The below is something I wrote in late 2016 to get a bubbling sense of dread out of my far too busy head. Originally posted under a pseudonym elsewhere, then removed because it felt daftly alarmist. Not so much these days.
Thoughts on inequality and bullying in work and a wider social context.
Two things happened recently to prompt this post. I saw Andy Murray quietly and forcefully correcting a reporter’s everyday sexism and I caught something a friend posted about bullying. The later prompted me to touch base and reinforced a belief that we all go through it, but variably struggle to see the bullying wood, for the self-doubt, pressure and conditioning trees.
In her case it was bullying at work. Not the punching and name calling kind. The targeted side-lining, quietly undermining, gently patronising, subtly criticising, and impossible objective setting kind… and it hit me right in the pit of my stomach. So I asked myself why:
- It made me face times when I let those kinds of behaviours go unchallenged, or, go unchallenged for far too long.
- It reminded me of times when I did challenge, for myself, or for others, resulting in more or less brutal personal and professional fallout.
That qualifier in point 1 trivially signposts why many of us turn a blind eye. When I see others made victim of persistently unacceptable behaviour, I am usually quick to act. When it’s directed towards me, less so. Much that we later characterise as bullying, prejudice, or suppression often persists long past the point where it should have been stopped. An elastic “always been done this way” band, stretching unimaginably far, before it snaps.
In other words:
Are we like soon to be boiling frogs?
In a lab where they’re preparing to heat amphibians, conditions for the end game are created. Creatures in captivity within a controlled environment often stay calmly put. Not because the door is locked, but because reward is regular and predictable vs the opposite beyond the walls.
The creatures are used to being handled by their captors, occasionally not kindly. Socialised to accept experiments with stressful outcomes. Those who sit tight and stay quiet get attention and rewards.
Then things escalate. The Bunsen burners are lit. A subset of your number are levered out of their comfort zone and placed gently in a pan. A pan warmed by high level personal agendas; a need to deliver on promises made to others in power, a need to up productivity, a need to cut budgets (often interrelated aims). At first the singling out and warmth can feel like welcome recognition. But the heat remains on. Some begin to react. First discomfort, then complaint, then diving over the edge. Escapees are collected and side-lined or euthanized, having proven they are not fit for more extreme experimental purposes.
Those who remain, seeing the fate suffered by their peers, tolerate the conditions. Reward and attention mounts…as does the mental and physical stress. Observers, having noted tolerance levels, modify the rate of temperature increase. Subjects adjust to creeping discomfort. Their internal systems change to temporarily withstand conditions causing initially invisible long-term damage.
Eventually, after a prolonged period, they expire.
Those experimenting deem the exercise a success. They’ve gleaned invaluable intelligence about subjects’ characteristics and the conditions enabling application of prolonged pressure, plus rich data about terminal limits.
Are these inevitable facts of free-market and individual-centric life?
It is up to all of us to understand the personal and collective cost/benefit when it comes to relationships, work, and citizenship. We don’t have a divine right to be constantly happy and successful, but we do have a right to be safe and treated fairly.
If businesses are not efficient, they fail (unless there is government intervention in markets, or a blind eye turned to anti-competitive collusion). When it comes to our governments, most of us willingly cede some reward and freedom to safeguard loved ones, peers, local communities, and society as a whole. Through all of that we depend on people elected and appointed to fairly police the equitable distribution of power and shared means. That trade off creates tension, because it will never be perfect. Stability depends upon organisations and ruling bodies monitoring and controlling local levels of inequality and pressure, then carefully adjusting that over time.
However, history is littered with examples of that going VERY wrong. Apathy, resignation, alienation, discrimination, intimidation, repression, persecution, revolution. Different orders of magnitude of imbalance-enabled failure… depending on whether disruption was the aim.
But what’s that got to do with bullying?
Socially, commercially, and politically prolonged or excessive pressure creates a great breeding ground for bullies. Bullying, in essence, is an abuse of an imbalance in power tacitly permitted to persist (or sometimes encouraged) by those with most influence in a given situation. In the workplace, when conditions demand more output is squeezed from less staff, or the culture permits pockets of feudal power, bullies thrive. Those with a solid moral and ethical compass, but under huge pressure, will often delegate application of required control. People with a cruel streak, or ability to mentally distance themselves from more normal ethical and moral limitations, are too often valued and ceded authority to make ‘hard choices’. Choices provoked by political or economic conditions, codified by those at the very top, and passed down (often with insufficient oversight, or with oversight kept deliberately at arms-length), to be actioned.
It’s important that people being boiled to breaking point believe it’s for a higher purpose. Sometimes it is about temporary and necessary sacrifice – pulling together to cope with exceptional circumstances to a mutually beneficial end. Other times it is just to further enhance the success and wealth of the ruling entity or individual, or to sustain a preferred status quo.
Then there are the personal, professional, and political outliers. The psychopaths. Those for whom control, humiliation, and real suffering are ends in themselves. They’re usually easy to spot and unlikely to survive in a public role. Sadly, that’s less true in politics depending where you are in the world.
And we mustn’t forget the sociopaths. Sociopaths operate within self-made ethical and social boundaries. Boundaries that have little to do with prevailing laws, regulations and cultural norms…except when compliance coincides with their aims. Aims that sometimes align with creating a safe, productive, and supportive environment, but all too often don’t.
As an individual that’s incredibly hard to battle. Bullying and other forms of implicit or explicit manipulation almost always happen in private, in situations where the target is already marginalised, or where concurrent effort is made to make them appear less credible. Often the least personally costly option is to remove yourself from the situation. IF (a big ‘IF’) that’s economically and physically viable. If it’s not, you might be trapped in an intolerable (or even dangerous) situation.
That’s why we have democratic elections, checks, balances, laws, lawyers, law enforcement, regulations, regulators, trades unions, tribunals, whistle blower protections, social workers, citizen advice groups, social activists, charities, and others working to police that balance of power. However, existence of, access to, and effectiveness of such entities, can be wildly variable. Significant and long-term damage will often have been done before an individual or group will seek, be offered, or be allowed to access sufficient help to make a difference. A delay and distance being widened by attacks on the court system, attacks on legal aid, compromising regulators, ever increasing standardisation of customer service scripts, and swapping call agents for AI. That latter one arguably the most insidious and cumulatively damaging part of all: Placing technology in between those who are seeking redress and the first human available with sufficient empathy to grasp the problem. Tuning the helpful attrition to mask the harm that might create loud enough noise to provoke change.
That’s why the internet and social media are essential tools to quickly understand your rights, find support, and band together to be heard. Tools that are under fire right now in the battle to police the internet.
When people battle inequality, intolerance, manipulation, and persecution, perpetrators and their supporters will always find more or less credible ways to defend the status quo. That’s because a lack of change almost always works to their advantage. A situation that permits psychopaths, sociopaths and common or garden bullies to flourish, with a cheering squad of vested interests, all calling agents for change idealistic, unrealistic, inept, destructive, criminal, or dangerous. But without such agents for change (this focuses on women’s rights, but do consider in context of all groups who battle with bullying and inequality), women would still be unable to earn increasingly equal pay for equal work, escape abusive relationships, vote, own property, and call rape a crime.
I will leave it to you to judge whether those are changes for the better and to research how bodies arguing to prevent change justified their positions (linking to some historical objections to women’s suffrage).
So, next time you see or experience something your guts tell you is unacceptable, whether it’s bullying, discrimination, or pressure to commit or overlook other wrongdoing, stop to examine the reasons for your reaction, seek out trusted and objective peers, open-mindedly research arguments set forth by those with whom you disagree, then decide: Is it (when you strip away bias born of your own vested interests, and allow for exceptional circumstances) acceptable, and will you let it ride?
It would be wrong to post something like this without linking to organisations and bodies who can offer advice and support to people feeling bullied, or otherwise cornered to tolerate something unacceptable. Some UK-centric ones are included below.
UK Government on Workplace Bullying including the ACAS helpline and link to information about employment tribunals.
The Employment Opportunities Commission – A source of information on what constitutes discrimination with links to advice and support
Link to the UK Trades Union Congress to find a union that may be able to offer advice and help.
Bullying.co.uk an independent site with advice and support relating to all kinds of bullying and discrimination
Mind the mental health charity with links to advice and support
Something about online harms and the tightrope between protecting folk and dangerously preventing or censoring access to the internet.