A dignity salon

Group shot from December 2016 HumanDHS workshop in NYC

My association with Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to advancing human dignity and ending humiliating practices, has been a gratifying source of renewal, fellowship, and friendship. Until recently, however, my only opportunity to engage in face-to-face interactions with members of this remarkable community has been through HumanDHS’s annual December workshop in New York City. This wonderful event has always left me wanting for more.

Now, however, a smaller group of HumanDHS community members has started meeting on a regular basis in New York for open-ended conversations about ideas and projects on broad themes of shared interest.  I hopped on a Boston-to-NYC train to participate in the latest get-together on Saturday, and I’m very glad that I did. The planned three-hour gathering, with a dozen or so people meeting in a typically snug Manhattan apartment living room, spilled over our allotted time.

Our loose format starts with brief self-introductions that may include mentions of recent activities and life events. Sometimes the introductions themselves prompt deeper conversations. On other occasions the discussion will be gently guided by our unofficial convener. The topics vary widely, ranging from the personal to the global. For example, during an earlier meet-up, I was grateful for the opportunity to share the challenges that a dear friend of mine is facing in connection with severe interpersonal and work abuse. Saturday’s meeting, by contrast, included more talk about broader economic and political contexts and how we can promote human dignity as a chief framing concept for our society.

I realized after our latest meeting that we are creating our own version of a salon, a term commonly associated with small gatherings held at someone’s home, featuring conversations over food and drink. Salons were very much in fashion in New York City a century ago, organized by (mostly) left-leaning women who hosted discussions for intellectuals and artists, with libations offered to fuel smart and witty repartee. More recently, right before online discussion forums became so popular, the Utne Reader magazine promoted salons as a way of building community through conversation. (For more on that, see Jaida N’ha Sandra & Jon Spayde, Salons: The Joy of Conversation (2001).)

Our salon (if I may now call it that) is likely more serious in content than others, with tea and coffee supplanting alcohol as beverages of choice. It also reflects a conscious effort to grow the supportive community fostered by HumanDHS’s December workshop and social media outreach. As one participant characterized it yesterday, we are building an intentional tribe. In a world that cries out for more strong, caring connections with others, this is something to celebrate.

***

On a personal note, this was the latest in a lengthy stretch of out-of-town trips for both personal and work-related reasons. I looked back at my calendar book (yes, I still use the printed variety) and saw that I’ve been out of town during parts of almost every week since late April, and this will continue through the summer. My travel schedule and a ton of personal and work-related commitments are the main reasons why I’ve been blogging less frequently, but it’s all good. Every trip has been mainly about being with wonderful people.

Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it?

(Image courtesy of Clipartpanda.com)

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

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

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

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

Countervailing power

On previous occasions here, I have invoked economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power. In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over the division of profits with the titans of business and investment. Today, some labor unions help to safeguard their members against bullying and mobbing; others get a failing grade in this regard. In any event, with less than 12 percent of the American workforce currently unionized, few workers can even theoretically turn to unions to protect them from mistreatment on the job.

Accordingly, most workers who face bullying at work today do so without any kind of protective system to stand up to the forces that are abusing them. Sure, they can retain a lawyer, seek counseling and health care, and otherwise attempt to create a “loose parts” network to help them, but the organized, countervailing power to which Galbraith referred isn’t present. If their employer doesn’t take work abuse seriously, they’re basically looking at a lonely fight.

I don’t have any easy answers at this point. Instead, I’ll simply say that we need to (1) revive the labor movement in the form of strong, pro-member unions that understand the harm wrought by work abuse; and (2) create other entities that can help bullied workers in a more powerful, assertive way. We also need plenty more public education about workplace bullying and mobbing in order to build widespread objection to these forms of interpersonal abuse. 

“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

The privilege of thinking abstractly and the obligation to pay it forward

I’ve often remarked here that one of my favorite writers is Charles D. Hayes, author of wonderful books that integrate themes of adult learning, practical philosophy, and life’s second half. Currently I’m slowly savoring his 2003 novel, Portals in a Northern Sky, a unique work that I can best describe as a multi-character philosophical journey, with a sci-fi, time-crossing element to it. It’s also an ode to Charles’s adopted home of Alaska.

In Portals, philosopher and bookstore owner Ruben Sanchez engages Bob Thornton, an ex-Wall Street trader, in an ongoing dialogue about the meaning of life. Here’s a snippet from Ruben that caught my eye:

There are two types of people in the world, my friend: those who live a concrete existence and those who live in abstraction. The difference is surprisingly simple, and, of course, it’s a matter of degree because all of us require some of both. The people who live in the concrete world lack basic wealth and spend most of their time in a perpetual struggle for survival. Abstraction is a luxury engaged in by people whose fundamental material needs are no longer important issues. What’s misunderstood by those who profess to know how people should be educated is that to be truly educated a person must be able to reside in both worlds at all.

The Sanchez-Thornton dialogues are just one ongoing storyline in the novel. You’ll encounter many other interesting characters and ideas.

Boiled down Maslow?

Ruben Sanchez’s words sound like a boiled down take on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In a classic Psychological Review article published in 1943, Maslow grouped human needs into the following categories, organizing them as a hierarchy: At the base are “physiological needs” such as food, clothing, and shelter, that are central to our survival. Next are “safety needs” such as personal health, security, and financial security. The “love needs” for close human relationships comprise a third layer, and “esteem needs” for belonging in society, make for a fourth. Finally, “self-actualization,” the full realization of one’s potential, stands atop the hierarchy.

Paying it forward

Whether we’re looking at human development through the eyes of philosopher Hayes or psychologist Maslow, I submit that those of us whose basic survival needs are met have a moral obligation to pay it forward in some meaningful way. This includes helping others meet their survival needs and playing some tangible part in making the world a more decent, humane place.

I realize that not all readers are in such a privileged position. (For example, a good number originally find this blog because they are enduring horrible situations at work that are threatening their health and livelihoods.) However, those who enjoy the luxury of living largely in the world of abstraction — engaging ideas, meaningful initiatives and actions, and the meaning of life — have many opportunities to change our world for the better. Whether one believes in fate, random luck, or something in between (another theme running through Portals in a Northern Sky), such an advantage should not be squandered.

***

Related post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013, rev. 2017)

Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Lee Badgett: How can professors influence public policy?

images

How can professors harness their research and analysis to have a positive influence on public policy and law reform?

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett provides answers to that question in her excellent book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World. (NYU Press, New York: 2015). Lee Badgett is an economics professor and former director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass-Amherst, as well as a distinguished scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute. She is a nationally recognized authority on the economic dynamics of sexual orientation.

Recently Lee spoke at Suffolk University as part of a faculty workshop series that I’m co-hosting, “From Public Policy Scholarship to Public Policy Impact.” Her terrific talk centered on how faculty can create scholarship-to-impact pathways for their work. Drawing from her book, she recommended “three pillars or practices” that should inform how academicians approach this task:

First, professors should have a “big picture view of the work that they do,” which fosters an understanding of “where their work fits into the [policy] decision making process.”

Second, professors should build networks and relationships for sharing their work beyond academe.

Third, professors should “learn to communicate well with lots of other audiences,” fashioning a “jargon-free message” that “taps into people’s values.”

Lee’s talk was just the tip of the iceberg. For any professor, independent scholar, student, or publicly-minded intellectual who wants valuable advice and guidance on how to use their scholarship to influence public opinion and public policy, this book is an important starting place.

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

***

Related articles

On this general topic, I’m happy to share two of my law review articles:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, 2016) — This piece recounts experiences and offers lessons and advice from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general. Alas, I was unaware of Lee Badgett’s book when my article went into production, but you’ll find plenty of complementary advice between our two publications.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — This article offers a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggests four points toward creating a more publicly-engaged practice for scholarly work.

Related blog post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013)

A day of TEDx talks at Kent State University

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

On Saturday I was reminded of how much fun it can be to be back in school again, but without those pesky exams and term papers. A weekend trip to Ohio to see a dear friend included a visit to Kent State University for a day of TEDx talks sponsored by the school’s student government association.

The TED brand of lectures features a subject matter expert giving a short, punchy stand-up talk on a topic of compelling or emerging interest, closing with an instructive or inspirational message. The format has proven so popular that the TED organization now licenses other groups to host “TEDx” talks on topics of their own choosing, with the local host groups recruiting their own lecturers.

Kent State’s student government leaders took advantage of this opportunity to organize a day of TEDx talks on the broad theme of “Rewind. Rethink. React. Respond,” drawing mainly on the university community (educators, students, alumni/ae) for speakers. Personal development, entrepreneurship, and social change were recurring focal points throughout the day.

photo-613

The Kent State event made for a great day of thinking and learning. My friend Mary Louise and I were among the, uh, more mature folks in attendance, the lion’s share of the audience being students. Nevertheless, many of the talks related easily to a more middle aged population as well.

This started with sociologist and entertainer Bertice Berry‘s opening remarks, which included a warm, funny story about an airport encounter with a woman whose demeanor and beautiful, blonde appearance initially pushed her insecurity buttons but quickly grew into a mutual understanding of how bad experiences and messages planted in us as kids can burden us well into adulthood.

photo-612

In fact, two of my favorite speakers were among those who shared important experiences from their youth. Keri Richmond, a student leader at Kent State, talked about growing up in the foster care system and how her experiences have inspired her to advocate for foster children. Phil Kim, a business professor from nearby Walsh University, talked about being a high school dropout and the importance of giving people second chances. Another speaker, Krish Mehra, shared part of his childhood in real time, as this brilliant 11-year-old young man talked about the importance of understanding digital coding! 

For me, the day was one of being an appreciative listener. Usually when I write about conferences and workshops, I’m including my experiences as a speaker or participant. Here I had the luxury of being in the audience and appreciating the work of others, without having to worry about my own presentation! The rich variety of talks once again reminded me of the linkages of between individual and social change. They also reinforced how difficult personal experiences can lead people to become advocates for positive change.

%d bloggers like this: