From genocide to bullying, may remembrance inspire our commitment

The social media image that most commanded my attention on Friday morning was a photo of Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, taken in May 1960, on the day that the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam was first opened to the public. Otto Frank was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Nazi concentration camps. Daughters Anne and Margot, and wife Edith, all perished before they could be liberated.

Staring at that photograph, I tried to imagine what was going through Mr. Frank’s mind. But I understood that I could never truly comprehend his experience and the journey that brought him back to the place where he, his family, and four other Jewish residents spent some two years in hiding before they were discovered and eventually transported to Auschwitz.

Remembrance

And yet, even if we do not share direct memories of the Holocaust, maintaining a collective sense of remembrance, buoyed by historical literacy, is central to our understanding of how humans can engage in seemingly unthinkable atrocities. Indeed, I believe that the Nazi genocide is a key starting place for grasping our capacity for cruelty. As I wrote eight years ago:

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.

Despite the ample historical record, we may be losing our collective memory of the Holocaust, at least in the U.S. In 2018, Julie Zauzmer reported 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.

From genocide to bullying

Years ago, as I began my deeper dives into the dynamics of bullying and mobbing at work, I looked to the nature of genocidal behavior for understanding the eliminationist instincts that appear to be present in attempts to force someone out of a workplace and even wreck their careers. I took these steps somewhat gingerly, because I wasn’t sure of the appropriateness of comparing genocides to even the worst kinds of workplace mistreatment. You might sense these tentative steps in what I wrote back in 2011:

Do the individual and collective behaviors of the Holocaust help us to understand severe, targeted, personally destructive workplace bullying?

The question has been discussed within the workplace anti-bullying movement and requires respectful contemplation. 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. Moreover, I acknowledge the dangers of comparing anything to the Holocaust, an outrage so profound that it is nearly impossible to fathom but for the abundant factual record.

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.

I credit two important individuals for helping to validate my hesitantly shared belief that genocide and bullying exist together on a spectrum, connected by common human toxicities and failings.

First, Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work has also extended into the realm of human rights generally. In her book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide (2007), she recounted 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.

Second, Dr. Edith Eger is a noted trauma therapist, author, and Auschwitz survivor. At a conference in 2017, I had the bracing task of immediately following her eloquent keynote speech with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. Looking periodically at Dr. Edie (as she is known) as she sat in the front row, I shared with everyone my unease about comparing the Holocaust to work abuse, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. Thankfully, when I finished my talk, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a warm nod of approval. I was both relieved and honored by her response.

Commitment

In the realm of employment relations, we often use the terms workplace bullying and workplace incivility as a matched pair, with some differentiating them only slightly by severity and intention. However, I’ve come to regard workplace bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors as being closer in essential character to the even more virulent behaviors that target people for abuse or extinction en masse. The degree and extent of harm may vary greatly, but the driving psychological and social forces bear many likenesses.

Indeed, over the years, the worst accounts of workplace mistreatment that I’ve known of have had nothing to do with incompetent management or everyday incivilities. Rather, they’ve typically shared a malicious intention to diminish, undermine, and harm someone, to drive them out of the organization, and perhaps even to destroy their ability to earn a living. In each of these instances, an eliminationist instinct has been very present, usually enabled and protected by institutional cultures.

Ultimately, all behaviors on this spectrum of cruelty and toxic abuse of power demand our responses. Thus, remembrance should inspire our ongoing commitment to understand and address these behaviors, wherever they may appear. 

For my part, I’ll continue my research, writing, and advocacy on workplace bullying and related topics. That work is a lifelong commitment. In addition, the contemplations offered above, some of which draw upon previous writings posted to this blog, represent some early thinking steps towards a more ambitious project that examines the varied manifestations of cruelty and abuse and assesses how law and public policy have responded to them. My objective is to contribute to a broader and deeper understanding of the differences and commonalities among these forms of severe mistreatment and what we can do about them.

A view from July 5

Peeking from behind the trees, fireworks from the Boston Pops annual July 4 celebration

Yesterday, for the first time in my 28 years in Boston, I did the famous Boston Pops July 4 celebration. I’ve never been one for big crowds, but a visit from friends who wanted to experience this Boston tradition overcame my resistance. Because we opted not to do the early a.m. campout, we didn’t get in front of the bandshell, but we found a place on an adjacent Beacon Hill street where we could hear the music, peer onto the stage, and see the fireworks bursting from behind the trees. It was great fun.

Before we reached the July 4 celebration, we passed by the National Park Service monument paying tribute to the storied 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first regiments of African American soldiers during the Civil War. There we talked to a Civil War re-enactor who was in full uniform. He explained to us with pride in his eyes that his family tree includes a member of that regiment, and he demonstrated the nine-step process of loading a rifle of that era. It was a wonderfully educational and heartfelt conversation.

All in all, this was a triumphant and festive day for my home city, the return of a holiday tradition that had been cancelled during the past two July 4ths due to the pandemic.

When the Boston Pops Orchestra played its medley of patriotic songs, however, I found myself getting emotional over our nation’s current state of affairs. I now live in a country as deeply divided as I’ve ever seen. And those divisions are unlikely to heal anytime soon.

The nation’s July 4 festivities were horribly savaged by news from Highland Park, Illinois — a suburb of Chicago — of a mass shooting at the town’s Fourth of July parade that left at least six people dead and over 30 injured. A suspect, a 22-year-old white male, was later peacefully taken into custody.

The city of Akron, Ohio, canceled its July 4 events in the face of weekend protests after its police department released body camera footage of up to eight officers shooting Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old African American male, some 60 times. Walker was not armed at the time he was killed.  

Even here in Boston, our holiday weekend was stained by a march of masked white supremacists through the downtown. (Going back to the 1800s, these folks insist on covering their faces.)

On a national scale, the Congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol is accumulating more and more evidence that ties the event and participants’ insurrectionist intentions directly to former president Trump. The most damning testimony is coming from his own former staff and other longtime conservative Republicans, many of whom have stated that the election was not stolen and said that they shared this conclusion with Trump. The hearings have also revealed that several of Trump’s strongest supporters in Congress sought pardons in connection with Jan. 6, in anticipation of possible criminal prosecution.

Perhaps the most divisive recent development was last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to end a long-held right to abortion. The court’s holding, in turn, triggered a wave of red state laws prohibiting abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. (In fact, on CNN the other day, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem repeatedly dodged a question about whether a 10-year-old rape victim — an actual situation in Ohio — should be forced to give birth.)

The behaviors and actions I’m witnessing run counter to the kind of peaceful, ethical, and inclusive nation that I wish to see. I never thought that I would say this during my lifetime, but our American Experiment in freedom and democracy is at greater risk than at any time since the Civil War. The Stars and Stripes may fly forever, but what they represent is increasingly up for grabs.

Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Gift”: Recovery and renewal for trauma survivors

In her first book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017), Dr. Edith Eger recounted the major events of her life, framed by her experiences as a teenaged survivor of the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps during the Second World War. She shared the many steps of her own recovery and healing, and then described her work as a therapist helping others who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.

Dr. Edie (as she is known) has followed The Choice with The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life (2020), a compassionate, potentially transformative book that draws heavily upon her experiences and those of her patients to offer guidance on recovering from trauma. Here’s a description of the book from her website

Eger explains that the worst prison she experienced is not the prison that Nazis put her in but the one she created for herself, the prison within her own mind. She describes the twelve most pervasive imprisoning beliefs she has known—including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance—and the tools she has discovered to deal with these universal challenges. Accompanied by stories from Eger’s own life and the lives of her patients each chapter includes thought-provoking questions and takeaways….

Choice therapy

Dr. Edie describes her therapeutic approach as “choice therapy, as freedom is fundamentally about choice.” She identifies four core psychological perspectives that inform her eclectic method:

  • Positive psychology, i.e., moving from “learned helplessness” to “learned optimism”;
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, i.e., “the understanding that our thoughts create our feelings and behavior”;
  • Unconditional self-love, i.e., moving away from the “misconception that we can’t be loved and genuine”; and,
  • Understanding “that our worst experiences can be our best teachers,” contributing to “healing, fulfillment, and freedom.”

On victimhood

Dr. Edie’s first lesson is the big one, leaving the “prison of victimhood.” Among her observations:

  • “Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.”
  • “Many of us stay in a prison of victimhood because, subconsciously, it feels safer.”
  • “Why did this happen to me? Well, why not you?”
  • “This is the first tool for moving out of victimhood: approach whatever is happening with a gentle embrace. It doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happening. But when you stop fighting and resisting, you have more energy and imagination at the ready to figure out ‘What now?’ To move forward instead of nowhere.”

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

For many reasons, I recommend The Gift to those who are struggling to recover from bullying and mobbing at work, especially when the abuse has resulted in major harm to well-being and livelihood. Dr. Edie has a unique voice that blends compassion and, when necessary, tough love, and both qualities can be helpful in helping folks to recover and renew from work abuse. For those trying to get “unstuck” and out of a place of rumination, this is a very good start.

Below I’ve linked to several relevant earlier articles, including two about Dr. Edie, whom I had the distinct privilege of meeting at a conference back in 2017.

Related Posts

  • Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor (2018) (link here)
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here)
  • Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here)
  • Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015) (link here)

On disability bullying

We have long known that children who have disabilities are more likely to experience bullying behaviors than their peers who are perceived as being non-disabled. The National Bullying Prevention Center (link here), for example, shares that in 10 U.S. studies examining “the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.”

Indeed, search the term “disability bullying” and you’ll find the top hits centering almost exclusively around bullying of kids with disabilities. I’m glad that we have established that connection. At the very least, it validates the experiences of those being targeted and helps us to focus on preventive and responsive measures.

What about bullying of adults with disabilities?

We see less attention given to bullying of adults who have disabilities. That’s among the reasons why I welcomed a recent column by disability expert Andrew Pulrang, “The Many Flavors Of Disability Bullying” (Forbes.com, link here):

There are few things as simply and straightforwardly awful as bullying disabled people. But there is so much more to do about ableist bullying than just condemning it.

Ableist bullying is surprisingly difficult to recognize and understand, because it’s more than one thing, and has has many facets and flavors.

Pulrang goes on to identify predominant forms of bullying behaviors directed at adults with disabilities:

  • “Simple, superficial mockery,” such as making fun of appearances, physical movements, and mental health conditions;
  • “Dismissing complaints” over problems that persons with disabilities might face;
  • “Portraying disabled people as privileged and entitled” as they struggle to deal with impairments and seek accommodations;
  • Making jokes about someone’s disability in their presence, as if to test their sense of humor; and,
  • Gaslighting disabled individuals into questioning their perceptions of reality.

He concludes:

To fight disability bullying, people of all backgrounds and roles need to not only refrain from these bullying behaviors, but also engage with and refute the kinds of thinking and assumptions that prompt them.

The legal angle

At times, those subjected to these forms of mistreatment may have legal recourse via civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. In workplace and public accommodations settings, the Americans with Disabilities Act figures most prominently. Here is where questions of reasonable accommodation come into play.

Furthermore, if someone is being subjected to workplace harassment because of their disability, they may have a hostile work environment claim under the ADA. However, such legal claims are hard to win. Occasional jokes or putdowns about a disability, for example, may not be sufficient to state a harassment claim under the ADA.

Ultimately…

A combination of more enlightened human behaviors and stronger legal enforcement will diminish bullying behaviors directed at people with disabilities. Obviously we have work to do on this front. If you doubt this, then consider that less than six years ago, the U.S. elected a President who cruelly mocked a reporter’s disability while on the campaign trail.

In the past, this one act would’ve been sufficient to self-torpedo any political campaign. I can only surmise that in 2016, some people voted for him in spite of this incident, while others were more inclined to vote for him because of it. Both possibilities teach us sad but important lessons about unfinished business in terms of advancing human dignity.

2012-2020: When gaslighting went mainstream

I first wrote about gaslighting behaviors in connection with workplace bullying in December 2012. Since then, gaslighting has been a recurring topic on this blog. (See below for a list of related pieces.) In preparing an essay I’m writing on the nation’s political psyche during the years 2015-20, I was curious about the degree to which gaslighting has become a mainstreamed concept in our public discourse. I did a quick series of Google searches on “gaslighting” by year, starting in 2012 and going through 2020. Here is what I found:

Google search: “Gaslighting”

Year          # “hits”

2012          26,100

2013          29,000

2014          34,500

2015          49,500

  2016          320,000

2017          87,000

 2018          126,000

 2019          155,000

 2020         204,000

Several conclusions and informed speculations become evident:

  • Clearly, the year-to-year pattern in hits indicates that gaslighting has been increasingly invoked in discussions of relationships, work, and civic life.
  • The difference between 2012 and 2020 represents an increase in Google hits by approximately 800 percent.
  • The 2016 spike may well have been fueled by that year’s U.S. presidential election, and possibly the 2020 increase was prompted by that year’s presidential election as well.

I’m glad that this term has taken hold, because it helps many workers understand the crazy making dynamics of their workplaces. That’s an important step toward both healing from abusive work experiences on an individual level and reforming workplaces on an institutional level.

RELATED POSTS

On gaslighting specifically

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully (2020)

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

Related posts (most mention gaslighting)

Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm (2019)

Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017)

How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (2017)

Workplace mobbing: Understanding the maelstrom (2016)

Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse (2014)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

Targets of workplace bullying: The stress and anxiety of figuring out what the h**l is going on (2014)

January 6, 2021: Workplace violence of Constitutional proportions in Washington D.C.

Screenshot from the Washington Post

Quite understandably, the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol Building is being framed largely in the context of America’s divisive political dynamics and the final days of the administration of Donald Trump. This was, after all, an unprecedented event, a violent occupation of one of the nation’s most important houses of government, at a time when the Congress was meeting to approve electoral votes for the next President and Vice President. It was preceded by a lengthy rally led by Trump and his minions, spurring members of white supremacist groups and conspiracy cults to storm the building, in an attempt to stop the Constitutional transfer of power inherent in every national election.

This event will rightly prompt a long and deep investigation, and many questions about how this could happen and what parties were responsible remain unanswered for now. True, the loss of life was minimal compared to other signature events threatening national security, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However, this could’ve been much, much worse, with considerably higher fatality and casualty rates, hostage taking, and an extended occupation, had things transpired even a little differently.

I’d like to add another perspective on the Capitol attack, and that is to see it as a significant act of workplace violence, prompted by leaders who favor bullying and mobbing behaviors as ways of getting what they want. Anyone who is interested in preventing and responding to workplace violence should consider January 6 as a massive leadership, organizational, and systems failure and, quite possibly, corruption. I am confident that once we grasp the enormity of this event, it will become a case study of failed workplace violence prevention and response in public sector workplaces.

We also may eventually learn more about psychological trauma emerging from that day. It is likely that a good number of people who were lawfully in the building will experience post-traumatic symptoms. This includes elected officials, staff members, security personnel, media representatives, and others. Especially for them, working in that building may never again feel safe or secure.

It is no exaggeration that January 6, 2021 will be remembered as one of the most disturbing days in U.S. history. For those of us who study abuse, aggression, and violence in our workplaces, comprehending the events of that day will take on this added dimension.

Exhaling: An election where decency and empathy mattered

Reporting for The Guardian (link here), David Smith’s lede about President-elect Joseph Biden’s Nov. 8 victory speech captured the emotions of the moment for many Americans and friends around the world:

Joe Biden ran jauntily on to the stage, wearing a black face mask but suddenly looking several years younger. Looking, in fact, like millions of Americans felt, with burdens to bear but a spring in his step.

The new US president-elect offered a Saturday night speech that did not brag or name call, did not demonise immigrants and people of colour, did not send TV networks and social media into meltdown and did not murder the English language.

After the mental and moral exhaustion of the past four years, Biden made America sane again in 15 minutes. It was an exorcism of sorts, from American carnage to American renewal.

Two prominent historians have made similar statements during news interviews. Michael Beschloss opined that “American democracy went through a near-death experience” during this time, while Jon Meacham asserted that “Empathy, decency, and democracy were on the ballot this season.”

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, the main reason why I haven’t posted in a month — easily the longest span between postings during the 12-year life of this blog — is that I’ve been processing the results of this Presidential vote, which I consider to be the most important national election of my lifetime. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote a month ago about the incumbent and his Democratic challenger:

No other public figure has ever had such a negative effect on my day-to-day quality of life. I feel like I have been forced to endure an abusive civic relationship. The fact that much of my work as an academic addresses behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, and abuse of power has sharpened my understanding of what we’ve been enduring.

By contrast, I think well of Joe Biden. He is a decent human being and a capable, street-smart public servant. I have long believed that he is the best candidate to win back the White House from its current occupant. When I put my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I was happy to vote for him and Kamala Harris. I pray that I voted for the winning ticket.

While I have shared my political beliefs on this blog from time to time, I have purposefully avoided making it a so-called political blog. However, I believe the span of 2016 to 2020 will be regarded as one of the most momentous and disturbing chapters of this nation’s history. It will take us many years to recover from this time.

I am working on a modest little writing project with a small group of other experts on bullying and mobbing behaviors to frame the 2016-20 period through the lens of abuse and mistreatment. I will share more about it at the top of the new year. In the meantime, I will return to writing about topics that have been the main focus of this blog. As always, I appreciate your readership.

America votes, and the results will define our future

As the United States experiences an alarming, nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases, we face an election that will define us for the foreseeable future. The nation’s fundamental integrity and heart quality are on trial. If we do not elect a new President, it is quite possible that the American experiment is over.

Among many other things, I have been saddened and appalled at how the current administration has mishandled the pandemic. Reelecting the incumbent will be the equivalent of imposing a death sentence on hundreds of thousands of unwitting victims, fueled by the dishonesty, ignorance, and cruelty that have defined this man’s nearly four years in office.

The incumbent is doing everything he can to suppress the vote in battleground states and plant seeds of doubt in the election results if he loses. We have never seen anything like this in the modern history of presidential politics.

No other public figure has ever had such a negative effect on my day-to-day quality of life. I feel like I have been forced to endure an abusive civic relationship. The fact that much of my work as an academic addresses behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, and abuse of power has sharpened my understanding of what we’ve been enduring.

By contrast, I think well of Joe Biden. He is a decent human being and a capable, street-smart public servant. I have long believed that he is the best candidate to win back the White House from its current occupant. When I put my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I was happy to vote for him and Kamala Harris. I pray that I voted for the winning ticket.

The weeks to come will determine the future of America’s soul, not to mention our ability to defeat and recover from a deadly pandemic. We live in momentous times.

***

Cross-posted to my Musings of a Gen Joneser personal blog.

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.

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