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.

***

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 Great Recession: Are we looking at a repeat?

Ten years ago…

A decade ago, the world economy crashed. Fellow news junkies have no doubt noticed the surfeit of news articles reflecting back on the brutal unfolding of the Great Recession. For me, the Great Recession is such a defining chapter in my generation’s story that these pieces prompt vivid “where were you when…” remembrances of September 2008.

Watching from afar

I was in Hawaii at the time, and it was surreal.

I had been awarded a research sabbatical for that fall term. But before digging into my sabbatical work, I visited Maui for two weeks to help out and support a dear cousin who had lost her husband to cancer.

As we sorted through the many details that follow the passing of a loved one, regular TV programming was constantly interrupted by news coverage of the rapid economic collapse. It quickly became clear that this was no ordinary downturn, and that the world’s economic and financial structures were at risk of breaking apart.

To watch this unfold from one of the most beautiful places in the world, with a six-hour time difference between the East Coast and Hawaii, made for a disconnected and strange experience. You step outside into sunlight and palm trees and locals going about their business. You then watch the television news, with a lot of normally cool characters looking visibly shaken and fearful.

Today’s reality

So here we are, a decade later, looking back at the Great Recession and all the human and financial carnage it exacted. It would be nice to assume that we’ve learned from the massive debt bubbles and casino-style investing that helped to bring down the economy in 2008, and that somehow we’ve managed to reclaim those losses.

But there are two stark realities facing us today: First, although a booming stock market, record profits, and executive raises have fueled the net worths of the wealthy and upper middle class, a lot of middle-class, working-class, and poor people have never recovered from the last recession. As Alana Semuels wrote in “The Never-Ending Foreclosure,” a December 2017 piece in The Atlantic:

In the big picture, the U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession, which officially began a decade ago, in December of 2007. The current unemployment rate of 4.4 percent is lower than it was before the recession started, and there are more jobs in the economy than there were then (though the population is also bigger). But for some, the recession and its consequences are neverending, felt most strongly by families . . . who lost jobs and homes. Understanding what these families have experienced, and why recovery has been so evasive, is key to assessing the economic risks the nation faces. Despite ever-sunnier economic conditions overall, the Great Recession is still rattling American families. When the next economic crisis hits, the losses could be even more profound.

Secondly, a lot of knowledgeable people are saying that we are once again on the brink of a significant economic downturn. I won’t even attempt to link to the array of opinion pieces and analyses making this point. Just search “next recession,” and you’ll see what I mean. These assessments are coming from liberal, moderate, and conservative economists alike. Their biggest question is how bad will it be. It’s safe to say, however, that especially for the millions of people who never recovered from the last recession, the added punch will be extremely hard.

I know I’m sounding like a doomsayer, but I think we’re in for another rough go of it. My biggest question is whether we’ll come out of the next recession with a genuine civic and political commitment toward building an economy that works for everyone, not just for the wealthy and well-to-do.

…on-the-ground realities today

Abuse survivors can draw inspiration from John McCain’s life story

Here in America, the death of U.S. Senator John McCain is dominating the news, and rightly so. He has been a major political figure for several decades, marked by a penchant for outspokenness and independence that formed his trademark public image. Most of the McCain remembrances are looking at the broad arcs of his life and career, but upon reading Robert D. McFadden’s feature-length obituary for the New York Times, another thing hit me: He was a trauma survivor.

It’s a well-known part of McCain’s story that he survived more than five years as a POW during the Vietnam War. McCain was a fighter pilot, and during a mission over Hanoi in July 1967, his plane took a missile hit. He managed to eject, but he suffered two broken arms and a shattered knee in the process. He was quickly captured by the North Vietnamese, who immediately set upon him. McFadden writes:

Mr. McCain was stripped to his skivvies, kicked and spat upon, then bayoneted in the left ankle and groin. A North Vietnamese soldier struck him with his rifle butt, breaking a shoulder. A woman tried to give him a cup of tea as a photographer snapped pictures. Carried to a truck, Mr. McCain was driven to Hoa Lo, the prison compound its American inmates had labeled the Hanoi Hilton.

There he was denied medical care. His knee swelled to the size and color of a football. He lapsed in and out of consciousness for days. When he awoke in a cell infested with roaches and rats, he was interrogated and beaten. The beatings continued for days. He gave his name, rank and serial number and defied his tormentors with curses.

After two weeks, a doctor, without anesthesia, tried to set his right arm, broken in three places, but gave up in frustration and encased it in a plaster cast. He was moved to another site and tended by two American prisoners of war, who brought him back from near death.

This was only the beginning of years of continuous torture and beatings, including two years of solitary confinement.

McCain had chances for early release, thanks to his father’s status as a high-ranking U.S. Navy admiral. He refused:

When Admiral McCain became the Pacific Theater commander…, his son was offered early repatriation repeatedly. Commander McCain refused, following a military code that prisoners were to be released in the order taken. He was beaten frequently and tortured with ropes.

(Think about it: How many of us would decline repeated chances to jump the line while facing ongoing torture?)

With the Vietnam War coming to an end, McCain was finally released in March 1973. After a long convalescence, he would return to active duty in the Navy. Eventually, of course, he decided to enter politics.

Trauma survivor and critic of torture tactics

When John McCain was convalescing from his years as a POW, our knowledge of psychological trauma was in its infancy. Among other things, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would not enter the psychiatric nomenclature until the 1980s — informed strongly by the experiences of Vietnam veterans.

Thus, it’s fair to surmise that much of the focus of McCain’s recovery was on his physical health. But make no mistake about it, he was also a trauma survivor. Despite the horrific physical and psychological abuse that he endured as a POW, he would go on to lead a full and rich life, including long, distinguished service as a U.S. Senator and the Republican Party nomination for President in 2008.

It is worth noting that throughout his political career, McCain was an outspoken critic of the use of torture tactics to interrogate prisoners and those suspected of engaging in terrorist activities. This criticism did not sit well with many people during the post-9/11 era, but McCain persisted. He knew damn well what it felt like to be on the receiving end.

Standing up to a bully at the U.S. Naval Academy

Stories of McCain’s rebellious streak at the U.S. Naval Academy are apparently the stuff of legend. He piled up a mountain of demerits and disciplinary measures as he resisted the strictures of officer training. Tucked into that colorful history of barely escaping expulsion is a story of standing up to bullying, as recounted in an Arizona Republic profile of McCain by Dan Nowicki and Bill Muller:

It’s 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, and Midshipman John McCain and his roommate, Frank Gamboa, were eating lunch at the mess hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. A first class man, a “firstie” in Navy parlance, began dressing down a Filipino steward.

Gamboa hardly noticed the exchange, but young John McCain was paying close attention. Since the steward was an enlisted man, he couldn’t fight back. The firstie was being a bully, a no-no at the Naval Academy.

The man outranked everyone at the table. McCain and Gamboa were barely past being plebes, the school’s lowest rank. Fearing trouble, other underclassmen ate quickly and left. The browbeating continued.

Finally, McCain could take no more.

“Hey, why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” McCain blurted.

There was a moment of silent shock at the table.

“What did you say?” replied the firstie.

“Why don’t you stop picking on him?” McCain said. “He’s doing the best he can.”

“What is your name, mister?” snapped the firstie, an open threat to put McCain on report.

“Midshipman John McCain the Third,” McCain said, looking straight at the upperclassman. “What’s yours?”

The firstie saw the look in McCain’s eyes. And fled.

Today we’d call it “bystander intervention.” Back then it was simply standing up to a person who is picking on someone else. I don’t know if McCain’s life story includes other instances of intervening in bullying situations, but this one account shows that even as he resisted the disciplinary conventions of Naval Academy training, he was guided early on by something more than simple youthful rebelliousness.

Summing up

Surviving severe, ongoing abuse. Recovering from that abuse to lead a full, meaningful life. Standing up to a bully on behalf of someone being targeted. 

Regardless of our respective political beliefs, there’s something that we all can learn from these chapters of John McCain’s story.

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

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

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

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

The Trump effect on productivity (including mine)

I read the news today, oh boy

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

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

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

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

Direct hit

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

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.

In praise of thoughtful dissenters

(image courtesy of quote fancy.com)

In a 1954 broadcast critical of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow urged upon his listeners that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” Given today’s often poisonous political and social atmosphere, buttressed by bad leaders fueling these dynamics, Murrow’s words continue to ring very true.

And if you’re looking for some contemporary commentary about the importance of dissent in our institutions, workplaces, and civic life, then I’m pleased to recommend a new title by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (UC-Berkeley), In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (2018). In her book, Dr. Nemeth poses a challenge to leaders and institutions that drive us toward consensus, without leaving room for thoughtful dissent and questioning. Here’s a description, drawn from her website:

Good decision making requires divergent thinking, an unbiased search for information on all sides of the issue, a consideration of multiple alternatives, the weighing of the cons as well as the pros of any given position etc. Regardless of good intentions or even education and training, we don’t do this. We are subject to biases and most social processes conspire to narrow the range of considerations. Consensus and the seeking of it are culprits, not because we follow the consensus right or wrong, but because we think about the issue from that perspective.

By contrast, dissent opens the mind and actually stimulates divergent thinking. It not only challenges and breaks the hold of the majority, it stimulates the information search and consideration of alternatives; it widens the strategies used in problem solving and increases the originality of thought. This is true even when the dissenter is wrong. It is true even when we vigorously dislike the dissenter and her ideas.

The take-home of this book is two-fold. There are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.

Okay, I hear you: Isn’t reaching consensus a good thing? Don’t we all want to “get to ‘yes'”?, to paraphrase the title of a popular conflict resolution book. Obviously decisions have to be made, for in their absence, things can grind to a halt. Nemeth is not advocating for such outcomes or calling for people to be knee-jerk naysayers. Instead, she’s saying that when decisions result from weighing differences of opinion, the outcomes are often better.

There are lessons in this book for everyone. For example, when I’m in leadership roles or in the classroom, I can be welcoming of differing points of view. However, when I feel very strongly that I’m right, I can get impatient, especially when I perceive that other comments are not well reasoned. Nemeth understands that dissenting opinions — even ultimately erroneous ones — can slow down the process, but she urges their importance nevertheless.

Believe me, I’ve been in academic workplaces long enough to see the damage wrought by marginalizing and even squelching dissenting voices. Organizations that do not encourage genuine input often pay for their insularity. Sadly, their leaders rarely comprehend or admit those costs, instead preferring to bumble along with a top-down approach. Inclusive leadership, bolstered by the confidence to encourage thoughtful dissent, is the better way to go.

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