economist Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement policy, “(i)t looks like most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees,” adding that “(t)he baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents.”

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

Do I have it completely wrong, or is most of America ignoring the coming economic and social train wreck that will occur when millions of Baby Boomers realize they do not have sufficient resources to fund a relatively comfortable retirement?

I’ve been trying to connect the dots, and the emerging picture of the Boomer retirement crisis frightens me….

In her March Slate piece, Olen urged the presidential candidates to make the nation’s retirement readiness a major campaign issue. Instead, we got the ugliest, most vulgar campaign in modern American history. I don’t know what it will take for the nation to wake up to what is before us, as millions of Boomers (followed closely by Gen Xers) move into their later years. Even the relatively quick-fix responses, such as raising the payroll tax limit to allow Social Security to maintain current benefit levels and — hopefully — to increase benefits for those in need, do not appear to have a lot of political support in Washington D.C.

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.

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