Of coronavirus and climate change: Zooming in on the future of academic and professional conferences

We’re about to go live with the Dec. 2020 Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop (https://www.humiliationstudies.org)

Last May (link here), I speculated about the future of academic and professional conferences in view of the unfolding pandemic. I opened by affirming how meaningful these gatherings can be:

I am hardly alone in attesting that I can trace career and life changing collaborations, associations, and friendships to various conferences, seminars, and workshops. These events have introduced me to people, ideas, and research that have profoundly shaped the course of what I do and fostered communities that transcend distance.

I have written frequently about the importance and meaning of such events. . . . With these events and so many others, I could tell story after story about gaining meaningful, lasting connections and insights.

I went on to acknowledge that the pandemic was forcing the cancellation of many events and the moving of others to online formats. Although I understood that platforms such as Zoom were making online conferences doable, I lamented the inherent limitations:

But these platforms cannot deliver true alternatives to the fortuitous sidebar conversations, meals, and coffee meet-ups that are often the stuff of future projects and new associations. Great things can hatch from these more informal interactions. Online “chat rooms” simply do not provide the same space.

Fifteen months later

Since posting that entry, I have participated in many online conferences, workshops, and seminars, with the events originating as close as Boston and as far away as India and Israel. I have been grateful for the opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends from around the world. Some of these interactions would not have occurred had the program been held in face-to-face settings. The travel times and costs would’ve been prohibitive.

However, I also was reminded over and again of the aforementioned limitations of such events. The informal chats and get togethers that are connective highlights of many academic and professional gatherings were sadly missing. Who knows what great ideas and future collaborations never materialized because we couldn’t chat over coffee or a meal?

Looking ahead

Well folks, like it or not, for at least three reasons, I think we’re going to be online for many of these events during the years to come.

Viral matters

First, this virus appears to be spinning off variants and mutations that will make travel planning an ongoing and earnest game of whack-a-mole (public health edition) for the foreseeable future. These realities are especially acute for conferences that attract an international constituencies.

For example, I’m currently helping to organize a global conference in France, scheduled for summer 2022. Let’s just say that a lot of folks are in a wait-and-see mode, even in terms of submitting panel and presentation proposals. Very recently, the European Union took the U.S. off of its safe travel list due to our current outbreak. Who knows what things will look like next year?

Air travel and climate change

Second, there’s the impact of air travel on climate change. Global aviation (including both passenger and freight) accounts for roughly 2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. While this pales in comparison to the environmental impact of other modes of transportation (especially auto travel), commercial air travel — in particular — is disproportionately the province of people and businesses who can afford airline tickets.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop flying or shipping goods by air. But if people are going to fly, then let’s get the maximum bang for the buck. To me, that means prioritizing flights to maintain ties between families and friends, above all. I also think we need to value tourism, study abroad, and other travel purposes that enrich our lives.

In addition, I think we need to pick and choose between professional conference opportunities that require air travel carefully and wisely. On the one hand, piggybacking active participation in a favorite conference with seeing friends and family seems like a good use of a plane trip. By contrast, if one’s conference participation amounts to flying across the country to talk for 20 minutes on a panel and little else, then maybe it’s not a responsible expenditure of jet fuel.

Costs

Finally, there’s the matter of accessibility and affordability. Factoring in air fare, hotel room, registration fee, and daily expenses, a major conference can cost as much as a getaway vacation. For academics, especially, funding support for conference travel is unevenly distributed, to say the least.

Online conferences even the participation field a bit, notwithstanding their built-in limitations. Registration fees are often lower, and there are no plane tickets or hotel rooms to be booked. You can eat at home.

Of course, there’s a third conference or workshop possibility, and that’s a hybrid format that allows for both in-person and online participation. Unfortunately, the logistical nightmares from a planning standpoint make this an unrealistic option for most conferences, unless they’ve got oodles of money and first-rate, tech-equipped facilities and staff to go with them.

The professional benefits of high-quality, in-person conferences, workshops, and seminars with plenty of opportunities for informal interaction are significant, and thus I would hate to see these events disappear. For the time being, however, I think that we’re going to do a lot of our interacting online.

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Some previous blog posts about conferences and workshops

“A workshop as annual ritual” (2019) (link here) — Photo essay on the 2019 annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, held at Columbia University in New York City.

“A short speech in Rome” (2019) (link here) — Text of my speech praising our shared experiences of participating in the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, delivered at the 2019 Congress in Rome.

“Workplace Bullying University, ‘All Star’ edition” (2019) (link here) — Recounting experiences at an enhanced edition of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s intensive training seminar, hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in San Francisco, CA.

“Dr. Edith Eger’s ‘The Choice’: On trauma and healing” (2017) (link here) — I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edith Eger, noted trauma therapist, author, and Holocaust survivor, at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California.

“North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems” (2016) (link here) — Report on a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

“Conferences as community builders” (2015) (link here) — Touting the many benefits of the 2015 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Atlanta, Georgia, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Pandemic bullies: Unruly customers are making work life miserable for service sector staff

A year ago, I reported on how some customers were taking out their pandemic-related frustrations via terrible treatment of service-sector workers (link here). The situation appears to be worsening. As America and other countries are emerging from pandemic lockdowns, stories of customer abuse of workers in restaurants, commercial airline flights, and other venues are multiplying. These working conditions appear to be contributing to staffing shortages in the retail sector, in particular.

I want my food, NOW

For example, as reported by Neil Vigdor for the New York Times (link here), one Cape Cod, Massachusetts restaurant closed for a day to support workers who were experiencing repeated verbal abuse from entitled customers:

The verbal abuse from rude customers got so bad, the owners of one farm-to-table restaurant on Cape Cod said, that some of their employees cried.

The final indignity came last Thursday, when a man berated one of the restaurant’s young employees for telling him that they could not take his breakfast takeout order because the restaurant had not opened yet, said Brandi Felt Castellano, the co-owner of Apt Cape Cod in Brewster, Mass.

“I never thought it would become this,” she said.

So Ms. Felt Castellano and her spouse, Regina Felt Castellano, who is also the head chef and co-owner, announced on Facebook that the restaurant would close for part of that same day to treat the restaurant’s employees to a “day of kindness.”

…“It’s like abuse,” she said. “It’s things that people are saying that wouldn’t be allowed to be on TV because they would be bleeped. People are always rude to restaurant workers, but this far exceeds anything I’ve seen in my 20 years.”

It’s getting rough up there

Air travel is another venue that is bringing out the worst in some customers. As Andrea Day and Chris DiLella report for CNBC (link here):

They’ve been cursed out, grabbed and even punched in the head.

Flight attendants are now speaking out publicly about the stress of managing increasingly unruly passengers at 35,000 feet, a job that’s gotten more difficult in recent months as passengers return to the skies after months of lockdowns.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced flight attendants to enforce federal rules requiring masks on planes, a mandate that’s touched a political nerve for many Americans and led to a rise in bad behavior onboard.

“It’s definitely out of control,” said flight attendant Matthew Cook, one of two flight attendants who agreed to speak to CNBC on the record as long as their employer wasn’t identified. “I have apprehensions [about] going to work every day. I have a lot of anxiety.”

Most flight attendants have kept quiet about the rise of unruly passengers out of fear of retaliation by their employers.

Some readers may have been around long enough to remember the old saying, the customer is always right. It was a slogan used by retail managers to exhort their employees to make customer satisfaction their highest priority. Okay, so while we’re all appreciative of good service, in truth the customer isn’t always right, and these various instances of bullying, incivility, and violence are proving so. 

Voting with their feet

It appears that many workers are voting with their feet. As Mary Meisenzahl reports for Business Insider (link here), abusive customers are combining with low pay and better opportunities elsewhere to create major staffing shortages in the retail sector:

Some workers are leaving retail and restaurant jobs to get away from low pay and difficult customers, and a growing number of openings in the labor market is making it easier to transition to new careers.

…Hiring has been difficult for many companies, which have reported a lack of candidates for open positions. But retail and restuarants are are also struggling to retain workers who want to leave for new opportunities.

…Another Starbucks employee said after a dangerous and difficult year because of the pandemic, fatigue and treatment are top concerns. “Employees have been fired or people are quitting because we’re so overworked and stressed and abused,” an employee at a Midwest Starbucks told Insider.

A Louisiana barista echoed the same complaints.  The “handful [of customers] that you get each day who will berate or abuse you can take a drastic toll on your mental well being,” he told Insider.

Research says so, too

Those who question whether customer abuse impacts employee attrition can look at this 2019 study conducted by University of British Columbia researchers that establishes the link. As reported in ScienceDaily (link here):

…In fact, studies have shown that dealing with problematic customers can lead to emotional exhaustion, negative moods, poorer physical health, reduced performance and lower job satisfaction.

But does it also lead to higher employee turnover?

According to a new study led by the UBC Sauder School of Business in collaboration with the UBC-Okanagan Faculty of Management, the University of Illinois, and the University of Queensland in Australia, customer conflict plays a big role when it comes to workers saying “I quit” — and how supervisors manage that conflict helps decide whether employees stay or go.

…Even when controlling for other factors that would lead a worker to throw in the towel — factors including low pay, long hours and poor working conditions — the researchers found a significant link between customer mistreatment and employee quit rates.

“We were able to predict who was going to quit based on their experience of customer mistreatment and emotional exhaustion. You can see it coming,” says UBC Sauder School of Business professor Danielle van Jaarsveld, lead author of the study.

“It starts accumulating, and eventually you hit the wall and say, ‘I’ve got to look for another job.’ Because if you don’t find a way to replenish those emotional resources, they deplete and you’ve got nothing left,” says study co-author and UBC Sauder School of Business professor Daniel Skarlicki.

Kindness, employer support, unions

How can we address this disturbing uptick in worker mistreatment by customers? At least three points come to mind:

First, we can all hold ourselves accountable. Kindness, understanding, and practicing the Golden Rule go a long way, including when we’re at a restaurant or store or in an airplane. And if you see something, say something. Bystander intervention counts for a lot.

Second, employers need to support their workers, like the co-owners of that Cape Cod restaurant did with their day of kindness for their staff. Abusive customers are never in the right.

Third, we need more unions in the service sector to help safeguard workers from mistreatment, regardless of the source. Collective bargaining helps to hold employers accountable for taking care of their employees.

 

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic?

Second shot came 3 weeks later!

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic? Now that vaccination numbers are up, new infections and COVID-19 fatalities are down, and businesses and cultural institutions are re-opening, it’s time to generate discussions about the future of work, workers, and workplaces during the months and years to come. 

Bullying and harassment

First, bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work — key topics for this blog — won’t be going away any time soon. As I reported last month, the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2021 national scientific survey revealed that, during the pandemic, a lot of bullying behaviors simply migrated to online platforms such as Zoom. Furthermore, individuals of Asian descent have been targeted for racial harassment due to the apparent origins of the coronavirus in China. Also, retail workers across the country have been verbally abused and physically assaulted by out-of-control customers who disagreed with mask and public safety requirements. In short, while this pandemic has brought out the best in some people, it also has brought out the worst in others.

The face-to-face workplace

Second, we’re going to see a somewhat clunky and varied transition back to working in face-to-face office settings again. Some workers can’t wait to get back to the office, while others have found themselves working effectively — and more contentedly — at home. Employers have experienced differing productivity levels with people working remotely, and some have been re-evaluating their need for large office spaces. We may see greater reliance on hybrid approaches that mix-and-match working from home and coming into the office when necessary.

Restaurant recoveries?

Third, many retailers, especially those in the restaurant and food service industry, are going to be in recovery mode. For example, will the pre-pandemic fondness that many Americans have for eating at restaurants return as vaccinations and improved ventilation systems make indoor dining safe possibilities? Fingers crossed that these industries will make robust comebacks!

Frontline workers

Fourth, millions of essential frontline workers have been putting themselves in harm’s way to stock shelves, operate cash registers, produce and deliver goods and packages, and perform countless other tasks to help keep our society going during this time. Will a grateful nation reward them with higher pay, better benefits, and stronger job security? It’s anyone’s guess as to whether that will occur.

Women bear the brunt

Fifth, the labor market impacts of this pandemic have been very gendered, with more women than men bearing the brunt of caregiving at home for children and the ill. While it may be premature to assess how this will effect current generations of women workers in the long term, the short-term impact has been palpable and threatens to endure.

Health care workers

Sixth, health care workers across the country who have been treating COVID-19 patients face trauma, exhaustion, and burnout from working long hours under the most difficult circumstances. They have been in the trenches of this war against the virus, and many have paid a price in terms of their physical and emotional health. We owe them a debt of gratitude, which includes providing all necessary measures to support them as they recover from this ordeal.

Ch-ch-changes

Seventh, we may witness a stream of career transitions, job changes, and early retirements, the cumulative results of individual and family contemplations about their lives during this long period of semi-quarantine. As I wrote in my personal blog over the weekend:

The pandemic appears to have prompted a lot of self-reflection among middle-aged folks during the past year or so, and the results of these inner dialogues are starting to emerge. More and more we’re hearing about career and job shifts, accelerated retirement timelines, moves to places near and far, changes in personal relationships, new hobbies and avocations, and more active pursuits of “bucket list” plans.

This stuff is popping up in everyday conversations, Facebook postings, and news features about life transitions in the shadow of COVID-19. I don’t know if it’s a temporary blip on the screen or the beginning of some major social ground shifting, but for now the phenomenon is real.

Haves and have-nots

Finally, the pandemic has exacerbated the divide between the haves and have-nots. Those who could work remotely and safely, watch their retirement accounts grow amidst a strong stock market, and take advantage of generous, employer-provided health care plans are coming out of this pandemic in pretty good shape. Those who lost their jobs, tapped into meager savings, and have struggled to obtain needed health care have found themselves increasingly reliant on special safety net measures enacted by the federal government. This is among the reasons why I hope that the Biden Administration’s proposals to create millions of jobs with good wages and benefits to help repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and build a healthy green economy are enacted. 

These points raise but a few of the compelling matters related to the post-pandemic future of work in America. In all, they highlight persistent challenges of opportunity, equality, and worker dignity that existed before this virus transformed our lives. Accordingly, I hope that we, as a society, will take the high road in prioritizing the needs of those who have struggled the most during one of the most challenging times in our history.

Pre-publication posting: “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment”

Frequent readers of this blog may have noticed my periodic references to therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law, policy, and legal institutions. In legal events and transactions, TJ inherently favors outcomes that advance human dignity and psychological well-being. TJ has vitally informed my work on the legal implications of workplace bullying and my design of, and public education about, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

For many years, I have perceived the need for a law review article that comprehensively yet accessibly canvasses the field of TJ. I finally undertook the project myself, and the result is “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment,” slated to appear later this year in the University of Miami Law Review. I have posted a freely downloadable, pre-publication version to my Social Science Research Network page, which you may access here.

If you’re interested in learning more about TJ, then you may also check out the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (link here), a global non-profit dedicated to public education about the field. I helped to organize the ISTJ and served as its first board chair. As recounted in this blog post, we launched the ISTJ in 2017, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, Czech Republic.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is an important player in the drive toward making the law more embracing of human dignity and everyday human needs. This includes, of course, legal rights and responsibilities concerning the workplace, and so I’ve been very grateful for how insights yielded by TJ have informed my work.

A welcomed online workshop helps to conclude a challenging year

Every December for over a decade, it has been my custom to hop on an Amtrak train bound for New York City to participate in the Annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies. HDHS is a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, advocates, artists, and students committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation.

This is a spirit-renewing event for me, largely because of the wonderful company of good people engaged in good works. As I wrote last year in a photo essay about this workshop (link here), many aspects of it have become something of a ritual, starting with the subway trek to Columbia University Teachers College, whose conflict resolution center hosts our gathering.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic interceded and rendered a face-to-face workshop an unwise option. So we decided to do this as an online event, spread over three days. It was a monumental and exhausting planning task, led by HDHS director Linda Hartling and HDHS founder Evelin Lindner, and supported by an ensemble cast of characters. Here’s a screenshot of many members of our planning group:

Photo credit: Anna Strout

You know something, it worked — very well, I might add! At any given time, some 50-60+ participants were online, with folks logging in from as far away as India and New Zealand! Please go here if you’d like to check out the details or watch videos of talks and dialogue sessions.

HDHS has become an increasingly important part of the work I do, and it has fostered many cherished friendships and connections. This community is very dear to me, and I wish that circumstances would’ve permitted us to gather in person. But I must say that the pandemic has brought out a fierce determination within this group to sustain and grow our network in spite of the circumstances. I hope that 2021 will allow us to return to New York, but I also know that we can build this community via online communications. 

Related posts

“A workshop as annual ritual” (2019) (link here)

“Tribes for engaging in positive change” (2015; revised 2019) (link here)

“Conferences as community builders” (2015) (link here)

New article: “Should Public Policy Center on Society’s Well-Being?”

Dear readers, I’m delighted to share with you a short piece I wrote, “Should Public Policy Center on Society’s Well-Being?” (link here), for the first issue of The American Commentator, an online magazine published by the Americans for Democratic Action Education Fund, a progressive political and policy education group on whose board I serve.

In the article, I assert that societal well-being should be a framing goal for the making of public policy. In offering the case, I reference my work in drafting and advocating for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Here are some snippets:

Should public policy adopt core values of well-being, human dignity, and compassion? Should it embrace outcomes that are therapeutic versus those that are anti-therapeutic? Should it reject measures that are based largely on economic productivity, with little to no regard as to how wealth and resources are distributed and deployed?

***

To help us develop frameworks for advancing traditional liberal values with a compassionate, humane, yet practical voice, I propose that the field of therapeutic jurisprudence can critically inform our understanding. Founded in 1987 by law professors David Wexler (then at the University of Arizona) and the late Bruce Winick (University of Miami), therapeutic jurisprudence (or “TJ”) is a school of legal theory and practice that examines how laws, public policies, and legal systems can produce therapeutic or anti-therapeutic results. While respecting traditional legal precepts such as precedent and due process, TJ inherently favors outcomes that advance human dignity and well-being.

***

Therapeutic jurisprudence principles have informed my work in drafting and advocating for workplace anti-bullying legislation, informally known as the Healthy Workplace Bill, which serves as the template for legal reform efforts across the nation to create a legal claim for severe, targeted psychological abuse at work. In addition, I have invoked TJ in calling for human dignity to be the framing principle for American employment law generally.

I hope you’ll consider reading the full article! It’s about a 10-minute read. And you can access the entire first issue of The American Commentator here.

Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

On recovering from adversity and loss to have his finest moment

Here in the U.S., Joseph Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, delivered an acceptance speech at his party’s nominating convention that has received widespread praise for its moral conviction and strength. A man not associated with powerful oratory (among other things, he had to overcome a childhood stuttering impediment) nonetheless delivered a speech full of passion and heart quality, urging America to reclaim the light that has been lost in the midst of the current presidential leadership and a global pandemic.

The speech also served as a testament to recovering from great adversity and personal loss. Biden stumbled early in his party’s presidential primaries, appearing lackluster at campaign appearances and doing poorly in televised debates. Once the state primaries began, he stumbled badly at the polls. The growing suspicion was that this 77-year-old former vice president was washed up.

However, when all appeared to be lost, Biden pulled off a dramatic win in South Carolina, and the momentum just steamrolled from there. His march to win the nomination will be remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of presidential politics.

Biden’s political comeback is only a part of his story, of course. He has overcome adversities much greater than that. Weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his wife and one-year-old daughter died in a horrible car crash. He would remarry and raise his family. But in 2015, his oldest son, Beau Biden, who served as Delaware’s attorney general and as an active duty Army officer in Iraq, died after a long battle with brain cancer. It was a devastating loss that strongly factored into Biden’s decision not to run for president.

So here we are, in the summer of 2020, with the Democratic nominating convention being conducted as a socially distanced event for television and the internet because of a pandemic that continues to ravage this nation. There were no cheering delegates waving signs and banners; applause was delivered via projecting Zoom images on a giant screen. It was a strange and challenging setting for such an important speech.

And yet Biden delivered. You can watch his speech here.

Biden highlighted his sharp differences with the White House incumbent, not only in policies, but also in character. He invoked the term dignity on several key occasions. I try to avoid being overtly political on this blog, despite the fact that I am a longtime political junkie. However, I believe that the 2020 election is America’s moment of truth. We either make a change at the top or say goodbye to our nation as a decent, caring democracy. The stakes are that vital.

That said, for many Americans, the best reason to vote for Biden has been that he is not his main opponent. That may have changed on Thursday night, when a guy who was written off as an aging has-been stepped up to deliver the speech of his life. It’s a speech that history may very well credit for helping to save this country from a terribly dark future and lasting moral and ethical decline.

Can we use this challenging time to plant seeds of creativity and compassion?

Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.

Work and workplaces

I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects: 

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

…Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.

Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

Our better natures

Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)

And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

Jury’s out

So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:

Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.

Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.

***

Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).

LOL: “We have ZERO TOLERANCE….”

 

(image courtesy of ya-webdesign.com)

We see it over and again: An organization is accused of egregious instances of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying at work, or similar mistreatment. The allegations are reported in the media, accompanied by the standard organizational response:

We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.

Zero tolerance. Got it. You guys are right on it.

At times, I’ll read a “zero tolerance” response in a news item and know that the organization in question practices anything but that.

Oh, these places might have zero tolerance splashed all over their employee handbooks, but in reality they don’t take it very seriously. Until they’re caught, of course.

I’m not an empirical researcher, but I’ll hypothesize that the zero-tolerance-on-paper organizations are frequently the same ones who invoke the rhetorical (not legal) “bad apple” defense when wrongful behaviors arise, i.e., we regret that a bad apple might have behaved in such a manner. As I wrote in 2017:

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples. 

Building and maintaining an organization that embraces human dignity is not easy. It takes good leadership and values that are practiced, rather than simply preached. By contrast, although zero tolerance may be an impressive-sounding phrase, all too often it is invoked in situations suggesting that the hard work of creating a healthy, fair-minded, and inclusive organization remains to be done.

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