January 21, 2015

Bullying, hollow men, complicity, and hope

When I reflect on this issue of bullying one thought returns time and time again. How is it that a person can take the time and dedication to drum another person out of their job, by (frequently) finding points of vulnerability, lying and destroying their reputation, invoking procedures against them, and all the other array of small mechanisms of power with which we are all now familiar with in academia and indeed society. The process whereby one individual is bullied by another has of course been written about by the wonderful (and deceased) Tim Field and others. This blog site also looks at changing institutional contexts. Yet sometime I wonder whether the constant focus on victimisation is depressing and locates one in a downward narrative of loss - loss of jobs, loss of security, loss of mental health, even, as this blog points out, loss of life. Further, I have also been forced to consider whether the focus on the term ‘bullying’ compounds this narrative?

What are we really looking at when we use the term bullying? One fruitful way of thinking about it is recent literature on psychopathy. Critics often like to criticise Robert Hare (author of Without Conscience and Snakes in Suits) for pathologising so-called psychopathic behaviours, yet he performed an exceptionally useful task of highlighting an archetype and pointing out their capacity for destruction. Psychopaths aren’t the American Psycho; rather they are that person who, in sometimes a very low key way, plots, lies and cuts a swathe through peoples lives and emotional security without being burdened by a conscience about it. They do it because they can, because you get in their way, because you threaten them in some way. They are the person that makes the hairs rise up on the back of your neck, who you unconsciously perhaps try to avoid because you get a creepy feeling whenever you see them. Again, Tim Field has been great at highlighting the spectre of the workplace psychopathic bully.

Yet does it explain how so many seem to be involved, as currently seems to be the case in academia? Is it that somehow universities are ideal stalking grounds for psychopaths currently? Possibly, given that they are drawn to places of turmoil, over-bureaucracy and punitivity, as Hare points out. However not every bully is the archetypal psychopathic bully. Most of them seem quite normal in all other respects. Many people are a bit messed up, of course, but that’s not the same as being a psychopath. Another way of looking at this is how do people as a group get drawn into bullying behaviours, despite otherwise being pleasant and reasonable? Janice Harper’s brilliant account of mobbing, understood through a close examination of genocidal behaviours, reveals a process whereby people who are on the margins of bullying behaviour (for example, being in a department where bullying takes place) are encouraged by the bully to betray themselves and thereby begin a process in which their conscience is compromised. I think this goes some way to explain how others are drawn into the psychodynamic of bullying, how it becomes ingrained. Moreover, how it can be so brutal. She points out that in genocides, the main function of the mass killing is to stop people who you have expropriated ever showing their face again.

I was recently drawn to read more about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, famously reported in 1961 by Hannah Arendt though articles in the New York Times and her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt makes the point that Eichmann was nothing, he was a bureaucrat. He was unable to think about what he was doing intentionally, and a person who doesn’t think is unable to act with conscience. Martha Gellhorn, writing for the Atlantic Monthly in 1962, uses the phrase ‘hollow man’ to describe Eichmann. These descriptions of the person without conscience as nothing, as hollow, are powerful because they point out the dangers of not inhabiting your self, instead handing over all responsibility to another. Eichmann’s depictions himself as ‘simply following orders’ inspired a generation of social theorists, too countless to name here, to investigate this ‘organisational man’ potentially at the heart of us all, unless we force ourselves, as Arendt says, to think and therefore be human. It is also powerful because applied as an understanding of power and how it operates in the university, it is possible to say that your average bully is indeed a ‘hollow man’ (or woman). There is simply nothing there. However it also implies an imperative for all to speak out; the alternative being that we all become unable to think, to be ‘hollow’.

There has been some good writing recently on the marketisation and commercialisation of high education, McGettigan’s book (The Great University Gamble) being one of them. Yet sometimes, good economic analyses can unwittingly become part of the ‘done to us’ narrative rather than serve as a basis for resistance. Sometimes a simpler message suffices and one that spoke to me recently (and to many others apparently, as it went viral) was ‘On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs’ by LSE Professor David Graeber (http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/). Applied to academia, the message is simply this: they (and by they I mean the senior managers, politicians, middle management, and their ilk) hate you because you think, produce, teach, that your job isn’t about pushing paper, sending emails, or creating fake and pointless structural changes. Academics downplay what they do, but they can be hugely influential. Just look at Howard Becker, Erving Goffman and others, who engaged with or worked alongside the 1960s counterculture and played their part in changing how we think.

So is it in fact not true to say that management and politicians are engaging in a very long war of attrition against academics and the concept of the university itself. Further, if it is a war, then one has to study the mechanics of the war. One of those mechanisms of war is bullying, which serves several functions: it gets rid of particular individuals who somehow more resistant or speak out, it spreads fear amongst the others who see the individual crumbling under the weight of personal and reputational attack, and finally it encourages people to morally compromise themselves by turning on the target. Looked at from this perspective, the victim and perpetrator are engaged in a battle. So what weapons does the ‘victim’ have, when they are confined in the enemy camp?

So where does the issue of the failure of the moral imperative, of will, and as Arendt says, a failure to think, lie in this war? In response to the obliteration of academic freedom through the RAE/REF, because that is what it is, we academics (and I’ve done this myself, so I’m not casting stones) duly comply and fret about out citation count. Isn’t it ironic that, despite the fact that academics are assessed by citation count, we don’t allow readers to vote with their feet; rather we are subject to the phenomenon of the anonymous review, the gatekeeper of intellectual production?

Do any of us ever complain about the overproduction of research and ideas in academia, particularly in journals, time that could be better spend educating, writing thoughtful and groundbreaking books developed through a decade of scholarship, making creative use of social media, forming alliances between society’s growing but marginalised intellectual class? Privately, perhaps, but it has no consequence, because failure to produce is internalised as a private failure and shame.

Do we ever complain, really complain, about the treatment of students as cash cows who are then disposed of in a criminally negligent way by universities who do not teach them properly, thus destroying the whole principle of a degree; no, we shrug, often turn our ire on the students, and bury our heads in research that no-one will ever read. I will say it again, was there ever a more pointless way to expend one’s creative and emotional energy than writing a journal article?

We don’t complain or speak out, because we are complicit in it. All these issues, and more besides, are the source of the power the mindless bureaucracy has over thinking people, the weapons they attack us with.

The point of this is of course not to castigate academics, nor to add to that already ingrained and institutionally imposed private shame. As this site shows people want to speak up, yet they feel they have to do so anonymously. Isn’t it ironic that the traditional ‘guardians of enlightenment’ cannot speak up openly about what is happening lest they be forced out of their jobs? Further, as Doris Lessing says in her essay ‘Prisons we Choose to Live Inside’, it’s hard to see the prison bars when you are locked within its reality. When you become an academic, you are compelled on a path reinforced by continual stress, in which you never have the time or mental space to ask, is this what I wanted, or this this right?

No, the purpose of saying all of this is a call to arms (metaphorically, of course…); it is time to shrug off reputational shame or the (rapidly diminishing) status drug, call the institution, in the words of RD Laing, mad and point out that it wants to make us mad, stop following the lead of those hollow men and women, and start saying no. It’s tempting to quote Marx here and say that there is nothing to lose but your chains, but that’s not exactly true. The point is, it’s worthwhile consciously calculating the various losses – financial, yes, but also emotional and intellectual - of sticking around to be tortured, but it’s also useful to calculate the gains of leaving in those terms. The point is, if you truly care about the importance of ideas to the self and to society, then there are many people outside of academia are trying to find ways of writing and conveying ideas with integrity. There is hope. Maybe it’s time to join them.



Anonymous said...

Worse is that bullies are often very charming and seen as decent and moral people by those they don't harass and abuse. They're the sort one would gladly have as a next-door neighbour and who one would invite over for a barbecue.

They frequently portray themselves as such by little things such as a picture of their children (who, inevitably, will be seen as adorably cute) or their spouses. They blend into the crowd by behaving like ordinary people, discussing the latest movie or last night's game with their co-workers.

All of that is a fraud, of course. That image disguises a seething cauldron of hatred and vitriol and, while seeming to be friendly and co-operative, are plotting their next move against their targets.

It helps their cause, of course. When someone who is bullied claims that the bullies are really nasty and vicious, their co-workers won't believe them. Often, the victims are seen has having brought the abuse upon themselves, so turning to one's colleagues in such situations is completely pointless.

At the same time, the bullies are completely disconnected from the consequences of their actions. If they see that their bullying does adversely affect their targets, they are encouraged to continue as it is thrilling to see that their abuse is actually working. It's as if the victims are mindless playthings to them and the more they are hurt by the abuse, the more the bullies continue.

But woe betide anyone who fights back. One must then be prepared for a long drawn-out fight and put up an extremely stiff resistance. Any sign of weakness will have drastic consequences, simply because one had the utter gall to offer defiance, particularly in the defence of one's personal and legal rights.

Sadly, such people are found all throughout any bureaucratic organization and aren't restricted to academe.

Anonymous said...

Nice to read something genuinely uplifting on this topic.


Having worked in several universities, good and bad, and served for years on our main union, I believe academics have enormous innate propensity to bully.

It is something in the smallness of the academic universe, our fondness for foot-notes and being proven right, and the total absence of any professional training in management- result is where we are.

Reputation is indeed everything- I cannot ever forget a truly brilliant don, a splendid and inspirational teacher and a generous supervisor whose publications while maybe a little sparse compared with some (hence no chair) but who was constantly lampooned by others for having failed his doctorate due to minor but castigated anomalies of foot-notes....

They could not quite stop him getting a fellowship as his genius had already got him a junior post at one of the best places. He went on to inspire a generation of young scholars with his self-less teaching but they blighted a man who should really have occupied a leadership role, but who instead was constrained and stuck to the academic margins.

I attended his funeral a few years ago. There were hundreds of his former pupils. By contrast, I was also invited to say a few words at the requiem for a former college president who had been one of the great and good. Staff and students were absent save for a few old hands.

Let's unite to stop destroying the careers of the just....Opposition starts with us all...

Tina Rich said...

The problem is not the single hollow man/woman....they act in packs. Bullying in academia is generally mob bullying. I recently walked out of my tenured lectureship at the University of Glasgow as it was, in my opinion, not compatible with the conservation of my health and personal dignity. I was shocked at the number of my unwell and unhappy colleagues. Worst of all, no one ever says anything or really gives a damn.

Tina Rich said...

We need an annonymous reporting site so we get an idea of the problem universities. Somewhere where staff could flag bullying and possible reason, whether discrimination based or not

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tina

UCU largely "plays ball" with the employers in its attitude to problem institutions

something more radical needs to be done

The late Baroness T described the weakness of one of her opponents (was it Geoffrey Howe) as being akin to "being mawled by a dead sheep"...that's about the usefuleness of UCU's listing of problem colleges