Incivility and “deplorables”

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, law school dean Blake Morant (George Washington U.) recalled a speaking appearance in which he was verbally challenged by a man who called himself a “deplorable”:

One month before the 2016 presidential election, I spoke on a panel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the topic of campus speech. The audience was generally enthusiastic and engaged. A tense moment arrived, however, when one individual, who identified himself as a “deplorable,” took issue with the composition of the panel (two white women and myself, an African American male). He explained that the panel in his view was slanted, did not represent a more conservative position, and that I, as an African American, represented so much of why he as a working-class white male struggles in this economy.

Morant wrote that he tried to engage the man in a conversation, but that his efforts failed. He added that he has been haunted by the exchange, asking himself if he could’ve responded to the man in a more constructive way. He used the story of the incident to call for more civility in our civic discourse.

The backstory

But there’s a catch here that Morant didn’t mention. The term “deplorables,” in this context, traces back to a Hillary Clinton speech at a fundraising event during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here’s what happened, per this report for Time magazine that includes the full transcript of her remarks:

Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City on Friday, Hillary Clinton said half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views.

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

She said the other half of Trump’s supporters “feel that the government has let them down” and are “desperate for change.”

I remember feeling my heart sink when I read the news reports. Of course, I knew it would become a campaign issue, and that was enough to cause despair. Boiled to its essence, Clinton had just called millions of likely Trump voters “deplorables.”

And that, indeed, is how it was reported in the popular media. Clinton’s reference to the other half of his supporters who felt let down by the system was largely ignored.

In response, lots of Trump supporters, playing on Clinton’s remark, began to identify themselves as “deplorables.” They co-opted and claimed the insult.

And so that is why Dean Morant’s unhappy panel discussion attendee announced himself as a “deplorable.”

Civility, opinion, and judging

I voted for Hillary Clinton without reservation, largely because I found her opponent’s worldview and behavior to be alarming and disturbing.

But I voted for Clinton also without enthusiasm, in part because of her “deplorables” comment. It reflected an elitist attitude that is entrenched in powerful circles, and that includes a certain cohort within the left-of-center. 

It may be a fine line, but there’s a critical difference between calling someone’s opinions or conduct deplorable and calling that person a deplorable.

At times, I’m guilty of taking the latter approach. Instead of characterizing viewpoints I find deeply objectionable, I label the person.

Nevertheless, the world would be better off if we kept those judgments to a minimum and gave people the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to avoiding blanket condemnations. (There are exceptions, of course, and I admit that I apply one to America’s current president.)

Incivility, like bullying and abuse, often runs in cycles. Once it starts, it can be hard to stop. We’re seeing an ugly, destructive ramping up of that dynamic in our civic life today. As these divisions deepen, they will become harder to dissolve.

A story for our times

So here’s the short version: A woman who objects to an eight-year-old girl selling bottled water on the street is filmed apparently calling the police on the young kid. The video goes viral, and the woman loses her job. There’s a racial dynamic here too, as the woman is white and the girl is black. As reported by CBS News:

STUDIO CITY, Calif. — The woman dubbed “Permit Patty” for threatening to call police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water on the street has stepped down as CEO of her cannabis company. CBS Los Angeles reports the move follows a massive online backlash that resulted in her products getting dropped by other marijuana sellers.

Several Bay Area dispensaries are now refusing to sell products made by Alison Ettel’s company TreatWell Health, The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday.

“It is Ms. Ettel’s belief that TreatWell, its employees and patients should not have to suffer because of a situation that occurred in an escalated moment,” company spokeswoman Cynthia Gonzalez is quoted as saying in the paper.

At least three marijuana dispensaries stated publicly they would stop selling TreatWell products.

It’s a story for our times: Incivility, race, smartphones, social media, legalized pot, and job loss.

From an employment standpoint, the lesson is an easy if unsettling one. Anything we do these days can be caught on a smartphone camera. If the behavior reflects negatively on us and the video goes viral, it can affect our employment status. Most American workers today are employed on an at-will basis, which means they can be terminated for any reason that does not violate existing employment laws. Video footage from an incident outside of work that causes negative publicity for the company can be among the legally valid reasons to fire an at-will employee.

I don’t know the specific nature of Allison Ettel’s employment status with her now-former company, but her demise was swift.

As far as the racial aspect goes, I won’t assume how race impacted Ms. Ettel’s actions. But in these hyper-charged times, racial optics matter and sharpen quickly. When they go viral online, that can be all that counts. This just looks bad.

The marijuana angle adds a humorous twist. Believe it or not, I’ve never even tried pot; I’m a pretty straight-laced, geeky guy. But how many of you were thinking that Ms. Ettel might’ve benefited from a toke or two before getting so worked up over a young kid trying to earn some money by selling bottled water on the street?

Is incivility a just response to cruelty?

Is it right to disrupt a prominent public official’s otherwise quiet dinner at a restaurant, even if she is the co-architect of a governmental policy that many claim is cruel and immoral? It’s not a hypothetical question, as the recent experience of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen illustrates. Devra First writes for the Boston Globe:

On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she ate dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana in D.C. “Shame! Shame!” they shouted repeatedly. “End family separation! If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

What they were referring to, of course, was the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen, as a Globe editorial recently said, was the face of that policy. And here she was at a Mexican restaurant, albeit one run by Todd English (chef de cuisine Juan “JC” Pavlovich is a native of Mexico).

The protesters were political activists who oppose the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Here’s the video of their interruption of Secretary Nielsen’s dinner, posted to Facebook:

Widespread, bipartisan criticism and outrage, including an unusual and strong opinion piece by former First Lady Laura Bush in the Washington Post (calling the Trump policy “cruel” and “immoral”), have forced the Trump administration to call a halt to its child separation policy. However, this comes too late for a few thousand kids and their families already separated. To its great shame, the administration never bothered to put in place a logistical plan to reunite these families. So these poor people are still in limbo, and for now the kids will remain in various camps, cages, and buildings, most of which were never designed for child care.

Child psychology experts have likened the administration’s policy to child abuse and opined that many of the kids will live with the resulting psychological trauma for years.

And what of dinner interruptus?

Devra First (quoted above) is not a political writer; she’s the Globe‘s food and restaurant critic. However, she sees the significance of protest in places where we normally gather to enjoy food and drink:

Restaurants are where we set aside our differences and come together at the table. Yet — or perhaps thus — such venues are also ideal theaters for protest. It is easy to see that black men are the ones who get the cops called on them while waiting for friends at Starbucks. It is easy to see that same-sex couples are the ones to whom bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes.

Those who work in the food industry are uniquely positioned — and uniquely entitled — to advocate for immigrants. After all, their businesses depend on the people Trump says threaten to “infest” this country.

How one sees the administration’s immigration policies — as either a significant moral outrage or an instance of politics & policy on the edge — may well predict how one feels about protesters loudly interrupting Secretary Nielsen’s gourmet Mexican dinner.

In normal instances, I strongly prefer civility over incivility. But I don’t regard this as a normal disagreement over public policy; I see it as a cruel and willful disregard of basic human dignity that already constitutes a shameful chapter in American history. Nielsen’s burdens in searching out a peaceful dinner venue are minor compared to the trauma being inflicted on these children and their families by the policies she has spearheaded. Is it bad form to remind her of this while she carries on as if nothing was wrong?

When meetings are used to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns

Image courtesy of clipart-library.com

Let’s start with a positive: Well-run, focused meetings can be extraordinarily valuable, productive, and participatory. They can enhance a genuine sense of community, inclusion, and buy-in. They can build positive relationships and help to ensure that different viewpoints are aired.

That said, way too many meetings are used for less-than-ideal purposes. In a more benign mode, they are simply time wasters, consuming precious minutes and hours of our lives that we can never get back. But it can get much worse than that. In fact, in my 27 years in academe, I’ve come to understand that the most morale-killing misuse of meetings is to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns. I’m sure some of you have your own examples of how this is done. Here are my leading candidates:

Ratifying Pre-Manipulated Results — Especially if a decision requires a vote or consensus agreement, the Powers That Be have already lined up their supporters and accomplice sheep. It’s a done deal before anyone enters the room. Perhaps this is “smart” organizing, but those left out of the pre-meeting dialogue won’t feel that way.

Intimidation and Bullying — The meeting serves as a reminder to not make waves, sometimes with implicit and explicit threats to back it up. It’s a form of in-your-face thuggery, sometimes done with a velvet glove, on other occasions of the bare-knuckled variety. 

Mansplaining — How many times do we have to listen to some guy drone on and on, over and again? He weighs in frequently, interrupts often, and self-promotes whenever possible. Some of these offenders have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, given the fact that some women strive to emulate their bloviating male colleagues, it’s also possible to be subjected to (wo)mansplaining as well. While this may advance the cause of inclusion in some perverse way, it doesn’t exactly contribute to the greater good.

PowerPoint Gazing — Staring at a screen as someone drones on in the dark. Slides with potentially important info are swapped out before you can grasp their significance. This is a great way for the Powers That Be to claim they were being transparent, when in reality they gave out just enough information to make the assertion a cynically plausible one.

Obligatory Filler — Instead of genuine discussion and dialogue, fill up the meeting with stuff that should be in a memo or e-mail. In the meantime, important matters are never brought to the table.

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”

Disconnects

Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

“Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Earlier this fall, the Washington Post‘s Jena McGregor wrote a snappy piece titled “A field guide to jerks at work,” where she identified and commented upon five types of individuals who fit the description:

  • “The lone ‘bosshole'”
  • “The powerful bully”
  • “The clueless jerk”
  • “The petty tyrant”
  • “The overbearing client”

I’m sure that many who are familiar with bullying, mobbing, and incivility at work can recognize such characters from real life. I’ve used the term “jerks at work” myself, on many occasions. In fact, way back in 1998, invoking that phrase resulted in my first-ever quote on workplace bullying in a national publication (USA Today).

However, I now grasp that “jerks at work,” along with “bosshole,” “tyrant,” and other terms, can underplay the nature and impacts of the most virulent strains of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment. These targeted, malicious behaviors are frequently perpetrated by individuals who demonstrate traits of severe narcissism, sociopathy, or psychopathy, enabled by organizations that either actively validate such behaviors or conveniently look the other way when they occur.

Instead of “jerks,” I find myself sometimes associating the term “soul stalkers” with these types of workplace aggressors, borrowing from the title of Dr. Marie-France Hirogoyen’s Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity (English ed., 2004). Dr. Hirogoyen, a French psychiatrist and therapist, provides an important analysis of emotional abuse in private lives and in the workplace.

I know that I’m beating a familiar drum here, but I again want to urge that we not confuse incivility and being a jerk with abuse and being an abuser. Our souls can usually survive dysfunctional bossholes and the like, however unpleasant and stressful they may be. But bonafide abusers may exact a much greater toll, and we need to figure out how to neutralize their toxic powers in the workplace and elsewhere.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Abuse vs. conflict

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

As I wrote in my previous post, Dr. Maureen Duffy and I are doing a final review of our forthcoming two-volume book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (ABC-CLIO, 2018), scheduled for publication in December. The process of re-reading 25 chapters featuring the work of over two dozen contributors highlights recurring themes for me. Among others, I keep coming back to this question: In terms of negative workplace interactions, what factors distinguish “conflict” from “abuse”? 

You’ll find differences of opinion on this question among our learned contributors. For me, the distinction between workplace conflict and workplace abuse often boils down to two major factors, namely, (1) the intentions of the parties, and (2) the power relationships between the parties.

If a party’s main intention is to cause harm or distress to another (thus meeting a common legal definition of malice), then the situation is more likely to be an abusive one.

If the power relationships between the parties are significantly uneven due to some combination of internal hierarchy (e.g., supervisor vs. subordinate), numbers (e.g., many vs. one), personality matches (e.g., exploiting someone’s emotional vulnerabilities), and resources (organizational, financial, etc.), then the situation is more likely to be an abusive one.

If one side exhibits malicious intent and exercises a significant power advantage over the other, then the situation is very likely to be an abusive one. The combination of bad intentions and the ability to effectuate them can be overwhelming to the less-advantaged individual.

Here is where we find some of the sharper dividing lines between disrespect and incivility on one hand, and bullying and mobbing on the other. Of course, there are others, including repeated acts of aggression and the greater presence of serious health-harming effects with the latter.

If you’d like an illuminating comparison in terms of social relationships, consider spousal or domestic partnership relationships. It’s one thing for a couple not to get along, perhaps even to the point where the conflict has elevated to frequent disagreements and verbal and non-verbal aggression. It’s quite another for one party to continually subject the other to verbal and/or physical abuse in a one-sided show of aggression. (This illustration is among the reasons why I have long joined with others in believing that workplace bullying is more like domestic abuse than schoolyard bullying.)

Again, I’m simply sharing my thoughts on this topic as an ongoing response to reviewing the forthcoming book volumes. I’m sure that once these volumes are published, I’ll be drawing upon them frequently for more observations and insights.

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