Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens

One of my periodic “battery rechargers” is the opportunity to reconnect in person with a network of law professors, lawyers, judges, and students associated with a school of legal thought called therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), which examines law, legal procedures, and the legal profession from the standpoint of psychological health. Law professor and TJ co-founder David Wexler (U. Puerto Rico) defines therapeutic jurisprudence this way:

Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being. It is a perspective that regards the law (rules of law, legal procedures, and roles of legal actors) itself as a social force that often produces therapeutic or anti-therapeutic consequences. It does not suggest that therapeutic concerns are more important than other consequences or factors, but it does suggest that the law’s role as a potential therapeutic agent should be recognized and systematically studied.

David was among those who came to Boston and Suffolk University Law School for a Friday public symposium, “The Study and Practice of Law in a Therapeutic Key: An Introduction to Therapeutic Jurisprudence,” followed by a smaller Saturday workshop to plan future TJ activities and initiatives.

In addition to thanking David, I’d like to extend my warm appreciation to out-of-town participants Mark Glover (U. Wyoming), Michael Jones (Arizona Summit), Shelley Kierstead (York U., Osgoode Hall), Michael Perlin (New York Law School), Amanda Peters (South Texas), Amy Ronner (St. Thomas U., Florida), and Carol Zeiner (St. Thomas U., Florida), as well as to my Suffolk colleagues Gabriel Teninbaum, Kathleen Vinson, and Patrick Shin, for being a part of the two-day program.

You can view the agenda for the Friday symposium here. My presentation on  employment law drew heavily from this blog to emphasize the significant stress and anguish experienced by workplace bullying targets, the importance of multi-faceted counseling & coaching for those targets (legal, mental health, and career), and the need to reform our legal processes for resolving employment-related disputes.

As a law professor and lawyer, the TJ community has become my intellectual home base. Equally important, it has provided me with a group of dear friends and colleagues. Last night, a group of us went out to a karaoke bar here in Boston, and while we probably shouldn’t count on Plan B careers as performing artists, we had great fun. Tonight we’ll be heading out for a nice Italian dinner in Boston’s North End. Such fellowship with good people confirms that I’m running with the right crowd for me.


For more on the International Network on Therapeutic Jurisprudence, go to the network website.

You may also join the TJ Facebook page here.


Mixing psychology and law: A brief report from New Orleans


On Friday I gave a short presentation, “How Employment Law and I/O Psychology Exemplify the Value of Law and Psychology Cross-Pollination,” at the annual meeting of the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) in New Orleans. AP-LS is an affiliate of the American Psychological Association.

Despite the wordy title, my remarks were a conversational effort to build more bridges between the worlds of industrial/organizational psychology and employment law. As an example of how such partnerships can enrich both law and psychology, I discussed my recent work with the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence in helping to develop a webpage and educational video on workplace bullying and my ongoing participation in the biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference co-sponsored by the APA.

I was part of a panel that examined how AP-LS can attract more participation from lawyers and legal academicians. My fellow panelists were all noteworthy members of the therapeutic jurisprudence community: Law professors David Wexler, Michael Perlin, and Heather Ellis-Cucolo, and psychologist Astrid Birgden.

AP-LS presidential address

I was delighted that our panel was preceded by a morning address by AP-LS president Jennifer Skeem, who urged the organization to become more innovative and broad-ranging in its appeal and its work. Her talk was largely an elaboration upon these three points:

  • “Target a broader audience” — This includes legislators and policy makers.
  • “Tackle bigger problems” — The AP-LS should practice its mission to advance individual well-being, justice, and human rights.
  • “Make ‘interdisciplinary’ real” — The AP-LS should interact more with legal scholars, public policy analysts, and scientists.

Dr. Skeem’s remarks set the stage nicely for our panel discussion later that afternoon. I hope that we made a strong case for greater collaboration between psychologists and lawyers.


David Wexler and Michael Perlin will be among those speaking in Boston on Friday, April 11, as part of a symposium on therapeutic jurisprudence. For more details, see my blog post from last Monday.

April 11 Boston program: How can we create psychologically healthier legal systems?

At a time when levels of unhappiness within the legal profession run high, and litigants’ experiences with the legal system are often stressful and unpleasant, an April 11 symposium at Suffolk University Law School will examine how legal practice and legal proceedings can be made psychologically healthier for all involved.

The symposium, titled “The Study and Practice of Law in a Therapeutic Key: An Introduction to Therapeutic Jurisprudence,” will be held on Friday, April 11, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., at Suffolk University Law School, 120 Tremont Street, in downtown Boston.  It is sponsored by the school’s New Workplace Institute.

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is a school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic aspects of the law, legal practice, and legal profession.  TJ has attracted the interest of practicing lawyers, judges, law professors, and law and graduate students.  The Suffolk workshop will feature law professors from the U.S. and Canada presenting TJ perspectives on legal practice, including legal writing and drafting, appellate advocacy, and specific fields such as mental health law, criminal law, employment law, tort law, and trusts & estates law.

“Too many lawyers are stressed out in their practices, and too many members of the public have terrible experiences with our legal systems, even when they win,” said Suffolk law professor David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute and organizer of the conference.  “Therapeutic jurisprudence is part of a solution that fosters psychologically healthier legal systems, legal results, and lawyers,” he added.

The symposium is designed for lawyers, law teachers, and law students, but members of the public are invited as well.


10:00 a.m. Welcome

  • Prof. David Yamada, Suffolk University Law School
  • Assoc. Dean Patrick Shin, Suffolk University Law School

10:15 a.m. — Panel 1: Applying to TJ to law teaching, legal writing, and drafting

  • Hon. Michael Jones, Arizona Summit Law School — “Teaching Therapeutic Jurisprudence”
  • Prof. Shelley Kierstead, York University, Osgoode Hall — “Legal Writing, TJ, and Professionalism”
  • Prof. Amy Ronner, St. Thomas University Law School — “Lessons from Bartleby the Scrivener for an Appellate Practice Clinic”
  • Prof. David Wexler, University of Puerto Rico School of Law – “The Emotional and Legal Benefits of Reforming Legal Forms”
  • Discussant: Prof. Kathleen Elliott Vinson, Suffolk University Law School, and President, Association of Legal Writing Directors

12:00 noon — Light Lunch

  • Speaker: Prof. David Wexler, TJ co-founder — “The Creation, Present, and Future of Therapeutic Jurisprudence”

1:00 p.m. — Panel 2: Applying TJ to legal practice areas

  • Prof. Mark Glover, University of Wyoming College of Law — “The Solemn Moment: Expanding Therapeutic Jurisprudence Throughout Estate Planning”
  • Prof. Michael Perlin, New York Law School — “’There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere’: How TJ can bring voice to the teaching of mental disability and criminal law”
  • Prof. Amanda Peters, South Texas College of Law — “TJ and Mental Health Courts”
  • Prof. Gabriel Teninbaum, Suffolk University Law School — “Putting Patients First in the Aftermath of Medical Malpractice”
  • Prof. David Yamada, Suffolk University Law School — “Employment Law, Stress, and Employee Well-Being”

2:30 p.m. Closing remarks

  • Prof. David Yamada


The workshop will be held at Suffolk University Law School, 120 Tremont Street, in downtown Boston.

To Register

Registration (including a light lunch) is free, but space is limited. To register, please send an e-mail to Patricia McLaughlin at by Wednesday, April 9 with “TJ Conference” in the subject line and include in the text your name, affiliation, and e-mail address.

For more on the International Network on Therapeutic Jurisprudence, go to the network website.

Published: “Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying”

The Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review has just published my article, “Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying,” that emerged from the February 2013 symposium on bullying across the lifespan at Temple University’s law school.

The piece provides a short update of legal and policy developments concerning workplace bullying and includes the current template version of the Healthy Workplace Bill. I had posted a draft last year; this is the final published version.

Although the complete collection of articles from the symposium is not yet available online, you can access Prof. Nancy Knauer’s (Temple U.) overview of the symposium issue here. And for my write-up of the Temple conference, go here.

Previous scholarly articles on workplace bullying and related topics

For readers who would like more in-depth explorations of the legal issues concerning workplace bullying and related topics in the U.S., here are links to, and brief summaries of, relevant journal articles I’ve written over the years. Each may be accessed without charge from my Social Science Research Network page. While these articles are published in academic journals, they nevertheless have attracted many readers who are not lawyers or law professors.

Workplace bullying and the law

The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment ProtectionGeorgetown Law Journal, 2000 — This is the first in-depth examination of the American legal and policy implications of workplace bullying. Considered a groundbreaking piece.

Crafting a Legislative Response to Workplace Bullying – Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, 2004 — This contains and explains the first version of the Healthy Workplace Bill, as well as brief discussions of early legislative and regulatory responses to workplace bullying in other nations.

Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment – Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 2010 — This piece is part of a collection of articles looking at enacted and proposed legal responses to workplace bullying on an international scale. It contains an updated version of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Workplace bullying generally

Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership – Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 2008 — This article provides a general overview of workplace bullying and its implications for organizational leadership.

Employee dignity generally

Human Dignity and American Employment Law – University of Richmond Law Review, 2009 — I pulled in a lot of historical and theoretical sources in an attempt to construct a case for making human dignity the primary framework for evaluating and shaping U.S. employment law.

Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the WorkplaceFlorida Coastal Law Review, 2010 — This article places employment law issues (including workplace bullying) in the context of therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems.

Working Notes: Boston Globe on unpaid internships, Marketplace on terminations gone viral, and more

Good morning! Here are a few items that I’ve been connected with:

Boston Globe Magazine cover story on unpaid internships

Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine ran a substantial cover story on unpaid internships by Melissa Schorr. She did her homework and then some for this piece, interviewing a wide range of individuals and incorporating a span of viewpoints. Here are two snippets:

In what activists envision as a nascent social movement — and some bosses see as ungrateful whippersnappers unwilling to pay their dues — a slew of unpaid interns have filed suit against their former employers, including high-profile companies such as Fox Searchlight Pictures, Hearst Magazines, Gawker Media, NBCUniversal, Sony, and Conde Nast, claiming they were, in fact, employees under federal labor laws and demanding back pay.


THE UNPAID INTERN is a longstanding figure on the bottom of the corporate ladder, particularly in so-called “glamour industries” such as media and showbiz, where multiple applicants jockey for each spot and have even been known to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege.

Here’s a part of what I had to say:

Yamada has come to view [unpaid internships] as not just a legal but also a moral issue, informally advising a group of New York activists who have formed an intern labor-rights network. “I think in the for-profit sphere, most of these unpaid internships are not only against the law but are exploitative,” he says. “We now have this intermediate stage between classroom education and entry-level full-time employment. We’re adding another level of training and education that involves real work, slapping this label of ‘intern’ on it, and assuming one has to donate their time instead of being paid.”

American Public Radio Marketplace on “Burning bridges while going viral”

Last week I wrote about non-disparagement clauses in separation agreements, and it led to a short interview with Marketplace’s Carmen Wong Ulrich on job terminations in the digital age and options for laid-off workers:

“I think what you’ve seen over the recent years is the internet becoming that megaphone,” says David Yamada, Professor of Law at Suffolk University in Boston. “You’ve got sites like eBosswatch and Glassdoor, and general sites such as YouTube and Yelp, where people are posting about their workplace experiences.”

You can catch the full interview (5 minutes) here.

Boston program on therapeutic jurisprudence, Friday, April 11

Therapeutic jurisprudence (or “TJ”) is a school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law, legal systems, and legal practice. On Friday, April 11, the New Workplace Institute will host a free morning-to-afternoon workshop for lawyers, law faculty, and law students, “The Study and Practice of Law in a Therapeutic Key: An Introduction to Therapeutic Jurisprudence.” It will be held at Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston.

The workshop will feature two panels and a luncheon, covering applications of TJ to legal writing & drafting and various practice areas. It will feature, among other notables, law professor David Wexler, one of the co-founders of therapeutic jurisprudence.

I’ll be posting full information and registration info on this blog. In the meantime, if you’d like to explore the vast TJ literature, please go to the website of the International Network on Therapeutic Jurisprudence. I’ve written about TJ in many blog posts; go here to read more.

The first issue of Bearing Witness is now available online

And speaking of good works and the law, during the past year, I’ve been serving as faculty advisor to a terrific group of Suffolk law students who are starting a new, non-traditional journal, Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social Responsibility. In a departure from the law journal norm, Bearing Witness features short articles & essays, art & photography, short stories, and poetry.

The inaugural issue has been published, and I couldn’t be more pleased and proud of these students. For a flip book of the first issue, go here. And if submitting an article or artistic work for possible publication appeals to you, go to the journal webpage for more information.

I contributed an essay to the inaugural issue, “If It Matters, Write About It: Using Legal Scholarship to Effect Social Change.” You may download a pdf copy here.

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Intellectual activism and social change

For some time I’ve been studying a topic that I’ve labeled “intellectual activism,” the practice of using scholarly research and writing to inform, shape, and influence social change initiatives. This fall, I’ve been the fortunate recipient of a Dean’s Faculty Fellowship at Suffolk University Law School to support this course of study, which will culminate in a variety of publications during the coming years.

In addition to collecting and reviewing new materials on intellectual activism, I’ve been looking at my past writings on relevant subjects. For those of you interested in thinking about how we can harness our research to promote positive change, perhaps this material — some of which I’ve mentioned previously — will be of interest:

“If It Matters, Write About It: Using Legal Scholarship to Promote Social Change” (2013)

This piece has just been published in the inaugural issue of Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social Responsibility, a new student-edited periodical at Suffolk to which I serve as faculty advisor. Here’s a brief abstract:

This essay centers on the concept of “intellectual activism,” discussing how legal scholarship can be used as the foundation for social change work. It recounts and reflects upon the author’s ongoing work in advancing issues such as workplace bullying and the rights of student interns. It concludes with advice on how to be effective in an intellectual activist mode.

Although the full issue won’t be online until later, you may download a pdf of my article here.

“Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (2010)

This law review article, published in the University of Memphis Law Review, explores how legal scholarship can be used to make a deeper contribution to academic and public dialogue and to social action. Here’s the abstract:

The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.

More prescriptively, the article applies a TJ lens to: (1) identify a set of good practices for legal scholarship; (2) examine the TJ movement as an example of healthy scholarly practice; (3) consider the role of law professors as intellectual activists; and, (4) propose that law schools nurture a scholar-practitioner orientation in their students to help them become more engaged members of the legal profession.

You may download a pdf here.

“The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual” (2009)

This book chapter was published in Andre P. Grace & Tonette S. Rocco, et al., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2009). John Ohliger was an iconoclastic adult educator, writer, and political activist, in addition to being my dear friend. In my piece, I discuss the typical role of the public intellectual and contrast it to ways in which John modeled a different approach that included a variety of non-traditional writings, a devotion to public community radio, and extensive, personal interactions with people who traversed his many paths.

You may download a pdf of my chapter here (free reg req’d).

Short paper

Here’s a short paper I presented at CUNY Law School in New York:

Law Professors as Intellectual Activists (2013) (free reg req’d)

2013 blog posts

I’ve been writing a lot about intellectual activism and related topics this year:

Insiders, outsiders, and change agents

Inspiration in Amsterdam

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need

Setting agendas for positive social change

10 ways to make a difference: Advice for change agents

Intellectual activism

Mary Pipher on Writing to Change the World

Inspiration in Amsterdam

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam (photo: DY)

I just returned from the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I found myself inspired and informed by a global assemblage of professors, lawyers, judges, mental health providers, graduate students, and others who are committed to using law and public policy to advance mental health.

I went to a lot of panels, as the conference was the focal point of trip. However, I did accompany one of my friends to the Anne Frank House, the one “must see” item on my list for this first-ever visit to Amsterdam.

The photo above doesn’t do the site justice. It is the interior, which has been recreated to show us how Anne and seven others lived in hiding for some two years, that is so compelling. I realize that I am among countless others to say it, but it was a very moving experience to stand in the same cramped spaces of the “Secret Annex” where they lived before they were discovered and arrested.

For me, the most chilling part of the tour was walking up the long, narrow stairwell to the Annex, located behind the moving bookcase that covered the entrance. It was the same walk their captors took to arrest them.

You can take your own virtual guided tour of the Annex here.

University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Law building

University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Law building (photo: DY)

As I’ve written before, my participation in this conference is tied to my affiliation with the therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) movement, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. The conference included an ongoing series of 20 or so panels expressly related to TJ, stretching across the week.

In addition, the opening session — held at the University of Amsterdam’s law building shown above — had a special TJ connection. It featured the presentation of the Bruce Winick Award to Michael Perlin, by David Wexler.

These three individuals have played a critically important role in the development of therapeutic jurisprudence: Bruce Winick, who passed away in late 2010, taught at the University of Miami law school and co-founded the TJ movement with David Wexler, now at the University of Puerto Rico law school after many years at the University of Arizona. Awardee Michael Perlin, who teaches at the New York Law School in Manhattan, is among the world’s leading authorities on mental disability law.

One of Amsterdam's beautiful canals, early evening

One of Amsterdam’s beautiful canals, early Sunday evening (photo: DY)

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one photo capturing the beauty of Amsterdam. I opted for a quieter Sunday evening view of one of the canals, a contrast to the younger, louder, anything goes atmosphere that pervades this part of the city. I’m not much of a party animal — I joked to my friends that the free wheeling recreational choices of Amsterdam were wasted on me! — but being in a historic, old world city does allow for some reflective moments. That certainly was the case here, buoyed by the ideas sparked at the conference.


Previous posts referencing this conference:

The ongoing disconnect: Employment law and worker well-being

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need

The ongoing disconnect: Employment law and worker well-being

A quick perusal of topics at a major international law & mental health conference is all I need to remind me of how employment law is way behind other legal fields in connecting to mental health and psychology.

As I wrote in my last post, I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The program book (pdf here) lists the dozens of panels offered each day during the week-long gathering, and a cursory review yields the dominance of topics concerning criminal justice, health care, family law, juvenile law, substance abuse, and forensics. But there is scant evidence of workplace issues, even in the many sessions related to therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law and legal institutions.

Compare this to the recent “Work, Stress and Health” conference I wrote about last month – another biennial, international gathering – where researchers and practitioners in fields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and occupational safety and health are positively immersed in the linkages between public policy and the psychological aspects of worker health.


I get a lot out of this conference even in the absence of many presentations directly addressing employment law & policy. As I’ve noted in previous posts, therapeutic jurisprudence has quickly become a collegial theoretical “home” for my legal interests, in that it makes eminent sense to me that the law should promote, rather than undermine, psychologically healthy outcomes. Accordingly, I find many of the ideas exchanged here to be an easy “port over” to the law of the workplace and the practice of employment law.

For example, earlier this week I listened to a simply wonderful presentation by Erna Haueter, a domestic relations lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland, who explained how she uses stress reduction and relaxation techniques with her clients who are going through emotionally difficult divorce proceedings. Haueter drew upon insights from neuropsychology to explain the effects of stress on her clients, negatively impacting their ability to act in their own best interests.

Of course, her words resonated loudly with me, as I have seen countless individuals dealing with similar stress levels due to bullying and other forms of mistreatment at work. I thought to myself how great it would be if plaintiffs’ employment lawyers were taught how to use these relaxation techniques with their clients.

A challenge

My belief in the need to strengthen linkages between employment law and mental health was reaffirmed during the course of a conversation I had with an Israeli lawyer and doctoral student who is planning to do her thesis on some aspect of therapeutic jurisprudence and employment law. She expressed surprise over the paucity of work linking these two areas, suggesting that they were a natural fit together. We discussed the many relevant psychological aspects of employment law that could form the basis of a very promising thesis topic.

Those of us who understand these linkages need to do a better job of persuading fellow employment and labor law scholars to incorporate these perspectives in their work. The two dominant frames for examining employment law & policy, namely, economics (leaning right) and civil & labor rights (leaning left), yield important insights. But mental health and emotional well-being are equally important and deserve a place at the roundtable of this discussion.


Go here to download a copy of my 201o law review essay, “Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace.”

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need

I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I’m presenting a couple of short papers and attending various panels and presentations. It’s a very educational conference for me and an especially good opportunity to reconnect with other law professors, lawyers, judges, and graduate students associated with therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the psychologically healthy and unhealthy properties of law and legal systems. The conference draws participants from all over the world and serves as a useful indicator of topics that are getting a lot of attention in the realm of law and psychology. The thick program book (pdf here) lists the dozens of panels offered each day during the week-long gathering.

My own talks have taken a broader focus than my specific work on various employee relations topics. On Monday, I presented on the topic of intellectual activism, the term I use to represent the ongoing process of using scholarship and research to inform law reform, social change, and public education efforts on compelling issues of the day. On Tuesday I presented on how the basic tenets of therapeutic jurisprudence can inform a healthier, more meaningful culture of legal scholarship. It marked the first time I’ve presented at a conference an article I wrote three years ago, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (link to free pdf, here).

Jensen and Hedges on progressive intellectuals

These presentations happened to coincide with a lot of thought I’ve been devoting to the role of scholars and scholarship in shaping public opinion and positive change. Here are two writers whose ideas have recently sparked some of that thinking:

Robert Jensen, a University of Texas journalism professor, author, and activist, believes that intellectuals have a responsibility to question the status quo and to challenge abuses of wealth and power. In the introduction to his short book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2012), he writes:

One of the jobs of intellectuals is to identify the issues to which we should be paying attention, even when — especially when — people would prefer to ignore problems. Intellectuals today should be apocalyptic, focusing attention — and a lot of our attention — on the hard-to-face realities of an unjust and unsustainable world. Today, the distribution of wealth and power around the world fails to meet even minimal moral standards. . . .

In his book and in a shorter piece adapted from it posted to Alternet, Jensen makes some broader points about the role of intellectuals in our society. He believes that intellectuals should question and shed light on how power and wealth are distributed in our society. Those in advantaged positions, such as professors who have the privileges and protections of tenure, are specially obliged to engage in such questioning. Jensen is especially critical of liberal intellectuals who don’t challenge the status quo because it would hurt their professional and social standing.

In another piece posted to Alternet earlier this year, progressive political writer Chris Hedges, whose early opposition to the Iraq war cost him dearly in terms of professional standing, issued an even sharper critique of liberal intellectuals:

The power elite, especially the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power, personal advancement, foundation grants, awards, tenured professorships, columns, book contracts, television appearances, generous lecture fees and social status. They know what they need to say. They know which ideology they have to serve. They know what lies must be told—the biggest being that they take moral stances on issues that aren’t safe and anodyne. They have been at this game a long time. And they will, should their careers require it, happily sell us out again.

My thoughts

We face many serious, even urgent social, economic, and environment challenges right now. Those who are privileged with the protections of tenure and academic freedom should embrace a social responsibility to be researching, understanding, and speaking out on matters of importance.

Of course, there will be disagreements on understanding, analysis, and solutions. Indeed, notwithstanding my general agreement with Jensen and Hedges on these matters, I firmly believe that academe should represent a wide variety of viewpoints on social, political, and economic issues. I also believe that institutions of higher learning should not be uniform, and this includes making room for those of more pronounced political, social, and religious leanings.

But the main point holds: Intellectuals should help to lead, not merely react and respond. In both of my talks at this conference, I suggested that scholars should be “responsibly bold” about investigating reality and fashioning solutions to our problems. I also urged us to be “restlessly patient,” understanding that positive change can take time, while continually seeking opportunities to effect that change sooner than later. Such qualities of purposeful, long-term thinking and action should inure to the benefit of society.

Setting agendas for positive social change

In considering how to create positive change in our society, a simple framework offered by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin continues to profoundly shape my thinking. Here’s what I wrote back in 2010:

In his 2008 book Tribes, Seth Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.

Reacting to external events is ”the easiest thing.”  It is “intuitive and instinctive and usually dangerous.”  Too many politicians and managers merely react to developments thrust upon them, and often badly.

Responding is “the second easiest thing.”  Responding to “external stimuli with thoughtful action” is “a much better alternative” to simply reacting. A response requires deliberation and planning.

Initiating is by far the most challenging of the three, but it is “what leaders do.”  They see a void or need and act upon it, thereby causing “events that others have to react to.”  They seize and create the agenda. They are the true change agents.

Godin’s framework has been vividly brought to life for me in a cluster of personally important subject areas. Here are a few thoughts on each:

Workplace bullying

When I first contacted Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie about their brand-new Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the Workplace Bullying Institute) in 1998, I had little idea that the fledgling initiative would have such a significant and still growing impact on employee relations in the United States and beyond. Now I can look back and see the influence of their body of work, which includes public education, research and analysis, assistance to bullying targets, media outreach, law reform advocacy, and organizational advising.

Today, workplace bullying is a topic of increasing attention at professional and academic conferences, in legislatures and courtrooms, and in corporate meeting rooms, organizational coaching programs and union halls. The messages vary, and at times raise honest points of disagreement, but they unite on this: Workplace bullying is destructive to individuals and organizations alike, and we have to take it more seriously.

Those early conversations with the Namies led to my offer to research the legal aspects of workplace bullying, which culminated a 200o law review article that set the stage for my later drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, currently under consideration in state legislatures across the country. Earlier this week, I saw the degree to which workplace bullying has entered the mainstream of our discussions about employee relations when I joined many others at the Massachusetts State House in testifying in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In sum, a phrase that was virtually unknown in the U.S. some 15 years ago is now the centerpiece of a growing, cross-disciplinary, and multi-faceted grassroots movement to affirm employee dignity and to make our workplaces healthier and more productive. To me this captures the heart of Godin’s framework: If you see a problem or obstacle, initiate change rather than merely react or respond to it.

Human dignity perspectives on law, politics, and society

For many years my own scholarship was shaped by liberal-leaning, reform-minded thinking that was more implicit than explicit in my actual writings. Though on the political scale I’m clearly more left than right, I’ve tended to resist rigid theories or ideologies, believing that they often serve to constrict our views rather than enlighten them. However, two entities have overcome that resistance by their very flexibility and insight. Together they are helping to advance a societal perspective that embraces and advances human dignity through informed, respectful, and spirited inquiry and thoughtful action.

Therapeutic jurisprudence

Some five years ago I started looking more closely at a school of legal thought known as therapeutic jurisprudence. TJ, as it is commonly referenced, examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law, legal practice, and legal education. I discovered the TJ community as a result of my work on workplace bullying and employment law & policy generally, and I have found it to be a welcoming home for my legal scholarship.

TJ’s adherents do not claim that it should be sole lens through which we view law and public policy. However, it serves as an important complement to prevailing tendencies to view law from the perspectives of either economics (leaning right) or rights (leaning left). I would characterize my TJ worldview this way: How can our laws and legal systems best advance individual and societal well-being?

Toward that end, I’ve expressly incorporated TJ perspectives in recent law review articles on employee dignity, employment law and practice, and the culture of legal scholarship. Here also is a brief report on a TJ workshop I participated in last year.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network

It’s no coincidence that around the time I discovered therapeutic jurisprudence, I also became part of a wide-ranging, global assemblage scholars, practitioners, and activists who form the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network. Here’s how HumanDHS describes its mission:

We are a global transdisciplinary network and fellowship of concerned academics and practitioners. We wish to stimulate systemic change, globally and locally, to open space for dignity and mutual respect and esteem to take root and grow, thus ending humiliating practices and breaking cycles of humiliation throughout the world.

We suggest that a frame of cooperation and shared humility is necessary – not a mindset of humiliation – if we wish to build a better world, a world of equal dignity for all.

I’ve written about HumanDHS on several occasions. Here, for example, is my brief report on its 2011 annual workshop in New York City, including a video link to a conversation between Human DHS founder Evelin Lindner and director Linda Hartling.

Unpaid internships

Back in 2002, I wrote a law review article positing that the widespread practice of unpaid internships not only was exploitative and exclusionary, but also likely violating minimum wage laws and denying interns protections under employment discrimination laws. The article didn’t get much attention inside or outside of academe until Ross Perlin referenced it in his important book, Intern Nation (2011), the first to comprehensively examine the social, economic, and legal dynamics of the “intern economy.” Soon afterward, Eric Glatt, a one-time unpaid intern for Fox Searchlight Pictures, used the article to inform his decision to file a pathbreaking lawsuit under federal and state minimum wage laws that, just two weeks ago, led to favorable ruling by a federal district court.

During the past two years, groups of (mostly) younger writers, activists, and students have coalesced to form a genuine social and legal movement against unpaid internships. My role in this has been mainly behind-the-scenes, participating in various social media discussions, passing on whatever information and insights I can offer, and serving as sort of a cheerleader and rooting section. From that perch, I have seen these folks make this movement their own.

They, too, have gone beyond reacting and responding. They are now initiating and defining the agenda. A simple message — Pay Your Interns — is buttressed by a conviction that unpaid internships exploit the interns, violate the law, and deny opportunities to those who cannot afford to work for free.

The takeaway point

Societal problems both big and small can seem insurmountable at times, and I won’t pretend to be a beacon of optimism about the way our world is going right now. Nevertheless, in tackling today’s challenges we need to get beyond that exasperating, sometimes crazy-making cycle of reacting and responding. Instead, we need to do our best to initiate and nurture agendas for positive change. Doing so does not guarantee success, but it’s really the only viable way to achieve it.


Related posts

10 ways to make a difference: Advice for change agents (May 2013)

Intellectual Activism (April 2013)


This post draws from a good half dozen pieces that I’ve written over the years, reflecting an ongoing process of integrating my ideas about social change. To long time readers, I beg your indulgence if some of this sounds a bit repetitive!


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