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.

Hopeful, informed dialogue on workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility at FMCS conference

Lunch always tastes better after you’ve done your program! With co-facilitators and FMCS Commissioners Denise McKenney and Ligia Velazquez.

This week it was my pleasure to participate in a workshop, “Understanding the Civility Spectrum in the Workplace,” at the annual National Labor-Management Conference of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Chicago. The FMCS is an independent federal agency whose mission is to support labor-management peace and cooperation through mediation and conflict resolution services. My fellow co-facilitators were two FMCS Commissioners, Denise McKenney (also the agency’s Director of Equal Employment Opportunity) and Ligia Velazquez.

We opened with a framing of a “civility spectrum” that starts milder forms of incivility at work and runs all the way to bullying and mobbing behaviors. Our “formal” presentations quickly gave way to a very interactive discussion with a full room of practitioners from labor unions, management/human resources, and neutrals (mediators and arbitrators).

I titled this post “hopeful, informed dialogue” because that’s exactly what I came away with by participating in an exchange among labor relations professionals from different backgrounds. The discussion was insightful, knowledgeable, and respectful. People implicitly recognized that creating healthy workplaces requires an awareness of, and accountability for, individual behaviors, as well as effective policies and procedures at an organizational level. 

No, we didn’t develop any magic, one-size-fits-all answers on how to deal with incivility, bullying, and mobbing in the workplace. This stuff is too complicated and varied for easy fixes. But when I think back to my first forays into workplace bullying as a topic of study and research back in 1998 with Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, I can see how far we’ve come in terms of public education and understanding.

Planning and presenting this program with the folks at FMCS was a very collaborative experience. It was great to co-facilitate with Commissioners McKenney and Velazquez. Their ability to encourage dialogue and discussion contributed mightily toward the interactive nature of the session. In addition, Javier Ramirez (FMCS Manager of National/Field Programs, Initiatives and Innovation) and Heather Brown (FMCS Director of Education and Training) were instrumental in helping to put this together. I also appreciated the warm welcome extended to me by FMCS Director Richard Giacolone and his staff.

***

To Learn More

Here are some of the resources I listed in my handout for the FMCS program:

Articles

Many of my articles on workplace bullying and related topics are freely downloadable from my Social Sciences Research Network page, including:

  • David C. Yamada, Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership, Journal of Values-Based Leadership (2008)
  • David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection, Georgetown Law Journal (2000)
  • David C. Yamada, Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying, Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review (2013)

The Workplace Bullying Institute (Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie)

I have worked with WBI on a pro bono basis since 1998. Their website is a treasure trove of information and resources.

American Psychological Association, Center for Organizational Excellence

I served as a subject matter expert to the APA on the development of this resource webpage on workplace bullying, including an animated educational video, links, and book list.

Recommended Books

  • Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2018) (two-volume, multidisciplinary, multi-contributor book set).
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (Wiley, 2011) (for employers)
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (Sourcebooks, rev. ed. 2009) (for bullying targets)
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (Oxford U. Press, 2014)
  • Shelley D. Lane, Understanding Everyday Incivility (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)
  • Christine Porath, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

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.

A story for our times

So here’s the short version: A woman who objects to an eight-year-old girl selling bottled water on the street is filmed apparently calling the police on the young kid. The video goes viral, and the woman loses her job. There’s a racial dynamic here too, as the woman is white and the girl is black. As reported by CBS News:

STUDIO CITY, Calif. — The woman dubbed “Permit Patty” for threatening to call police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water on the street has stepped down as CEO of her cannabis company. CBS Los Angeles reports the move follows a massive online backlash that resulted in her products getting dropped by other marijuana sellers.

Several Bay Area dispensaries are now refusing to sell products made by Alison Ettel’s company TreatWell Health, The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday.

“It is Ms. Ettel’s belief that TreatWell, its employees and patients should not have to suffer because of a situation that occurred in an escalated moment,” company spokeswoman Cynthia Gonzalez is quoted as saying in the paper.

At least three marijuana dispensaries stated publicly they would stop selling TreatWell products.

It’s a story for our times: Incivility, race, smartphones, social media, legalized pot, and job loss.

From an employment standpoint, the lesson is an easy if unsettling one. Anything we do these days can be caught on a smartphone camera. If the behavior reflects negatively on us and the video goes viral, it can affect our employment status. Most American workers today are employed on an at-will basis, which means they can be terminated for any reason that does not violate existing employment laws. Video footage from an incident outside of work that causes negative publicity for the company can be among the legally valid reasons to fire an at-will employee.

I don’t know the specific nature of Allison Ettel’s employment status with her now-former company, but her demise was swift.

As far as the racial aspect goes, I won’t assume how race impacted Ms. Ettel’s actions. But in these hyper-charged times, racial optics matter and sharpen quickly. When they go viral online, that can be all that counts. This just looks bad.

The marijuana angle adds a humorous twist. Believe it or not, I’ve never even tried pot; I’m a pretty straight-laced, geeky guy. But how many of you were thinking that Ms. Ettel might’ve benefited from a toke or two before getting so worked up over a young kid trying to earn some money by selling bottled water on the street?

Is incivility a just response to cruelty?

Is it right to disrupt a prominent public official’s otherwise quiet dinner at a restaurant, even if she is the co-architect of a governmental policy that many claim is cruel and immoral? It’s not a hypothetical question, as the recent experience of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen illustrates. Devra First writes for the Boston Globe:

On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she ate dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana in D.C. “Shame! Shame!” they shouted repeatedly. “End family separation! If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

What they were referring to, of course, was the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen, as a Globe editorial recently said, was the face of that policy. And here she was at a Mexican restaurant, albeit one run by Todd English (chef de cuisine Juan “JC” Pavlovich is a native of Mexico).

The protesters were political activists who oppose the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Here’s the video of their interruption of Secretary Nielsen’s dinner, posted to Facebook:

Widespread, bipartisan criticism and outrage, including an unusual and strong opinion piece by former First Lady Laura Bush in the Washington Post (calling the Trump policy “cruel” and “immoral”), have forced the Trump administration to call a halt to its child separation policy. However, this comes too late for a few thousand kids and their families already separated. To its great shame, the administration never bothered to put in place a logistical plan to reunite these families. So these poor people are still in limbo, and for now the kids will remain in various camps, cages, and buildings, most of which were never designed for child care.

Child psychology experts have likened the administration’s policy to child abuse and opined that many of the kids will live with the resulting psychological trauma for years.

And what of dinner interruptus?

Devra First (quoted above) is not a political writer; she’s the Globe‘s food and restaurant critic. However, she sees the significance of protest in places where we normally gather to enjoy food and drink:

Restaurants are where we set aside our differences and come together at the table. Yet — or perhaps thus — such venues are also ideal theaters for protest. It is easy to see that black men are the ones who get the cops called on them while waiting for friends at Starbucks. It is easy to see that same-sex couples are the ones to whom bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes.

Those who work in the food industry are uniquely positioned — and uniquely entitled — to advocate for immigrants. After all, their businesses depend on the people Trump says threaten to “infest” this country.

How one sees the administration’s immigration policies — as either a significant moral outrage or an instance of politics & policy on the edge — may well predict how one feels about protesters loudly interrupting Secretary Nielsen’s gourmet Mexican dinner.

In normal instances, I strongly prefer civility over incivility. But I don’t regard this as a normal disagreement over public policy; I see it as a cruel and willful disregard of basic human dignity that already constitutes a shameful chapter in American history. Nielsen’s burdens in searching out a peaceful dinner venue are minor compared to the trauma being inflicted on these children and their families by the policies she has spearheaded. Is it bad form to remind her of this while she carries on as if nothing was wrong?

When meetings are used to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns

Image courtesy of clipart-library.com

Let’s start with a positive: Well-run, focused meetings can be extraordinarily valuable, productive, and participatory. They can enhance a genuine sense of community, inclusion, and buy-in. They can build positive relationships and help to ensure that different viewpoints are aired.

That said, way too many meetings are used for less-than-ideal purposes. In a more benign mode, they are simply time wasters, consuming precious minutes and hours of our lives that we can never get back. But it can get much worse than that. In fact, in my 27 years in academe, I’ve come to understand that the most morale-killing misuse of meetings is to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns. I’m sure some of you have your own examples of how this is done. Here are my leading candidates:

Ratifying Pre-Manipulated Results — Especially if a decision requires a vote or consensus agreement, the Powers That Be have already lined up their supporters and accomplice sheep. It’s a done deal before anyone enters the room. Perhaps this is “smart” organizing, but those left out of the pre-meeting dialogue won’t feel that way.

Intimidation and Bullying — The meeting serves as a reminder to not make waves, sometimes with implicit and explicit threats to back it up. It’s a form of in-your-face thuggery, sometimes done with a velvet glove, on other occasions of the bare-knuckled variety. 

Mansplaining — How many times do we have to listen to some guy drone on and on, over and again? He weighs in frequently, interrupts often, and self-promotes whenever possible. Some of these offenders have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, given the fact that some women strive to emulate their bloviating male colleagues, it’s also possible to be subjected to (wo)mansplaining as well. While this may advance the cause of inclusion in some perverse way, it doesn’t exactly contribute to the greater good.

PowerPoint Gazing — Staring at a screen as someone drones on in the dark. Slides with potentially important info are swapped out before you can grasp their significance. This is a great way for the Powers That Be to claim they were being transparent, when in reality they gave out just enough information to make the assertion a cynically plausible one.

Obligatory Filler — Instead of genuine discussion and dialogue, fill up the meeting with stuff that should be in a memo or e-mail. In the meantime, important matters are never brought to the table.

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”

Disconnects

Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

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