The Kavanaugh confirmation as a mirror onto America

(image courtesy of getdrawings.com)

Here in America, we have just endured an extraordinarily ugly and partisan confirmation process for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Events leading to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court now comprise a terrible episode in our political and legal history. This will reverberate on many levels for a long time.

Kavanaugh, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, was nominated by Donald Trump to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Late in the confirmation process, several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was in high school and in college.

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford was the first and most prominent accuser, alleging that during high school, a drunken Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to rape her. She and Kavanaugh both testified about these allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27. The debates over these allegations and Kavanaugh’s suitability for confirmation have dominated the national news coverage and everyday conversations across the country.

I make no claim to objectivity on this topic. I was among some 2,400 American law professors who signed a public letter expressing concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament and urging the U.S. Senate to reject the appointment. However, my purpose here is to pull back on the camera a bit and examine the destructive impact of this episode on America’s civic, political, and legal culture. Here are some of the key dimensions:

A deeply divided country

If America needed yet another painful reminder of its deep political and ideological divisions, this was it. It’s too early to predict exactly how this will affect future national elections, but it will play a major role in shaping political discussions.

Trauma and abuse

For trauma survivors, especially women who have experienced sexual assault, these events may have been alternately re-traumatizing, empowering, sorrowful, clarifying, angering, depressing, and validating. It has been a very difficult and trying two week period for many. It remains to be seen whether this will galvanize a movement to call greater attention to sexual assault, psychological trauma, and the rights of abuse victims.

Toxic masculinity

The mocking and trashing of women who courageously gave credible accounts of sexual assault was horrific and outrageous, especially when it came from men in positions of power. It’s time to mainstream the term toxic masculinity and to understand that this behavioral dynamic is very much a part of American culture.

Getting to the truth

Thanks to boundaries set by the White House, the FBI’s investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh was grossly inadequate and gave all appearances of providing cover, rather than searching for the truth. Neither the accusers’ allegations nor Kavanaugh denials were subjected to a thorough vetting, and numerous possible witnesses were ignored.

High school

Believe me, a lot of people people experienced vivid flashbacks to high school during these events. For some this was accompanied by uncomfortable memories and contemplations about behavioral excesses during adolescence and early adulthood.

Class privilege

Matters of class privilege played out prominently. Media coverage of student life at elite private high schools and Ivy League career networks gave detailed, snapshot examples about how such advantages manifest themselves early in life and continue through adulthood.

Public job interview

My own impressions of Kavanaugh notwithstanding, I would not wish upon anyone this equivalent of a job interview in the form of a public ordeal, with millions of people watching the proceedings and discussing very personal and normally private aspects of an applicant’s life. It made for a tawdry spectacle.

Institutional credibility

The reputations of both Congress and the Supreme Court took well-deserved hits. And thanks to Kavanaugh’s highly partisan language and angry, threatening tones towards his opponents in his September 27 testimony, his credibility as an impartial judge is forever suspect. With that suffers the credibility of the Supreme Court as a judicial body.

Bullying behaviors

Accusations of bullying behaviors flew back and forth between both sides. While few incidents rose to the kind of virulent bullying discussed often on this blog, the proceedings were rife with incivility and name calling.

Conservative bloc

The Kavanaugh confirmation gives the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court the votes it needs to advance a sharply right-leaning legal agenda for years to come. We are very likely to see reversals in civil rights and workers’ rights as a result.

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The events surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process will be studied and discussed for many years. Kavanaugh’s votes and judicial opinions will be scrutinized closely against the backdrop of how he was confirmed. I don’t have much optimism for the civic aftermath of what we’ve just experienced, but I hope that I’m wrong.

The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it

Watch this.

If the results of a recent public awareness survey are any indication, then we appear to be losing our collective knowledge of the Holocaust. Julie Zauzmer reports for the Washington Post:

Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day that found that knowledge of the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II is not robust among American adults.

Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

. . . Asked to identify what Auschwitz is, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted the study, which interviewed 1,350 American adults.

Granted, it’s only one poll. But if the results are even close to representative of the overall population, then we should be filled with alarm and despair. As I wrote in 2014:

Over the weekend I read Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958; new translation 2006), a defining personal account of life and death in Nazi concentration camps. . . . As an amateur student of history, I’ve read a lot of books and watched many films and documentaries about the World War II era, including the Holocaust. However, what should’ve been so self-evident to me beforehand finally sank in as I read Night: We need to understand the Holocaust because there is no more documented, memorialized, and analyzed chapter of widespread, deliberate, orchestrated human atrocity in our history. If we want to grasp how human beings in a “modern” era can inflict horrific cruelties on others  — systematically and interpersonally — then the Holocaust is at the core of our understanding.

Yes, to know about the Holocaust is to look into the darkest side of humanity. And if we don’t understand that side, then we cannot build a world that knowingly resists and opposes those instincts and behaviors and opts for something much better.

Relevance to the workplace

In previous articles I have made my case for why an understanding of the Holocaust can help us to comprehend the worst instances of bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. I have stitched together pieces of two past blog posts (here and here) to reiterate that position:

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Do the individual and collective behaviors of the Holocaust help us to understand severe, targeted, personally destructive workplace bullying? . . . I am well aware of the casual overuse of references to Hitler and the Nazis in our popular culture, especially in today’s overheated political discourse. . . . Nevertheless, I have steeped myself in the experiences and literature of workplace bullying, and I have read many works about the Holocaust. Although the two forms of mistreatment are hardly equivalent — even the worst forms of workplace bullying are a world away from genocide — there are real connections between them.

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Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work also has extended into the general realm of human rights. She recounts in her 2007 book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide how she used a talk at the University of Rwanda to explain “how it was a short walk from schoolyard bullying to criminal bullying (hate crime) to genocide,” invoking the roles of aggressor, bullying target, and bystander.

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Kenneth Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose case studies of mobbing in academe are worth the concentrated study of any serious student of workplace abuse, uses the term “elimination” to describe the process of removing targeted professors from their jobs. Ken also draws comparisons between severe mobbing behaviors at work and perpetrators of larger-scale eliminations and genocides, including the Nazis.

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I subscribe to the theory that most cases of severe, repeated, targeted workplace bullying originate with a nasty individual. Whether that person can be clinically classified as a psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist matters less than whether he possesses the simple capacities to treat someone abusively and to enlist others to be of assistance. More often than not, the abuser needs others to help with the dirty work. For example, if the intended coup de grâce is to eliminate the target from the workplace and perhaps to destroy her livelihood and career, the bully typically requires assistance to manipulate the employment record of a competent, even outstanding worker to make her look like a miscreant.

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Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target.

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When, say, human resources officers and employment lawyers knowingly — or perhaps with a sort of deliberate ignorance — side with the abusers to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target, they play institutional roles very similar to the bureaucrats of the Nazi regime. These professional handmaidens are more than simple bystanders looking the other way. They are complicit in the abuse; often they are among the key enablers leading to the final elimination of the target.

It’s about people and systems

In other words, we’re talking about a blend of individual actors and systems that enable them. The Holocaust may have been driven by Hitler and the smaller circle around him, but they needed the active cooperation of thousands of others to create a systematized killing machine, not to mention millions of others willing to look the other way.

The same applies to toxic workplaces. Here’s what I wrote last year:

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

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

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

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

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Let’s educate ourselves

The possibilities are many, but let me offer a few recommendations for those who wish to learn more about the Holocaust.

I just finished watching the 2005 BBC mini-series, “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’,” a six-episode mix of dramatizations, historical footage, and interviews. It masterfully pulls together the broader historical contexts and the often shocking, heartbreaking narrative details. It requires less than five hours of your time, and right now you can stream it on Netflix.

In terms of short memoirs, Wiesel’s Night comes out to less than 150 pages and can be finished during an evening or two. Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning also recounts his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and examines how they fueled his pioneering work as a psychiatrist.

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both the epic novels and the lengthy mini-series adaptations, are compelling fictional portrayals of the WWII era, with a heavy emphasis on the Nazis and the Holocaust.

I confess that I’ve read only parts of these books, but for those who want to go deep into the details, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust are among the many favorably reviewed historical treatments of the era.

There are plenty of other good sources, but regardless of how we learn about this signature event in human history, the important thing is to comprehend and remember.

Year’s end contemplations

Holiday lights on the Boston Common

Dear readers, I thought I’d offer this late December posting with several reflections and looks ahead. Wherever this holiday season finds you in location or spirits, I wish for you a good and healthy 2018. And thank you for your readership of this little blog.

Commitment

As the year comes to a close, I am more convinced than ever that preventing, stopping, and responding to all forms of interpersonal abuse is one of the most important objectives we can pursue, individually and as a society. My original base of understanding this assertion has been the world of work, where bullying and mobbing behaviors wreak havoc on psyches, livelihoods, and careers.

This worldview has been enhanced by my association with groups such as Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies and the therapeutic jurisprudence network — the latter soon to publicly debut the new International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. Through these groups, scholars, practitioners, activists, and artists are striving to build a world that positively embraces human dignity as a primary good. My friends and colleagues from these communities, as well as others I’ve met along life’s course, have helped me to understand how abuse occurs in so many other settings, including within families, relationships, and institutions of all kinds.

We’ve got our work cut out for us, but is there a better societal goal than the advancement of human dignity?

Writings

Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (ABC-CLIO, 2018) –Publication of our two-volume book set has been slightly pushed back until late January. Featuring over two dozen contributors (including a Foreword by Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and clocking in at some 600 pages, the project deliberately takes a U.S. focus in order to consider the unique aspects of American employment relations. We’ve done our best to deliver a resource useful for scholars and practitioners alike, and we can’t wait to see the published version!

David C. Yamada, “Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset (2017) — In the fall of 2016, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, to participate in homecoming activities and to spend a few extra weeks on campus as a visiting scholar, working on the book project above. The extended visit marked the 35th year since my college graduation, and it prompted a flood of collegiate memories and reflections on how events of that time — personal, national, and global — remain relevant today. I gathered some of them in an essay just published in The Cresset, the university’s “review of literature, the arts, and current affairs.”

Coming soon…

The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (ISTJ) is a new, non-profit, membership-based learned association devoted to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence, an interdisciplinary school 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. Our opening event was a founding meeting in July 2017 at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, held in Prague, Czech Republic. Several dozen people from around the world filled a meeting room to discuss plans for this new organization, and the combined energies created a palpable sense of enthusiasm and engagement.

Since then we have been filing our articles of incorporation and application for tax-exempt charitable status, as well as assembling our website with the ability to accept membership dues and featuring a forum page in which members can post information and commentary. As the initial board chairperson of the ISTJ, I am excited about the possibilities to come for this organization and its founding members.

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing

Over the weekend I made a quick trip to the Bay Area to participate in a conference organized by the Western Institute for Social Research, on whose board I serve. The focus of the conference was on trauma, recovery, and storytelling, and it packed a wallop of heart and wisdom. Among the many highlights was a keynote address by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a Holocaust survivor, trauma therapist, and genuine international treasure.

“Dr. Edie,” as she is known, survived the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps as a teenage girl. In her new book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017), she recounts the major events of her life, framed by her experiences during the war. She takes us through the many steps of her recovery and healing, and then to her work as a therapist helping others who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. Her keynote address was a mini-version of the stories shared at greater depth in The Choice.

I was so moved by Dr. Edie’s presentation that I read her book cover-to-cover during the long flight back from San Francisco to Boston. For anyone who is dealing with psychological trauma or otherwise wants to understand more about supporting those who are experiencing it, I cannot recommend this intelligent and deeply humane book too highly. I believe it will be very helpful to those who are recovering from bullying and mobbing at work. 

The Choice may remind some readers of Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, and with good reason. Frankl, too, survived Auschwitz and wrote about it. Moreover, as a leading therapist he would later befriend and mentor Dr. Edie. This friendship is warmly recounted in her book.

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I had a chance to talk to Dr. Edie during Saturday’s conference events, and getting to know her was such a gift. During the evening session, I had the intimidating task of immediately following her moving and insightful keynote remarks with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. I confessed my nervousness about comparing the eliminationist instinct that fueled the Holocaust to that manifesting itself on a much smaller scale in workplace abuse situations, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. When I finished, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a nod of approval. Yup, her opinion of my presentation meant so much to me that I looked to her as soon as I was done. Sometimes, connections made during a mere day in someone’s presence can be so profound and good.

On racism and bias: Research confirms that Rodgers & Hammerstein got it right

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally, the Washington Post‘s William Wan and Sarah Kaplan set out to learn about the science behind racism and bias. Here’s an answer from one social psychologist they interviewed:

“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be,” said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist. “This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”

And here’s more from another psychology prof:

“An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology,” said Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University who studies prejudice and politics. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called ‘in group.’”

But how we define those groups, and the tendency to draw divisions along racial lines, is social, not biological, he added. “We can draw those lines in a number of ways that society tells us,” he said.

…“The most likely predictor of that is exposure to a kind of ideology,” Knowles said. Most if not all people carry implicit biases and unexamined prejudices, he said, and some may harbor feelings of fear or resentment that they don’t express in public.

These insights are important, and kudos to these reporters for presenting a scientific perspective on the racism that motivated this horrible event. As helpful as this research is, however, it only reaffirms what some folks have known for years: That bigotry and bias are taught and reinforced by society.

In fact, if you want a more pop culture approach to this basic postulate, go back to the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which opened on Broadway in 1949 and was later made into a movie in 1958. Set on a South Pacific island during World War II, the show deals with serious issues of race and color and was considered quite controversial for its time. One of the numbers, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” is about how people learn racist beliefs and intolerance. Go here or click above for a snippet of the song from the movie version.

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Related note: The Bloomberg/BNA Daily Labor Report interviewed me about the employment law implications of the Charlottesville rally in this piece, “Can You Fire Someone for Attending a Rally of Racists?”

“What are they working on?”

Busy Saturday afternoon in Bates Hall reading room, Boston Public Library, Central Branch

One of my favorite places in Boston is the Central Library of the Boston Public Library (BPL). It is a beautiful, historic place that happens to be a great spot to work and study and to discover and explore books. It also has adapted to the times and offers lovely places to enjoy coffee and a bite to eat.

On Saturday I had some work to do, so I hopped on the subway to the library and found a seat in the sumptuous Bates Hall reading room. I snapped the photo above during a break. Whenever I work in Bates Hall, I like to gaze around at fellow library patrons and silently ask myself, What are they working on? 

On days like Saturday, college students clearly make up the largest category of BPL users, with textbooks and laptops visible on the tables. But you also see folks who are working on stuff that appears to have nothing to do with school. For example, sitting across from me today was a man who was carefully writing out pages in longhand; unlike most people, he didn’t have a computer or tablet with him. I wonder if people like him are working on something we may read or hear about someday, or whether it’s just their own little private projects.

The main reason for my visit was far more mundane. I was there to read and send feedback on student paper outlines and drafts. I could’ve stayed home or gone into the office to do that work, but sometimes the change of scenery makes me more productive and focussed. On Saturday, it worked, with an assist from the library’s public wifi so slowed down by the number of users in the building that it discouraged Internet surfing.

At times I will truly show my geek colors by picking a weekend afternoon to visit the BPL simply to hang out and read. I still subscribe to a lot of print magazines and periodicals, and on these occasions I will stuff a bunch of unread issues and maybe a book or two into my backpack and head off to the library for a reading mini-marathon. I’m not sure what it says about me that I take such pleasure in these visits, but I’m thankful for a place like this to host them.

The Central Library’s Italianate courtyard, during a visit earlier this winter

Lee Badgett: How can professors influence public policy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

Dr. M.V. Lee Badgett

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Related articles

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

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

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

Related blog post

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

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