Creating a society grounded in human dignity

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

Evelin Lindner

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

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

Robert Fuller

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

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

Bertram Gross

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

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

John Ohliger

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on law, psychology, and therapeutic jurisprudence

Image courtesy of clipart panda.com

Dear readers, I’m pulling together a few items related to law and psychology: 

Trauma and mental disability law online course

I’m taking an online continuing education course, Trauma and Mental Disability Law, taught by Michael Perlin and Heather Ellis Cucolo, two leading experts in mental health law and fellow trustees of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. It’s a 10-week course designed for anyone who is interested in learning more about how psychological trauma and the law intersect. Michael and Heather are mixing a webinar format with slides and assigned readings, and it can be accessed at any time convenient to the enrollee. They estimate a time investment of about 2 hours per week. The course just started this week, so there’s still time to sign up!

International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence

If you’re interested in how the law can advance psychological health (rather than the other way around), please consider joining the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (ISTJ). We officially launched the ISTJ this year, and we’ve got several hundred members from around the world. It’s not just for lawyers, either. Many of our members are trained in other academic and professional disciplines, such as psychology and social work. Membership dues are a very reasonable $25/year (free for students), and if you join now, your membership will be good through 2019. I’m serving as the first board chair of the ISTJ, and I’m happy to attest that this is a wonderful, intelligent, and caring group of scholars, practitioners, and students.

When policymaking stokes anger, fear, and trauma

Recent events have underscored my conviction that we need to be much more attentive to how policymaking processes (i.e., actions by legislatures, elected executives, and administrative agencies) can stoke fear, anxiety, and trauma among the populace. On that note, I’ve posted an author’s pre-publication draft of a forthcoming journal article, “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy,” to be published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. You may freely download a copy here.

On being restlessly patient in advancing positive law and policy reforms

A piece in the current issue of the Economist, the venerable British news magazine, resurrects the tax policy positions of Henry George, an author and political economist who built a worldwide following during the last half of the 19th century:

ON A trip to New York in the late 1860s the journalist Henry George was puzzled. He found the rapidly growing city to be a place of unimaginable wealth. Yet it also contained deeper poverty than the less-developed West Coast. How could this be? George had an epiphany. Too much of the wealth of New York was being extracted by landowners, who did nothing to contribute to the development of the city, but could extract its riches via rents. The problem could be solved by a tax on land values.

George’s subsequent masterpiece, “Progress and Poverty”, sold more copies in America in the 1890s than any other book except the Bible. It spawned campaigns for land-value taxation around the world. It also inspired a board game, “The Landlord’s Game”, a precursor to “Monopoly”. The game was designed to show how property markets naturally tend towards monopolies in which one player can extract all the rent.

Examining the current state of tax policy, the Economist concludes that a stronger reliance on land taxation might be a good thing.

I’ve been interested in George’s land tax proposal ever since reading about it in Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers back in college. (Heilbroner has passed, but his book — last revised in 1999 — remains, in my opinion, the most engaging, lucid, and accessible introduction to the history of economic thought.) As the Economist piece suggests, Henry George’s ideas would fade into obscurity. They have been kept alive by a small but determined band of economists and social activists, coalescing around a group of independent Henry George Schools dedicated to providing continuing education and scholarship about Georgist economic principles.

But the purpose of this writeup isn’t to convince you, dear readers, on the merits of Henry George’s taxation theories, even though I believe they are worth considering. Rather, it’s to point out that important ideas about law reform and public policy sometimes take years to percolate, in some cases beyond our lifespans.

With that reality in mind, I have favored an attitude of restless patience in advocating for desired changes in law and public policy. In this context I think of restless as being dissatisfied with the status quo. I think of patience as being smart, persistent, and determined. I have had to give myself this advice on at least three areas of law and policy reform very dear to me:

Workplace bullying and law reform

Some 20 years ago, my first law review article on the legal and public policy implications of workplace bullying was accepted for publication, and it would be published by the Georgetown Law Journal in 2000. Among other things, it surveyed potential legal protections for targets of workplace bullying under American employment law and found them wholly wanting. I proposed the parameters of what would become a model workplace anti-bullying statute, eventually dubbed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB).

For some 15 years, the HWB has been the main template for law reform efforts concerning workplace bullying, but it has not yet been enacted in its full form by any of the 30 states in which it has been introduced. However, in recent years we have had some breakthroughs, with several states and municipalities enacting workplace bullying legislation and ordinances drawing heavily from the language of the HWB. Unions and government entities are also using the HWB language to collectively bargain over workplace bullying concerns and to design internal agency employment policies.

Here in Massachusetts, we continue to work hard to make our state the first one to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying legislation. The HWB once again stalled in the just-completed session of the MA legislature, despite dozens of legislative sponsors and a positive report out of the committee overseeing it.

Advocacy work can be frustrating and sometimes demoralizing. But if you believe deeply in something, you keep going. Maybe you change strategies or tactics, but you persevere. And come January, when the 2019-20 session of the legislature begins, we’ll be ready to go.

Like an unwanted holiday fruitcake

In 2002, the Connecticut Law Review published my article on the legal status of interns, in which I looked at the burgeoning intern economy and concluded that many unpaid internships are running afoul of minimum wage laws. I hoped that the piece would quickly stir some interest, but for many years it pretty much sat there, like an unwanted holiday fruitcake.

This changed when a writer named Ross Perlin authored the first comprehensive examination of the explosive growth of unpaid internships, Intern Nation (2011). He referenced my 2002 law review article and called it “the single best source of information for American internships and the law.” (Thank you again, Ross, for pulling my article out of depths of Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis.) One of Ross’s readers, Eric Glatt, chased down my law review article and concluded that his unpaid internship with Fox Searchlight Pictures just might’ve been in violation of minimum wage laws. Eric would become the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for that internship.

To our disappointment, federal courts have not been friendly to these claims brought by unpaid interns, adopting a very pro-employer legal test for exempting interns from the minimum wage. However, the door has not been completely closed on such legal claims, and the considerable publicity generated by these cases has caused many employers to opt to pay their interns. The debate over unpaid internships, once a non-existent one, continues to reverberate in business and legislative settings.

Should law be therapeutic?

In recent years I’ve allied myself with a much broader effort to change our laws and public policies, an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice called therapeutic jurisprudence. “TJ,” as it is commonly referred to, examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal systems, and legal institutions. It favors outcomes in legal disputes and transactions that advance human dignity and psychological well-being.

TJ was founded in 1987 by two American law professors, David Wexler and Bruce Winick. Although it has grown into a global network of scholars, lawyers, judges, and other practitioners, it has yet to enjoy a mainstream presence in legal academe or legal practice. To help expand TJ’s influence, we have formed a new non-profit, membership organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. I am serving as the ISTJ’s first board chair.

I hope that someday, sooner than later, TJ will be recognized as a primary framing theory for the design and application of the law. In the meantime, I find myself inspired by that cohort of scholars, educators, and activists who have kept the flame of Henry George’s ideas alive for so many years.

On being restlessly patient

Indeed, I’d like to think that the spirit of Henry George is pleased to see his ideas about land taxation knocking on the door of greater mainstream reception. Of course, in my case I’d rather not wait for some 130 years to see workplace bullying laws widely enacted, interns being paid for their work, and our laws and public policies embracing human dignity and psychological well-being. But at least it’s a reminder that good ideas can’t be suppressed forever.

As I find myself urging upon those who are understandably frustrated with the pace of social progress and justice, we cannot control outcomes, we can only try to influence them. This is an especially important reality for the times in which we live. Buoyed by a spirit of restless patience, our job is to dig in, plant the seeds for positive change, and take part in moving our society toward something better.

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You may freely download my law review articles on workplace bullying, intern rights, and therapeutic jurisprudence from my Social Science Research Network page. At the risk of being immodest, I have been told by many folks who are not lawyers or academics that they are very readable and accessible, which I consider to be a supreme compliment.

Forthcoming article: “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy”

Dear readers, later this year the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, will publish my article, “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy.” Here’s the abstract:

This article asserts that when policymaking processes, outcomes, and implementations stoke fear, anxiety, and trauma, they often lead to denials of human dignity. It cites as prime examples the recent actions of America’s current federal government concerning immigration and health care. As a response, I urge that therapeutic jurisprudence should inform both the processes of policymaking and the design of public policy, trained on whether human dignity, psychological health, and well-being are advanced or diminished. I also discuss three methodologies that will help to guide those who want to engage legislation in a TJ-informed manner. Although achieving this fundamental shift will not be easy, we have the raw analytical and intellectual tools to move wisely in this direction.

If you’d like to read my author’s draft of the piece in a pdf, you may download it without charge from my Social Science Research Network page, here.

The Trump effect on productivity (including mine)

I read the news today, oh boy

My confession: I am so appalled and alarmed by Donald Trump that he has had a negative impact on my productivity. It positively galls me to admit that this man has had that kind of influence on me for over two years.

Yesterday was a prime example. The momentous story that Trump chose to credit Russian president Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, while largely dismissing the opposite findings of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, left me stunned. It also meant that a chunk of my day was lost to reading news analyses online.

When it comes to Trump and my productivity, perhaps it doesn’t help that for nearly 20 years, I’ve steeped myself in research and commentary about bullying, dishonesty, bigotry, and abuses of power, especially in work settings. Some readers disagree with my assessment of Trump — every time I post negatively about him, I lose a few subscribers — but during the 30-plus years that I’ve been aware of him, I have yet to see any real evidence of empathy or kindness from the man. He is the consummate workplace bully and dishonest boss, and he is a master of gaslighting behaviors.

However, it’s not only a reaction to a certain personality type that pushes my buttons. I am alarmed by what I see transpiring on the national and international stages in terms of public policy. And I am deeply concerned that Trump is displaying a form of so-called leadership that others are emulating. He has been president for less than two years, yet I believe it will take at least a decade for us to recover from this.

Direct hit

Sometimes the Trump effect on my productivity has been about as direct as it gets, namely, on the very work I do concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

Two summers ago, when Maureen Duffy and I were working on our co-edited book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States, the unfolding presidential campaign was so distressing and distracting that I sometimes had trouble staying focused on the project. (How ironic is that!?)

In January 2017, I was still so dazed and reeling from the November election that it took me by surprise that it was time to reintroduce the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the new session of the Massachusetts legislature. I did manage to pull myself out of my numbed state, but I was shaken that the election had such a profound impact on my psyche. (That won’t happen again.)

What to do?

Trump does what other deeply narcissistic, abusive types do so well. He sucks up our energy and attention in disproportionate amounts.

For those of us so affected, what are we to do? For starters, we need to be consciously aware of this impact. It means repeatedly reminding ourselves that many other important matters deserve our attention.

It can also mean taking the events of these times and turning them into lessons on how to change things for the better. For example, I’ll soon be sharing a draft of a law journal article that discusses how the Trump Administration’s policies and practices on immigration and health care have had especially traumatic effects on those directly affected by them. My longer range solution is that therapeutic jurisprudence — a school of philosophy and practice that embraces human dignity and psychologically healthy outcomes in the law — should be a framing perspective for making public policy.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and publish this post. Then it’s back to other tasks, hopefully with fewer newsworthy distractions than yesterday. After all, bullies like it when others merely keep reacting to them. To advance human dignity in the face of contrary forces, we need to create our own agendas and pursue them.

Summer work is mostly about writing

My writing workspaces are not nearly as ornate! (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; photo by DY)

With spring semester final exams and papers graded, another academic summer begins. I understand that because I don’t teach in the summer, many folks assume that I have “summers off.” In reality, much of this time is devoted to writing. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to focus on serious scholarly projects. 

Among other things, I’m writing a new law review article about therapeutic jurisprudence, and it will complement my work as board chair of our new International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. In this piece I’m attempting to make the case that American law should be framed by human dignity and psychological well-being. This article is a broad outgrowth of my longtime research and advocacy work on workplace bullying.

One of the biggest perks of working in this mode is that I’m not tied down to my office. I like to work at home or in the Boston Public Library. I’ve also been traveling a lot, and my laptop goes with me, typically joined by small piles of notes and article printouts. I can even get work done on airplanes, if the passenger seating space is sufficient. (For me, JetBlue is generally the best in that regard. By comparison, flying coach on an American Airlines 737 triggers claustrophobia and prompts even greater empathy for chickens confined to battery cages.)

Of course, long gone are the days when the summer seemed endless. It goes quickly, and soon another school year beckons. And in Boston, the seasons change, too. Before we know it, the leaves will be turning color as the cycle continues.

P.S. By the way, I just revised and beefed-up one of this blog’s most popular posts, “Gaslighting at work.” Especially because the term has entered our popular and civic culture more prominently in recent years, you may find it of interest.

The Boston Public Library is a pretty cool place to work. (Bates Hall reading room; photo by DY)

Therapeutic jurisprudence group on bullying, mobbing, and abuse across the lifespan

If you’ve been following this blog regularly, then you may know that I have been closely involved in the creation of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a global, non-profit learned organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence, “an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions.”

The ISTJ will be conducting many of its activities through Interest Groups organized around substantive topics of law and public policy. As part of that effort, I’ve joined with a small group of fellow members to form an Interest Group on Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse Across the Lifespan. The group will examine and address these behaviors from an interdisciplinary perspective, emphasizing the intersection of psychological trauma and law & public policy. Here are among the group’s possible activities:

  • Creating and improving trauma-informed public education programs and workshops about bullying/mobbing/abuse in all settings;
  • Examining how we can support targets and victims in litigation, such as providing information to attorneys and planning expert witness testimony and analyses;
  • Examining different approaches to legislation and public policy, i.e., differences and commonalities in dealing with abusive behaviors across the spectrum; and,
  • Organizing writing projects, programs, etc.

I should note that this group will not be able to provide individual counseling, coaching, or legal advice for those who are experiencing any of these behaviors. However, in the future we may be able to develop resource listings like that on this blog for workplace bullying to guide those experiencing abusive mistreatment in other contexts.

If you are interested in becoming a member of this group, then you’ll first need to join the ISTJ (memberships run calendar year, Jan-Dec; $25 regular; free for currently enrolled students). After joining you’ll either want to indicate your interest in this topic of the TJ Forum page and/or e-mail me at dyamada@suffolk.edu.

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