On the social responsibilities of writers

(Photo by DY, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

I’d like to take a Sunday dive into the nature of writing to fuel positive individual and social change. This may be especially relevant to readers who write about fostering psychologically healthier workplaces that are free from bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

The writing bug bit me a long time ago. Most tangibly, I can trace it back to being an editor and reporter for my college and law school newspapers. More recently, I’ve been blogging for over 10 years and writing academic articles and book chapters for over 25 years. In addition, over the decades, I’ve written dozens of other shorter pieces, op-ed columns, and newsletter articles.

Over this long span of time, I’ve tried to be responsible about what I put out there for public consumption, however modest that readership might be at times. I have debated and argued with editors about how certain information is characterized. For the briefest of pieces, I have sometimes spent hours tweaking sentences and paragraphs. When writing about legal matters, I have tried to exercise care in how I discuss ideas, concepts, and potential rights.

But I confess that only within the past few years have I started to regard writing for a public audience as a more sacred responsibility that requires close consideration of how my words will be received. That understanding has come about mainly via reader feedback to this blog, especially from those who have been experiencing workplace bullying or mobbing. On several occasions, I have received e-mails or comments from readers, saying that my writings helped to save their lives, mostly by giving them validating knowledge and understanding about the nature and effects of work abuse, and sometimes by giving them ideas for how to address their respective situations.

Of course, I do not assume that all readers pore over my words with close scrutiny. After all, for better or worse, especially during the digital age, we’ve become used to skimming more than reading. Furthermore, as I sometimes chide my professorial colleagues when we’re whining about students not paying sufficient attention to our golden insights, we shouldn’t expect them to await our every word with breathless anticipation.

Nevertheless, when someone shares with you that your writings have been validating and even life-saving, then it’s time to sit up straight and grasp the potential power of the written word. Those of us who are writing about work abuse need to comprehend that at least some of our readers may be experiencing terrible mistreatment at work and suffering greatly as a result. For me, this includes, among other things:

  • Keeping in mind a readership of bullying/mobbing targets when I write about this topic;
  • Avoiding any suggestion that work abuse situations lend themselves to easy, one-size-fits-all responses and solutions;
  • Staying away from use of clickbait-type titles that promise more than the article delivers; and,
  • Maintaining a Need Help? resource page on my blog (link here).

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to get it right every time. I’ve written over 1,700 pieces for this blog, and some of them have fallen well short of excellence — or even very good. Especially during my earlier years of blogging, some of my posts were unnecessarily punchy or facile in tone. Within the past few years, however, I feel like I’ve found my “blogging voice” in a way that presents my most authentic self.

We badly need writing that embraces authenticity, careful judgment and analysis, and the speaking of truth to power, at a time when the Powers That Be aren’t listening closely enough. Our quest is a long-term one, so words that endure are more valuable than those whose relevance disappears within a news cycle. In this spirit, I hope that fellow writers who are devoted to making the world a better place are also finding their best voices to enlighten us.

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A quick P.S. about Twitter: I know lots of people who use Twitter very effectively. And some have graciously used Twitter to share posts from this blog. However, I’ve avoided opening a Twitter account. For me, writing in 280 character (or less) blocs, and paying attention to the same, is not my preferred form of engagement. Furthermore, it tempts a more biting side of my sense of humor that is best reserved for friends. 

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Shawn Ginwright: From “trauma informed care” to “healing centered engagement”

Today I’m happy to share the work of Dr. Shawn Ginwright, a San Francisco State University professor who devotes himself to challenges facing young people in urban areas. Dr. Ginwright asserts that rather than focusing on “trauma informed care,” we should embrace a framework of “healing centered engagement.” Although he is a practitioner of trauma informed care, he sees some limitations in the concept. Here’s a snippet of what he wrote last year in Medium (link here):

More recently, practitioners and policy stakeholders have recognized the impact of trauma on learning, and healthy development. In efforts to support young people who experience trauma, the term “trauma informed care” has gained traction among schools, juvenile justice departments, mental health programs and youth development agencies around the country.

…While trauma informed care offers an important lens to support young people who have been harmed and emotionally injured, it also has its limitations. I first became aware of the limitations of the term “trauma informed care” during a healing circle I was leading with a group of African American young men. All of them had experienced some form of trauma ranging from sexual abuse, violence, homelessness, abandonment or all of the above. During one of our sessions, I explained the impact of stress and trauma on brain development and how trauma can influence emotional health. As I was explaining, one of the young men in the group named Marcus abruptly stopped me and said, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma”. I was puzzled at first, but it didn’t take me long to really contemplate what he was saying.

The term “trauma informed care” didn’t encompass the totality of his experience and focused only on his harm, injury and trauma.

Toward healing centered engagement

Ginwright goes on to suggest that we should look at healing from trauma in a more holistic way:

What is needed is an approach that allows practitioners to approach trauma with a fresh lens which promotes a holistic view of healing from traumatic experiences and environments. One approach is called healing centered, as opposed to trauma informed. A healing centered approach is holistic involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing. A healing centered approach views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively. The term healing centered engagement expands how we think about responses to trauma and offers more holistic approach to fostering well-being.

A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.

Although I have written about the importance of understanding psychological trauma, I agree with Ginwright’s preferred framework. Being trauma informed is very important, but it’s just part of the process of healing centered engagement. Furthermore, we might also consider that healing centered engagement naturally incorporates the idea of post-traumatic growth, another important concept that I wrote about last year (go here for link).

Ginwright’s focus also reinforces what I’ve tried to communicate many times here, namely, that social problems must be scrutinized at both the individual and systematic levels. This includes examining the political, social, and economic cultures that create and enable abusive mistreatment of others. 

Applied to workplace bullying and mobbing

This is very relevant to workplace bullying, mobbing, and other forms of worker mistreatment. Severe work abuse can wreak havoc on an individual’s mental and physical health. It can significantly undermine one’s ability to pursue a livelihood and a career. These behaviors rarely occur in a vacuum. Rather, they are typically enabled by the organization and its leadership.

In other words, the actors in work abuse situations and their impacts are often multifaceted — or, to add a twist, negatively holistic. In response, then, we should look at preventing and responding to bullying and mobbing in a more positive holistic, systemic way.

Finally, healing centered engagement helps to focus us away from trauma or victimization as a defining status, without ignoring the underlying mistreatment, its effects, and frequent lack of accountability that come with it. As the young man in Dr. Ginwright’s youth group told him, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma.” 

Applied to law and public policy

Healing centered engagement carries a lot of significance for practitioners of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal thought that supports psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings and the creation of laws that advance individual and societal well being.

Among other things, how can lawyers, judges, and other practitioners support laws and policies that support healing centered engagement? How can our systems of justice and dispute resolution do the same? Healing from trauma is relevant to many, many aspects of the design and application of our laws and legal systems.

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As I’ve written here before, I sometimes use this blog to share “pondering in progress.” I’m doing that here. I’ve got more thinking to do about this concept of healing centered engagement, but it resonates with me on many levels. I hope it prompts some useful thinking for you, too.

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Additional notes

  • Dr. Ginwright later revised his Medium piece and added references for an Occasional Paper published by an Australian social services agency, Kinship Carers Victoria. You may freely access it here. For a YouTube video including Ginwright’s 2018 conference presentation, go here.
  • I serve on the boards of two organizations relevant to the commentary above, and I invite readers to learn more about them. First is Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a global network of scholars, writers, practitioners, artists, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. Go here for the HumanDHS website. Second is the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a new non-profit organization dedicated to the mainstreaming of therapeutic jurisprudence perspectives in our laws and legal systems. Go here for the ISTJ website

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Workplace bullying, worker dignity, and therapeutic jurisprudence: Finding my center of gravity, Part I

The process of retrospection may sometimes yield soggy nostalgia, confusion, or even regret. On other occasions, it delivers a surprising dose of clarity. I experienced a big chunk of the latter, when — and apologies for the cliché — a random trip down memory lane reminded me of the origins of, and connectivity between, so much of the work I’m doing now. I forewarn readers that I’m going to use this post to ponder about this and meander a bit.

Recently I retrieved from my bookshelves Mark Satin‘s Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (2004). Mark is a political author, lawyer, and one-time 60s anti-war and left activist whose writings evolved to a place that he called the “radical middle.” I bore witness to a piece of his political transition. From 1984 to 1992, Mark wrote and published an independent, left leaning but “post-liberal” political newsletter titled New Options. I was among his subscribers, and I found it to be a thought-provoking publication.

However, at 46, and after many years of writing and editing New Options, Mark sought to have a greater impact within the mainstream. He figured that law school would give him some insights on how the worlds of law, policy, and commerce operated, so he set his sights on obtaining a legal education and earning a law degree.

This is how paths can cross in person: In the fall of 1992, I was starting my second year as an instructor in the first-year legal skills program at New York University School of Law, my legal alma mater. I looked at my class list and saw the name “Mark Satin” on it, and I soon confirmed he was the very person whose newsletter I had read. This connection led to many conversations about legal education, politics, and the future of the country.

During his second year at NYU, Mark asked me to supervise an independent study project that he had been contemplating for some time. Always attentive to emerging social and political trends, he wanted to write about the growing confluence between law and psychology. He envisioned putting together a broad-ranging paper that surveyed and analyzed law and psychology linkages in many different aspects of legal thought and practice. I agreed to oversee the paper despite that I only a mild curiosity in the topic that Mark had described. I saw law & policy through a primarily political lens, and while I didn’t disregard the role of psychology informing legal doctrine and practice, it wasn’t a front and center perspective for me.

With characteristic determination, Mark dove into his research project, and eventually producing a law review article, “Law and Psychology: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” published by the Annual Survey of American Law, one of NYU’s student-edited law reviews. (Unfortunately, there is no open online access to this article.)

After graduating from law school, Mark did go mainstream, at least for a short while! For several years he became a commercial lawyer, working for a New York law firm. But the writing/newsletter/policy wonk side of him couldn’t be suppressed for long. Furthermore, Mark’s political worldview was evolving in a direction that he would call the “radical middle.” And so in the late 90s he launched what would become the Radical Middle Newsletter, which he would write and publish from 1999 to 2009. (You may access the newsletter archives here.) He would also author his book, Radical Middle, which was published in 2004.

Although my own political outlook was somewhat to the left of Mark’s, I agreed to join his first board of directors and then later would slide over to his advisory board. During this time, Mark started writing about stuff that I was discovering independently. You see, my work on workplace bullying and dignity at work was drawing me to the law and psychology perspective that he had championed in his law review article. Among other things, Mark wrote feature articles for Radical Middle discussing therapeutic jurisprudence (here), “rankism” and human dignity (here), and workplace bullying (here).

In one of his last Radical Middle pieces (here), he highlighted my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law:

At the risk of sounding immodest, I think my article (pictured at the top) still holds up well. It remains the best articulation of my beliefs of what our system of regulating the workplace and resolving employment disputes should look like. (You may download it without charge, here.)

My political center of gravity is still more left than center, and in many ways I’m an old-fashioned liberal. (Indeed, it makes sense that for many years, I’ve been on the board of Americans for Democratic Action, an old-fashioned liberal advocacy organization.)

But these deep themes of psychology, human dignity, and societal & individual well-being now frame my outlook on the making, implementation, and practice of law and public policy. Furthermore, the overlaps between Mark Satin’s “radical middle” and my back-in-the-day brand of liberalism appear to be many, at least if my other affiliations with the workplace anti-bullying movement, therapeutic jurisprudence movement, and human dignity movement are any indication. Perhaps this also means that while political labels matter at times, maybe the distinctions between them aren’t as sharp as we sometimes imagine them to be, at least at their respective margins. 

To be continued…..

Does “Mindhunter” yields insights for the workplace anti-bullying movement?

Between enjoying some holiday downtime and catching a mild cold, I devoted myself to some quality binge viewing during the past couple of weeks. Among the programs I galloped through was Season 1 of “Mindhunter.” This Netflix drama, set in the late 1970s, and features two FBI agents (Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff; Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany) and a forensic psychology professor (Wendy Carr, played by Ann Torv) who commit themselves to understanding the psychology of mass murderers and serial killers. It’s based loosely on the real-life pioneering work of FBI agents John Douglas and William Ressler and Boston College professor Ann Wolbert Burgess.

Although “Mindhunter” does not re-create in detail the gruesome crimes of the perpetrators being studied and interviewed, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s dark, profane, and at times R-rated. The deep conversations with convicted killers are particularly intense.

“Mindhunter” is also a fascinating narrative of early efforts to understand the minds and behaviors of those who have committed horrific crimes, as well as the social contexts that helped to make them what they are. It has a very intellectual side. For example, the work of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman enter the discussions between the main characters. The series also depicts the skepticism of “old boy” law enforcement officers who are deeply skeptical of the value of researching and interviewing these criminals. 

At various points during the 10-episode first season, I found myself asking whether this series yields any insights for those who are involved in the workplace anti-bullying movement. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • In both contexts, research matters. It gives us a base of understanding that enables us to talk about prevention and response. However, unlike the FBI agents who visit prisons to talk to convicted murderers, we don’t have a lot of interview access to workplace abusers. If alleged abusers are managers or executives, then we have virtually no access to them. This is why so much of the research on bullying and mobbing at work is based on the experiences and perceptions of targeted workers.
  • Like the early work to understand serial killers, initial efforts to study and understand workplace bullying and mobbing were greeted with some skepticism and even ridicule. I can recall many quizzical looks and responses from 15-20 years ago, when I first started investigating, researching, and writing about workplace bullying.
  • Of course, even the worst workplace abuse rarely rises to the level of direct, violent aggression displayed by convicted killers. However, the conscience-free, eliminationist mindset that I’ve discussed in past blog pieces (e.g., here and here) is definitely present in both settings. Psychopathy, sociopathy, and severe narcissism are found in many repeat murderers and severe workplace abusers alike. The same goes for systemic influences on individual abusive behavior.
  • Just as the “Mindhunter” researchers sometimes have to think like the murderers they’re studying in order to gain understanding, so do workplace bullying and mobbing researchers have to get into the heads of workplace abusers. Also, at times I find myself telling those who are trying to understand the actions of their workplace tormenters to “think like a sociopath.” Sadly, it can be a very clarifying exercise.

 

A tale of two NPR stories: Bringing our best or worst selves to work

On Tuesday morning, two segments on WBUR-FM, Boston’s NPR news station, reminded me of how we can bring our best or worst selves to work. I’m going to start with the bad story so we can save the good one for last.

Federal regulators could’ve saved coal miners

The first story reports on an investigation of how federal mine safety regulators failed to take action on toxic levels of mine dust exposure facing coal miners in Appalachia. Consequently, thousands of them are suffering from advanced black lung disease. Many will die from it, and some at relatively young ages. From the NPR piece:

A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease nationwide from 2011-2016. But NPR identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease in the same time frame, and in just five Appalachian states.

And now, an NPR/Frontline analysis of federal regulatory data — decades of information recorded by dust-collection monitors placed where coal miners work — has revealed a tragic failure to recognize and respond to clear signs of danger.

For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause [black lung disease], as they were happening. They knew that miners . . . were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t.

One expert described black lung disease as “suffocating while alive”:

This advanced stage of black lung leaves lungs crusty and useless, says Dr. Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who has spent decades studying black lung and PMF disease.

“You have a much harder time breathing so that you can’t exercise,” Cohen noted. “Then you can’t do some simple activities. Then you can barely breathe just sitting still. And then you require oxygen. And then even the oxygen isn’t enough. And so … they’re essentially suffocating while alive.”

The NPR report shares individual stories of miners suffering from the disease and goes into detail about the federal bureaucratic failures to act upon mounting evidence of the deadly risks posed.

Helping the poor repair their cars

The second story is about Cathy Heying of Minnesota, who has devoted herself to helping poor and homeless individuals. In her work, she noticed that the people she helped often couldn’t afford the necessary upkeep and repairs on cars that helped them to survive:

“Often the story was, ‘I have this car. It desperately needs brakes. I have a job, but my job is 30 minutes away. And I work second shift, and there’s no bus when I get off at night,’ ” says Cathy. “This car was the linchpin holding everything together, and you pull that pin and everything falls apart.”

Ms. Heying decided to open her own auto shop to help these people. The only problem was that she didn’t know much about repairing cars. So she went to auto mechanic school. At age 38 she was the oldest person in her class and one of three women in a group of 40.

In 2013, Heying opened the Lift Garage, a non-profit auto repair shop for people who cannot afford to pay commercial rates to fix their cars:

It has one car lift, one repair bay and a small volunteer staff.

Cathy’s clients, who all live at or below the federal poverty level, pay for parts at-cost and about $15 per hour in labor costs. The average price for a mechanic in the Twin Cities area is around $100 per hour.

Heying laments that demand for their services far exceeds the available resources, resulting in a three-month waiting list. Still, she knows that they are making a difference to their customers.

Dignity work: A study in contrast

Last month, I posed the term “dignity work” and suggested two meanings for it:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

The mine safety regulators and Cathy Heying were in positions to embody both definitions. The regulators failed on both counts, while Heying embodied the concept of dignity work.

In that November post, I observed that “opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.” Amen.

Forgiveness in the aftermath of workplace bullying and mobbing

People who have been subjected to workplace bullying or mobbing may be urged by well-meaning family or friends to forgive, forget, and move on. But given what work abuse can do to lives and livelihoods, the idea of forgiveness  — at least in its conventional meaning — may seem downright impossible and even wrong to those who have experienced it.

Among all of the human responses to abuse and mistreatment, forgiveness may be the most challenging and perhaps misunderstood. I’d like to take a closer look at a more nuanced conceptualization of forgiveness and its application to bullying and mobbing at work.

The story of Lyndon Harris

At the recent annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, I had the privilege of spending some time with Lyndon Harris, a forgiveness coach and workshop leader who, by his own admission, “came kicking and screaming to the work of forgiveness.” Here’s a bit of his story from his website:

His journey to forgiveness began at Ground Zero on the morning of 9/11/01.

Serving as the priest in charge of St. Paul’s Chapel, he initiated a volunteer force that rose to over 15,000: serving meals, offering supplies and giving encouragement to the rescue workers 24/7 until the site was closed eight and a half months later. ​ His work has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and featured in the award winning documentary, The Power of Forgiveness

After 9/11/01, Harris partnered with forgiveness researcher, Dr. Frederic Luskin (Stanford) and several other activists and forgiveness luminaries to founded the educational non-profit Gardens of Forgiveness. 

Lyndon’s story is not one of a linear, hearts-and-flowers path to enlightenment. Rather, his journey from Ground Zero to today was painful and hard:

With over 240+ days exposure at the site, Harris was diagnosed with severe PTSD, depression, and compromised lung function. Becoming bitter and increasingly isolated, the combination of adverse circumstances and mistakes he made would cost him his marriage, his home, and his career. He would spend years in darkness.

Lyndon would go on to work with leading forgiveness researcher Dr. Fred Luskin (Stanford U.), author of Forgive for Good (2002) to develop approaches for education and coaching about forgiveness. He is currently the co-director of Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center in Zirconia, North Carolina.

Understanding forgiveness

Immediately upon listening to Lyndon’s workshop remarks, I saw with much greater clarity the potential application of forgiveness for targets of work abuse.

Lyndon emphasizes that forgiveness is not about excusing wrongful behavior, compelling reconciliation with an offender, denying or minimizing one’s pain, or foregoing attempts to obtain justice.

Rather, forgiveness is about taking back one’s power, healing, recovering mental and physical health, letting go of unresolved grievances, and “becoming a hero instead of a victim.”

Lyndon’s website goes into more detail, drawing upon Dr. Luskin’s research to share “The Nine Steps to Forgiveness” and “What Forgiveness is and is Not.”

Applying forgiveness to workplace bullying and mobbing situations

Okay, I understand the reluctance to go here. I know what it’s like to carry anger and grudges due to injustices at work, and my awareness of so many instances of horrific workplace bullying and mobbing has sometimes fueled those emotions. I won’t claim to be completely free from all that.

But I’ve also learned that to carry it with me all the time is personally toxic and debilitating. Ironically, perhaps, it makes me less effective at advocating for positive change in our workplaces and society in general. And it feels a heckuva lot lighter not to be carrying around grievances and resentments.

A decade or so ago, I would not have been so receptive to these insights about forgiveness, but now I do get it. It’s not about excusing abuse or letting an offender avoid accountability. It’s about healing, self-empowerment, and our own well being. In that sense, the idea of forgiveness as articulated by Lyndon Harris and Fred Luskin is a response to many challenges that I’ve discussed here before, such as:

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Rumination, obsession, and the challenge of getting “unstuck” (2018)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

I understand that this is not easy stuff for those who have been through terrible experiences of injustice and mistreatment. But ultimately, it is about reclaiming one’s life from abuse and abusers. To borrow from Lyndon’s summary of Luskin’s work:

Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.

 

Dignity work

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’ve been toying with a simple phrase lately: Dignity work. What does it mean? How might we define it? What if we made the nurturing of dignity our primary purpose as human beings? What kind of world would we see?

I see at least two angles on this:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

In considering these two possibilities, I suggest that we define dignity broadly, as a quality that embraces the better angels of our nature, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln. Providing attentive and loving caregiving to another is an obvious example of both strands of dignity work. But so is, say, starting a business that serves a community’s needs and treats its employees well, or creating an inclusive network or group devoted to a creative endeavor.

We live in a world where dignity is too often neglected in favor of raw exercises of power and the quest for profits, at times to the points of abuse and exploitation. In the meantime, opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.

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