Friday, January 28, 2022
How to constrain a bully, in the school yard, in the board room, and on the international stage?
Negotiate with firm boundaries, and build up arms (defences, weapons, security) as a deterrence….goes one argument. And on the other side, de-escalate by disarming, resisting the urge to build up arms (defences, weapons, security) only to be dubbed appeasers by those seeking a frontal confrontation.
Hitler and Chamberlain revisited in so many times and places, it is impossible to count.
Of course, we have learned that neither extreme approach is effective, and that some attempt to bring the conversation to a place where two opposing sides are not so much talking as listening. Nevertheless, the perception of all individuals, and all political regimes as to whether or not they are being “respected” and “honoured” and “understood” and “treated fairly” is, almost like the weather, turbulent, unpredictable, and ultimately it seems, uncontrollable.
A brief anecdote from another life. I was sitting in my office at noon in a senior public school (grades 7 and 8) when a young girl burst in to exclaim, “Come quick, there’s been a fight in the yard and someone’s really hurt!”
I followed her to the yard where I found the predictable circle of onlookers, with a male student lying unconscious on the ground and his assailant standing off to the side. After sending the alleged assailant to the office, and attending to the other combatant, I returned to the office to consider how this situation might be “addressed”. I do not say “managed” or even “disciplined” or even “resolved” or
“neutralized”. I had then, and to this day, no idea what the specific dispute was over. Were they fighting over a specific girl? Were they enraged with each other over some family pride and honour issue? Were they merely fighting for superiority in front of the crowd of spectators, attempting to inflate their pugilistic reputation? Who knows? As soon as I had attended to the unconscious lad, and sought medical attention, while the other cooled his heels in the office, the phone rang.
It was the father of the one who had, I now learned, been “kicked in the head” by his classmate. “If you don’t clean up that school, I am going to come down there and clean it up myself!” Immediately recognizing the unveiled threat in both the words and the intense and angry tone of the caller, I stepped up my own perception of the urgency of the moment. I called the local office of the provincial police, told them the story as I had begun to gather it, and held both combatants separately for some time. I believe I asked them each to write down their “story” of the fight, how it started and why, and what they recalled of what actually happened. After a couple of hours, the police officer returned to tell what he had learned.
“I visited the home of the alleged “kicker” in this incident, and spoke to his father and younger brother, the only two people home at the time. As we talked, the younger brother persisted in interrupting his father’s stream of words. Several times, the father told the young man to ‘shut-up’ only to have the interruptions continue. Finally, the father rose from his chair in the kitchen, and bolted to the young brother, and drove his right fist into the jaw of his son. I had to recollect that this young man had not even been in the school yard conflict; it was his older brother who had “kicked” his opponent in the head leaving him concussed and unconscious on the ground. I got the father to calm down, asked the young brother if he was OK, and returned to the car to make my notes. The only thing I can conclude is that I was investigating the wrong person, the grade 8 boy who inflicted the kick. I should have been investigating the father, a sole parent in the family with two teen-aged sons,” was his verbal report to me.
“Perhaps you and your office would consider something of a novel approach to this incident. I need to have it addressed in a manner that addresses the seriousness for the two combatants, as well as to demonstrate to the rest of the school and the small community, that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable. I can have them serve detentions in the school, perhaps write some lines, or even engage in some clean-up activities as “punishment” but I am thinking of something else. Would you office, including your supervisor consider a weekly interview in your office with both young men, each Friday until the end of the school year, some four months away, for them to report that they have not been engaged in fighting each week, and that they are completing their school work as required? I proposed.
“Well, I think that approach might be worth trying,” came the response.
And, each Friday, for the remaining months of the school year, the two boys trecked a couple of hundred yards down to the provincial police office, to report their “week” to an officer, and each student finished their year successfully. The threatening father of the “kicked” boy remained silent on the sidelines so far as I knew.
Did the intervention stop the bullying? Of course not! It merely removed that behaviour from the lives of those two young men.
In many other situations, where bullying imposes physical, emotional, psychic and career damage, the situations are so complex that it would seem there is almost no formula for addressing the situation. If a parent “bullies” and intimidates a child, the only recourse, outside of referring the matter to social and family services, is for the non-bullying parent to intervene. And if that does not occur, then the child is left on his/her own to deal with the abuse.
If a teacher bullies a child, (and make no mistake, this is not an infrequent occurrence given that personalities collide), then the student often, if not in most cases, keeps the matter silent, believing, quite rightly, that to open “that can of worms” is another act of self-sabotage that s/he cannot win. Parents are faced with increasing pressures from social media, in which bullying by teens of other teens has apparently run rampant, even leading to the victim taking his or her own life.
We wring our hands, cry foul and leave the matter to be dealt with by “experts” who almost without exception, are as uncertain of the appropriate response as everyone else. School programs, including peer training, school-yard interventions by peers, and whole system involvement have demonstrated some effectiveness, roughly around 20-30% reductions, but certainly not eliminations. Like so many other features of our lives, including most medical illnesses, we are usually in the business of “managing” and “ameliorating” the conditions, including the pain, the trauma, and the active therapy in support, to rebuild lost confidence, to restore hope and to demonstrate community opposition to the nefarious acts of bullying.
In the business world, too, a company wishing to eliminate specific competition, will take steps both overtly and privately to undercut the success of that competitor. There are some “deportment” conventions about how this might be accomplished. And yet, there are stories of both organizations and individuals who trample over the assets, and even the profits and the reputations of corporations seeking to maintain a standard of performance that would qualify as competent, ethical, transparent and accountable for most critics.
In the political theatre, at least in North America, I grew up in an atmosphere of what might be called court-room civility. Political opponents, particularly in formal debate in the legislatures, addressed each other with formal Mr. or Madame or Ms as a sign of respect for the office, as much as for the individual. Speakers are charged with the task of keeping the debate within the bounds of conventional respectability. When John Crosby disdainfully addresses Sheila Copps as “Babe” Ms Copps herself denounces his misogyny instantly, relegating the speaker to the sidelines. Such misogynistic inflammatory language, at least in Canada, has almost disappeared, while language of hate and hate crimes have, on the other hand, increased significantly.
Hate language, hate crimes, are forms of bullying that have laws in place to restrain their occurrence. And yet those laws run into the “free speech” First Amendment in the U.S. and into subtle nuances of interpretation of evidence by Canadian judges.
Reporting in the The Star, by Robert Cribb, Inori Roy, Charlie Buckley and Mashal Butt, January 28, 2022 details how weak laws fail to address the rise of hate. One specific Canadian evangelical fundamentalist Bill Whatcott, determined to speak out against abortion and homosexuality, “estimates he has distributed at least half a million flyers, the majority targeting abortion and homosexuality. A 2013 Supreme Court decision described language used in some of his flyers as “hate-inspiring. Two provincial tribunals and Canada’s highest court have found he violated hate-related human rights legislation. But despite numerous hearings and, by his estimate. More than 340 stays in custody for his speech, Whatcott has remained undeterred. ‘I’m not gonna apologize for any of my flyers…I’d rather sit in jail,’ he told Toronto Police in a 2018 video interview played for his trial last fall.”
Is there a link between the dots on bullying and hate crime? At the core of both activities lies the inordinate need for power. It might well be that hate and bullying occupy different time frames; bullying is immediate, short-term gratification, while hate has a much longer time line, often simmering before burning and exploding into some act. They both express deep contempt for another person, group or nation. And depending on the resources available to those whose appetite for power is voracious, seemingly consuming their every thought and feeling, they are able to exercise power in the theatres appropriate to their resources, fists and muscles, handguns or rifles, assault weapons or machetes, bombs or missiles or alternatively, such demonically frightening scenarios of hell and damnation, often biblically extracted, or from other sacred texts. Both hate crimes and bullying depend on a kernel of such contempt for the object of the exercise, whether or not that contempt is a projection or not, that the agent bearing that contempt is unable and unwilling to restrain, contain and moderate his/her words or actions. There is a quality of absolutism, in the sense that the agent of both bullying and hate crimes countenances no other option than the one of dominating the foe. A self- righteousness, borne of insecurity, or the perception of weakness, inferiority, whether personal or cultural or organizational, haunts the agents of both bullying and hate. The need for an enemy to oppress, or even to eliminate, depending on the depth and length and venom of the hollowness that besets the agent.
And, while detailing what is obvious about the nature of the two parallel human activities can be tapped out on a keypad, remedies, therapeutics, therapies, preventive measures to reduce the incidence of both are much more difficult even to suggest. In a time when the sociological impacts on individuals have become significant in the way we think of and even work with individual anxieties and distress, it is not a leap to reflect that the culture itself, each and every component of the culture holds a portion of the opportunity to participate as antidote for these nefarious incidents. The law, and the law enforcement agencies, cannot and will not be able, alone, to cope with these crimes. Neither will the schools and colleges, nor the after-school programs, or the entertainment and sports fraternities, by themselves, penetrate the phenomenon. The churches, it seems, have demonstrated their incompetence in the face of bullying and hate, except, in reverse, there are far too many incidents of hate directed specifically at religious groups and institutions. God, and the disciplined worship of God is as divisive a human behaviour and attitude, given that it seems to magnetize feelings and attitudes of contempt, bitterness, hate and the impulse to attack in those outside such faith communities. Similarly, race is another of the white-hot impulses generating bullying and hate crimes, often depicted as “radical change from the status quo” which, by itself, is another of the documented motivations of those engaged in hate crimes and bullying.
It may seem ironic to some to say that churches also bully anyone within earshot about how they are “going to hell” if they persist in specific behaviours. And they have been doing this for centuries, claiming they are acting on behalf of and in the name of God. An example of bullying that does not normally get filed in the newsrooms of the nation under that “file heading” is conversion therapy for those who have identified as gay, and are being ‘counselled’ into conversion therapy in order to “return to their original gender. That conversion therapy is not only bullying; it is now against the law in Canada and other countries. And yet, in my lifetime, I have worked with clergy who advocated it and endorsed candidates for active ministry in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. whom they had counselled to undergo it and who had succumbed to that counsel.
The headlines today, of course, circle around another face and form of bullying, coming out of the Kremlin. Putin is making demands, insisting that Ukraine must never become a member of NATO, and that NATO commit to withdrawal of forces and equipment and test drills in nations on Russia’s borders. And it is the divide among NATO members, particularly between European nations like Germany and France, and the U.S. that threatens to dilute any voice of solidarity in response to Putin’s bullying. Of course, none of us is surprised that Levrov and Putin’s spokesman, Peskov, both emphasize that, although there may be 130,000 troops amassed on the Ukraine-Russia border, with tanks and fighter jets, and anti-aircraft missiles in place, Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine. The unspoken specific of such narrowing descriptors as “militarily” and “through cyber-warfare” and through a “coup” are all missing from the Russian declaration.
Western analysts seem unanimous that they are unsure of what Putin is going to do. And some even argue that Putin himself may not have decided, or may not know. Germany’s contribution of 5000 helmets to Ukraine has legitimately incensed some Ukrainians, including the mayor of Kyiv. Their resistance to having military equipment, especially that made in Germany, transported across their homeland is another of the swiss-cheese holes in the NATO solidarity that obviously gives Putin delight.
Some in the U.S. Congress, as well as some in Ukraine itself, argue that a build-up of military might will only exacerbate the situation, by enraging Putin, and motivate him to take decisive military action against Ukraine. Of course, the political establishment inside NATO argues for “prepare” which in their mind means only “build up a massive defensive wall” in order to both demonstrate support for Ukraine and also to indicate to Putin that Russia will face consequences should he pull the trigger. There is little doubt, too, that the American president has to demonstrate that he has taken a very different position to his successor who attempted to “bribe” The Ukrainian president into supplying dirt on his political opponent at the time, the Bidens, in order to acquire the military support he had been promised.
We simply do not know how to “deal with” or to “talk down” or to neutralize agents who choose to bully, although we are making some progress in the education and family spheres.
Like many of the cancers, whose origins and next steps they might take, and also like the pandemic and its many mutations, we do not know all that we would like to know. And that gap is like a opportunity for anyone seeking to drive an opportunistic “truck” through our unknowing, thereby deepening the divide between political opinions that serve in part to threaten the safety and the security of all of us, on so many fronts.
Can and will NATO come to a position of solidarity in its encounter with the Russian/Putin demands? Likely at least partially.
Will Putin consider the international attention his moves have garnered adequate compensation for this scare he has injected into geopolitics? Again, perhaps partially.
Will the Chinese imitate Putin’s latest venture when they consider their options vis a vis Taiwan? Highly likely.
Will the current strategic and tactical manoeuvres by Putin embolden lesser tyrants who might be contemplating similar flexing of their political, ideological muscle? Highly likely again.
Will the U.S. actually take a deep look into the mirror of their own military invasions/incursions/take-overs in various countries, and recalibrate how they have come to this moment, as an active role model for hard power? Doubtful.
Will the United Nations Security Council, if and when it meets to debate how to interject its resources into the conflict in order to de-escalate tensions, reduce the angst inside Ukraine, and attempt to work out some kind of negotiated entente between Russia and NATO, have a positive impact? Very doubtful!
Is the world order, so called, that has been operating mostly since the second world war, under a series of tectonic shifts and rumblings, prompted by the rise of China, India, South East Asia and the seemingly constant rumblings of nationalism and populism in Europe in in both North and South America? It would seem so.
Are we safer today than we were in 1962 when the Cuban missile crisis dominated headlines? Hardly.
And, finally, will any of the participants in the current conflict stoop to deploying even a single nuclear warhead? Who knows but we all hope they resist!
Wednesday, January 26, 2022
Let’s try to break down the experience of communicating, first from the perspective of the originator of the communication, and then from the prespective of the recipient of the message.
Most of us are blurting out words, grunts, frowns, raised eyebrows, eye rolls and/or glances, turning our bodies, bending our bodies, stamping our feet, and then there are all of the variables of “degree” in each of these messages. We want to ask for something, reply to someone for something they did, respond to another’s person, facial expressions, verbal intonations including the vocabulary chosen. And each and every experience during which we are communicating with another person is freighted with all of the other moments of communication starting at the beginning.
For example, if we have heard loud voices early in our baby years, we have already associated various interpretations of that volume. They could be ‘dark and frightening,’ or ‘enthusiastic and cheerleading,’ ‘contentious and argumentative,’ ‘impatient and critical’ whether or not we had yet even known the various nuances of meaning. And we did respond….we smiled, or cried, turned away, frowned, screamed, grabbed a soother/bottle, or whichever one of a myriad of ways we had through which to “express” ourselves. There is considerable evidence, even from the ultrasounds, that baby fetuses respond to various sounds they experience prior to their actual birth.
The now one-year-old Portugese Water Dog sleeping in her pen in the family room “speaks” using every muscle, leg, jaw, eye, ear and her ability to “absorb” however that process happens. She frolicks in the snow, she scurries through the sprinkler in summer, she rushes to the backyard fence when the neighbour Rob is cutting the lawn or tending his garden, she barks at 5:00 a.m. if she happens to hear an unexpected sound from a neighbour’s yard, or a blue jay in the pine tree overhead. Even the posture she uses while sitting in her pen carries an “expression” as does the frenetic dance she engages when she wants extra attention. Not in need of a ‘recording studio’ where performances are rehearsed, polished, and then performed as if for an audience, this little fury friend already knows that every day and every moment in every day is not merely a rehearsal, it is a moment of being fully alive. Her desires and motives are so glaringly obvious, as are her moods and feelings, that it is her ‘humans’ responsibility to learn to read and respond approrpriately to those messages. Even when she persistently stretches to the kitchen counter in search of anything, whatever might be open and ready for her pounce, and needing another of the thousands of reminders to ‘get down,’ she is sending a message….and those messages rush like white water, from second to second, even nano-second to nano-second….such is the time warp of the intense attention, curiosity, desire and willingness to please, and especially to “attach” herself to either of her two humans. “Velcro” as applied to her is neither a joke nor an exaggeration. It is both metaphorically and literally true, from the moment she wakens to the moment she re-enters her crate for the night.
On the human scale, we too learn to “express” all of those emotional and intellectual aspirations, perceptions, attitudes, in ways many of us simply take for granted, as most of them have become unconscious. Our demeanour, too, is an expression of how we see ourselves, and our integration of how we would like others to see us. And that mix of self-appreciation and apperception and the impact of the signals we have received from others whose paths have crossed our’s blurs into a set of mannerisms, postures, body movements, and voice sounds that help to identify us to ourselves and to others.
The phrase, “you are what you eat” or “you are what you believe” both pale in comparison to “you are what you utter”…..simply because what you utter will reinforce, potentially, a picture that you are trying to build or to convey, of the unique human being with your name and birthdate, with your address and birth parents, with your academic certificates and your job position, with the church or club to which you belong and the associates in your circle. Similarly, what we do not utter, although far less noteable, and even far less likely to be recorded in our memory, and certainly not noted by another for not having been uttered, is also both a choice and a message to another.
If someone says to you, “I love you” and you greet that expression with silence, you are sending such a booming message of rejection, without ever having to account for having been offensive. You were silent. And that silence will echo in the ear, heart and mind of the ‘other’ for the rest of his/her life. Similarly, if you say those words to another, “I love you” and you receive the response of silence, you will carry that ‘wound’ forever. Rejection, in all of its many faces and forms, is, after all, so memorable, that the moment, the face of the other person, and the profound cut that is left on our psyche, while it might heal in strong scar tissue (metaphorically), nevertheless is embedded in our psyche forever.
Silence then and rejection, both expressions of rejection, are indelible. And yet our culture pays inordinate time, energy and study of the “utterances” that are recorded, recordable, in extrinsic form. It is our shared privitizing of the silence of rejection that leaves such experiences in the category of intimate, private, and not accessible for sharing simply because they expose us as so vulnerable and unlikeable that we are too ashamed to let another know. The source of either silence or rejection, too, can be a matter of permanent imprinting on our psyche…for example, if our father’s ambition for his son or daughter exceeds both the capacity and the will of the child at the time of that disconnect, both parent and child will be impacted by the disconnect, and each life will proceed in part shaped by that disconnect.
I think it was Tennyson who reminded us that we are all a part of all that we have met….and those parts that have impacted us most deeply have resulted from communication that is fixed in our memory. Whether we become fixated on those moments, or, like the Irish, never forget those moments, (mea culpa) they continue to reverberate in the drum-skin of our hearts and minds, long after the drum and the drum stick have disappeared. Neurolinguistic programming, for example, operates on the principle that if and when a thought or a new behaviour is going to be “learned and integrated into our routine” we repeat its message while touching a part of our bodies to “underscore” the message, making it a “part of our physical experience as well as our intellectual, cognitive experience. Body and mind, both simply and inexpressibly ephemerally, are a single person, never to be detached, separated one from the other, so long as no wound or illness accomplishes the separation.
There is a case to be made for the litany of messages that one has accumulated, almost like a list of stocks and bonds of experience, on which we base much of our attitude, beliefs, actions and ideologies. We do not consider those significant messages, however, as part of our identity unless and until we drag them out of the dark unconscious when a situation prompts their revisit, evoking again, although different this time, a moment in our past that we might have long ago forgotten.
The apparent linearity of our lives, from birth to age one and on to whatever age we are alive, is a distortion of the other kind of reality that can be described as ‘circular’ given that whatever we have experienced, especially if any of those experiences have seemingly been repeated, does and will return. It is not only that we are genetic off-shoots from our parents, but we are also “archetypical” representations (not replications) of those parents. We have seemingly imperceptibly and unconsciously assimilated both their mannerisms, their words, their attitudes, and their ways of doing various things. We have not “done” this overtly, willfully, or even deliberately. And yet, it has happened. And given that those parents were different, we have adopted, assimilated and absorbed mannerisms, attitudes, vocabulary and body movements of each. This is one of the remarkable, and often inexplicable aspects of families: that young Tom will evoke a picture of uncle Joe, long after Joe has deceased, without even knowing it.
One of the many implications of our intimate and inexplicable replication of our family “inheritances” (genetic, psychological, sociological, even ethical and spiritual, and not financial or antique) is that we are more than we are aware of, and unconscious of what that might even look like. Rebelliousness, for example, in our family, in taking up or in resisting some ideology, faith community, or “dream” is, to borrow another cliché, “baked into the cake” of our identity.
And yet, for purposes of our healthy and protective security, we share these “imponderables” only with our closest friends and family. Even the concept of identity has been reduced to some glib “gender” identity, or some ethnic or racial identity, or some historic period to which we are assumed to belong. It is not that any of these “identity” criteria are irrelevant; it is just that our identity is so much more than any of these often distinguishing, and alienating, traits, permit a level of contempt and hate because of our unwillingness to see “who” the other is through a much deeper and more complex lens.
Just recently, I was engaged in a small community project, with a few others, for whom I became merely a “position” and particular “view” of how things might proceed. And opposite that view, they positioned their “view” resulting in the reduction of all those involved to their “position” while affecting a literal and permanent dismissal of who we are as persons. My position was used to dismiss me, given that the “view” of others appeared incompatible with their’s. I was considered to have been the one whose motto was ascribed as “it’s his way or the highway”….when in reality, I was not only open to merging the two “views” with a modified significance of both for the sake of the overall project. And yet, when that option was put on the table, it was silence that came back.
Silence, from a small group, has to indicate that others share a view that they wish not to debate, for whatever reason. And of course, into such a vacuum rushed the political class, bent and determined to demonstrate their eminent worth and responsibility, given that elections are looming.
When I was greeted, subsequently with the assessment, from a participate, that “politics” is always tough and in small towns it is especially tough, I immediately responded, “Politics is a word that is used to camouflage bad human behaviour which would never be tolerated in any respectful, dignified and relationship-building experience. Building relationships, as opposed to the immediate creation of some public edifice that justifies the political ambition of elected officials, takes time, and especially takes time together to get to know others with whom one is working.
And that cannot and will not be accomplished though private, secret, and determined communication that excludes others.
We are speaking to others, sometimes even more loudly, in silence, than we would be if we were across a table, arguing the merits of our “position” in respectful if impassioned dialogue.
Men have died because others were unable to interpret their silence as ‘consent’ or as opposition….and silence is a deliberate choice of communicating needing no verbiage, no time, and with no apparent consequences such as negligence or accountability, and certainly not transparency. It will almost never be part of the construction and gardening of healthy relationships.
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
I have never been able either to comprehend or to countenance the level of chicanery that seems attached to weak and grovelling men who aspire to and desperately pursue power and status. Everyone knows that they have had to “kiss ass” so many times, it has become routine, normal, and even expected, from their perspective. They also have had to twist both the truth and themselves in the wind of whatever situation placed them in a negative light, as they scramble in vain to squirm out of that black light, especially if someone they consider important to their career path is watching.
Power and the pursuit of power begats secrecy, deception, manipulation, and downright scurrilous behaviour. The full truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth has no place in the lexicon of values for those in positions of power.
First off, they have literally no idea of the kind of work, the specificity or the complexity of those in their charge, and what’s more, they simply do not want to know. In that way, they escape the fine details of having to face whatever injustices might be operating at the shop floor/office floor level. They justify this ignorance as “we do not have either the time or the energy to get down into the weeds of each person’s job, or their complaints, or their life story. We have to maintain a clear perspective on the gestalt of the operation, so that we can discern if and when a ‘big fire’ is breaking out. And by ‘bug fire’ they inevitably mean, the kind of fire that will sink their personal narcissistic ambitions, plans and their conscious or unconscious genuflecting to the false god of their own brass ring.
“A secret is something you tell only to one person at a time!” is a verbatim phrase I have heard from the mouth of such a man, desperate to prove himself as a ‘top dog’ on the totem pole of his profession. And then, as if to reinforce that vacuity, he notes that his own superior has ordered that no political crisis must ever reach the office of that superior, lest the superior too will have to contend with the political mess that has been rising, like slime, to the top of the organization’s agenda.
Characterizing those in their orbit in a manner that ‘patronizes’ and detaches them from the real authenticity of their ‘charges’, calling them with descriptive monikers like “immature”, ‘self-absorbed,’ radical,’ ‘too idealistic,’ ‘going through a rough patch’….these are just some of the ways that they dismiss any who take exception to their way of operating.
Years after a long professional relationship of disdain, even contempt between a supervisor and a potential employee rejected in the interview, to approach that unsuccessful candidate with an “apology” for not having hired him/her, is another sign of a degree of false humility verging on dissembling….It is shame and guilt that prompts such an abject apology, given the successful career of that interviewee in another local setting.
Weak men, too, are those who are so enmeshed in the modus operandi of “saying whatever others want to hear” so that they curry only positive ‘reviews’ in the hope, too often successfully proven as worthy, that, if, and when the time comes for either a vote or a recommendation for promotion, because they ‘have no enemies’ they are promoted.
It is not that only sycophants are promoted; it is that too many wily, cunning, solo-flyers have and continue to rise to the top of too many organizations, both in politics and in corporations, including academia, social services, ecclesial bodies and health care organizations. The model of the “successful” role model, who wears the brass ring, drives the BMW, vacations in the Mediterranean or the South Pacific, and lives in a 5000 square foot McMansion, can only come to a crashing halt when s/he meets a concrete wall of realization that s/he has been faking it throughout the decades of his/her career.
It is not that powerful people are not intelligent; they are.
It is not that powerful people are not insightful; they are.
It is not even that powerful people are not charismatic; they are.
It is, however, what comprises charisma, and insight for how to climb, and intelligence for how to slide through the hurdles, the speed bumps, the small and medium-sized conflicts, and the unruffled performance in the interview process that assures too many decision makers that ‘this is our choice’ for CEO.
Glib, charismatic, uber-confident, unwavering, unapologetic, quick-witted, never skipping a breath when pressed for a response to a difficult question like ‘what would you do in this situation’….after all, those making the decisions have mastered the formula, and given that they have achieved through such imitation, why would they not given lasting legacy to that model in their own decisions?
“He rose to the top because he had no enemies,” is a phrase so often uttered, not by those who competed for the top job against him, but from objective observers who have traced his career path from the beginning. And, or course, once installed, those people (men and women) are extremely difficult to extract from those positions. They have honed their ’diplomatic skills’ and their rhinoceros skin, and their deaf ear, and their blind eye, and especially their shading of all ‘inconvenient truths’ especially those that might have bruised their ego and their reputation.
And, for those of us outside the “inner circles” wherever we go, and preferring that outsider status, we watch sometimes with ironic humour, sometimes with tragic sadness, and other times, with patient scepticism and doubt knowing that such people are ‘in over their head’ without realizing it.
Have you ever noticed, too, that those in positions of power have an image of the culture they seek to implant, a culture that need compliant “plants” in their greenhouse, to grow to a certain height, to blossom in a certain season and manner, and to wither in an appropriate time frame, predictably, given the history of that particular culture.
Joe Biden held a second press conference today, honouring his first full year in office. And, likeable, affable, compassionate, empathic, and ‘mature’ “Joe” uttered many statements, many of them written and delivered to attempt to recover some of the lost ground he has experienced on the last few months, now with an approval rating of somewhere in the 30% range, with a disapproval rate of 53%....
So he had to ‘sell’ some of his administration’s accomplishments over the last twelve months. Agreed.
And he was asked to address the current military build-up on the eastern border of Ukraine. And, voluble as he is, peppering his lines with “no joke, I’m serious”…he uttered these words, “Big nations cannot bluff!”
As if to remind his audience that the United States, under his presidency, was not bluffing when it repeats “serious repercussions” against Russia, should Putin attack Ukraine. And yet, after two-hundred years of American “bluffing” and pounding its national chest, and huffing and puffing about how its engagement in the Middle East, for example, has nothing to do with the oil reserves in that region, and then compliantly covering the existence of nuclear weapons in Israel from full disclosure on the world’s geopolitical stage, and then …..the list of American bluffing and huffing and puffing, (not exclusively by trump) is legion…and yet, without being confronted in that presser, Biden demonstrates how hollow, weak and ineffectual is his administration in the face of another huffing and puffing desperate Russian leader.
Damon Linker in The Week, January 14, 2022 in a piece entitled, “Putin calls America’s bluff on Ukraine,” writes:
Russia has amassed significant forces along the border of Ukraine. Talks between Russia and NATO appear to have broken down. Members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment are beginning to suggest the need to respond to any Russian military moves against Ukraine with a strong show of force. How did we get here, seemingly on track toward either direct military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state nearly 5,000 miles from American shores, or poised to back down and retreat in the face of a frontal challenge to a military alliance led by the United States?
The answer is that we go here by bluffing---and the evident decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to call our bluff. One possible response to this unhappy situation is to continue bluffing in the hopes that Putin with eventually blink. The other far more reasonable path is to reassess the decision that got us here in the first place and move forward with less unsustainable hubris….We have been able to fight a series of small (if intractable) wars around the world because, in each case, our opponent has been vastly weaker than we are. But we have also extended implicit security guarantees to places where a strong or rising regions power has competing interests. And we’ve handled such situations by acting as if we’re willing to defend certain countries against formidable military threats when we’ve never really been prepared to do so.
This approach to conducting foreign policy worked well enough so long as no one called our bluff. Our willingness and ability to project power to the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa served as supposed evidence of our resolve everywhere.
Thank you Mr. Linker!
Biden’s words rang so hollow that one can only envision,
in both Bejing and Moscow, men are excitedly quaffing their favourite liquid
refreshment and laughing uproariously, most likely on a secure vitural
connection between the two capitals. America has stated she is unprepared to
put “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, that she will defend Taiwan against
Chinese attempts to take her over, that any nuclear threats from North Korea
will be met with serious repercussions.
At what point, Mr. Biden, is the American voice not to be considered the “master of the bluff”, especially when you publicly utter those unforgiveable words of denial?
This space has never advocated military action as the optimum solution to any conflict. And we urged a withdrawal from Afghanistan years before the Biden administration made the decision to withdraw. And we are not arguing here for military action on the border of Russia and Ukraine. However, we do expect that the words of the American president, hours prior to a potential invasion of Ukraine, will at least have the temerity and the authenticity to refrain from uttering the blatantly ridiculous.
Canadians are watching and listening to the tidal wave of rhetoric from both sides, amid a pandemic in which barely 2% of the southern half of the globe have been vaccinated, and where the virus still continues to rampage. A military conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not a chapter in world history that any of us can tolerate. And the sabre rattling on both sides, with the U.S. continuing to diagnose Putin’s various moves as either bluffing or not, while he keeps his poker hand very close to his vest.
If we were to enter from another planet, which leader would we discern might have the upper hand in strategy, even if not in military might?
And which leader would we judge to be more easily manipulated, though whatever trickery, chicanery or even bluffing?
The answers are obvious, and the stature of the United States is becoming more tarnished by the hour.
None of us envisioned this kind of scenario in 2022, after four years of incompetent negligence verging on the criminal in the Oval Office.
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
Writing in The New Yorker, Jan. 3 & 10, 2022, Paul Sehgal, in a piece entitled, “The Key to Me,” decries the prevalence, indeed the universality of “the trauma plot” in contemporary fiction.
Here are some of his words:
The prevalence of the trauma plot cannot come as a surprise at a time when the notion of trauma has proved all-engulfing. Its customary clinical incarnation, P.T.S.D. if the fourth most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorder in America, and one with a vast remit. (Merriam-Webster #4: to give relief from suffering)…How to account for trauma’s creep? Take your corners. Modern life is inherently traumatic. No, we’re just better at spotting it, having become more attentive to human suffering in all its gradations. Unless we’re worse at it—more prone to perceive everything as injury. In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to statue—our red badge of courage? The question itself might offend: perhaps it’s grotesque to argue about the symbolic value attributed to suffering when so little restitution or remedy is available….During treatment for P.T.S.D. after serving in Iraq, David Morris was discouraged from asking is his experience might yield any form of wisdom. Clinicians admonished him, he says, ‘for straying from the strictures of the therapeutic regime’. He was left wondering how the medicalization of trauma prevents veterans from expressing their moral outrage at war, siphoning it, instead, into a set of symptoms to be managed.
Perhaps, as a “creative writing” instructor at New York University, Sehgal’s primary interest in literature might tend to focus his attention on the literary productions filled with trauma, and potential therapeutic “recovery”…when it might be feasible to assess that his real core complaint is with the dominance of the therapeutic model, the DSM (is it now #5?) that has emerged as the universal diagnosis and solution to severe pain whether emotional, physical, sexual or even criminal, in the literary, military, political, criminal and even the ‘spiritual’ world.
There is a deeply enmeshed transactionality to this archetype: it demands symptom, microscopically identified, and then compared with similar symptoms, clustered by those whose lives are dedicated to the relief of emotional and physical pain, as if they are so similar, if not actually identical. Agency of the interventionist, toward “healing” the psychic wound, is analogous to the surgeon who inserts screws into a severely broken arm or leg, permitting it to grow to something akin to its original strength and deployment.
Trauma, however, does not reduce so easily to an identifiable “symptom” that can, with the right intervention, be healed. Indeed, the medical model may, in fact, be counter-intuitive to an appropriate intervention. And the literary model, tracking the immense popularity of the medical model, itself tracking the “transactional” model of business, science, politics and the economy, all of which disciplines perform as if they each have the “cure” for whatever ailment is currently possession the individual or the body politic. Education too, in the form of classical conditioning, exhibits a similar “product” expectation, especially measured by behaviour that can and is measured by testing instruments that, themselves, possess an inherent bias of the designer.
It is as if Pavlov’s dogs, so responsive to the bell/food conditioning experiment, have come to serve as models for human “interventions” on the micro and the macro scales. Professionally trained clinical whatever’s, have their theories and their scientific papers based on other theories and papers, including renowned experiments, that demonstrate the effectiveness of specific kinds of interventions.
Whether through cognitive-behavioral, Gestalt, immersive analysis, or mere “mirroring” or any of several other models, clinicians (emblematic of the “doctor” in the white coat) probe for the “presenting symptom” and then drill down to find how the “client/patient” has been able to survive similar if less penetrating and debilitating trauma, in order to assist with the recovery of that strength. With military conflict, compounded by economic collapse, climate change and the resulting existential threat of global extinction should we not commit to the curtailment, or possible elimination of carbon and methane emissions into the atmosphere, individuals as well as cumulatively and collectively, defining the first two decades of the twenty-first century, it can hardly be a surprise that those most deeply susceptible to the rhythms and the ebbs and floes of the psychic vibrations in the culture, the artists, writers and creators generally, would both mirror and expose those vibrations.
Victimhood, as an archetype, has a compelling dramatic universality, given that we have all gone through some form. And in order to “belong” it is our shared (albeit very different, in cause, in events, in symptom and in depth of impact) experience of being wounded. And victims need bullies, in order to categorize themselves (ourselves) as victims. Given the prevalence of bullies, themselves unconsciously agonizing, inappropriately, about their own woundedness, and taking their deep and unresolved anger and frustration out on the nearest, and most “stereotypical” weak-one….the outsider, however that archetype is defined in the immediate culture. Childhood trauma, inflicted by a parent or a family member or family friend, is often enacted ostensibly as a “healthy parenting” or even a “game” thereby protecting the ’victim’ from a full realization of the impact of that trauma. Early interactions in a young person’s life, take on a “how-am-I-doing” motivation for the child/adolescent, given that performance, grades, goals, touchdowns, bell-beating 3-pointers, scholarships, trophies and public acclaim offer and provide motivation linking both child/adolescent and parent/teacher/coach. Classical conditioning is then in full bloom.
Even somewhat mature adolescents will (have) question why we are stuck with “you are not the best teacher for us who are not the best students” in a ranked allotting of students relying on previous grades. Perceiving an injustice, and projecting that injustice onto the instructor, illustrates a simple form of bully/victim dynamic.
We have all learned what it is like to be bullied, and likely in our darkest and most secret moments, have even explored, either literally or imaginatively, what it must be like for the bully. A middle-of-the-night scribbling, in dark felt black ink, using a bright orange pen, blurted what was a vain and poorly crafted spewing down a page, so infested with anger at a colleague, that, I imaginatively entered the pattern of Brutus, when faced with the prospect of killing Caesar. At no time, afterward, did I have any emotional reaction to that person. At another time, faced with a peculiar submission of a male “coach” who had bought into the “talking” therapy as a necessary discipline for all males, I blasted a screed arguing that men and women were not the same in this regard, and that even among men, we each have our unique and respectable differences. His reply noted a “shot across his bow” and I have never heard from him since.
Oscillating between victim and bully, however, is far too familiar a pattern, especially among those who have not had/taken the opportunity to excise the boil of their psychic wounds. And, ironically, especially in the entertainment world of popular culture, those “super” heroes, who can and will accomplish the impossible, while extremely attractive to young people, are at risk of implanting feelings of desire, aspiration, dreams and even actions in emulation of those “heroes” whose actions can veer into bully-hood.
Corporate executives, sometimes called “drivers” given their tightly held responsibility to make good things happen among unwilling pawns, can and do qualify too often as bullies, leaving the archetype of victim on the shop or office floor. Professional athletic leagues, tightly controlled by top-down owners and executives, manipulate their “actors” (players, coaches, managers) as if they were merely another piece of metal for a production line. And the preferred line of interpretation of that behaviour runs something like: “If he is a man, he will accept these decisions, without complaint, without revenge, without sulking and will keep his head high and continue to perform at his highest capacity.” Are the athletes victims, or does that apply only to those like Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee to protest racial injust, and has never thrown a pass in the NFL since, and likely will never throw another pass.
It is our capacity to discern the real victims from the faux victims that really matters, and yet in a culture in which “FAUX” trumps “real” and “authentic”, and alternative facts outwrestle, out shoot, and even erase real factual, scientific and credible information, that capacity is in jeopardy.
However, we cannot claim to be victims to that dynamic. After all, we are directly complicit in the developing background of that culture theme, whereby selling the “sizzle” and not the steak has been a montra for marketing professionals, for decades. Appealing to human emotion, especially those emotions that make one feel inadequate, frightened, small, unpopular, unwelcome, different, awkward, dumb, of the opposite gender, powerless, impotent….these are all magnets of the advertising copywriters’ vernacular. And whether or not those feelings actually exist, in any given target market, the opinion polls, the market research, the ‘opponent research” and the increasing detailed volume of that data, along with the hourly curating of that data, render each of us vulnerable to those highly seductive pitches.
Are we victims of that seduction? Many of us are, at various times.
And then there are social and political movements that arise when a group of people consider themselves “at a red line” moment, when they feel that something they regard as highly significant for them, is being eroded, evaded, dismissed, or even ignored. Victims and victimhood begat more victims and more victimhood. It is like another “mass movement” another pendulum swing of social attitudes, that vacillate from one extreme to its opposite.
The Americans renounce putting “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, in the face of Putin’s war-sabre-rattling on the Ukraine-Russian border, after twenty years of American debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how “honourable” was the service of those thousands of service personnel in both theatres. Reverting to isolation, as the former president did, is dramatic evidence of his need to “manipulate” (ride the evidence of the polls) appearing “strong” and “principled” and yet unwilling to acknowledge his inherent weakness and insecurity. The paradox of the victim/bully in incarnate in the presidency from 2017 through 2021 in Washington.
Oscillating from one pole to the opposite, however, is no way to run a railroad. We are not, individual or collectively, assigned to or resigned to a single archetype. We are all more than victim/bully. However, without acknowledging our uniqueness, our individual talent and perspective, not in a Hollywood-cheerleading manner, as “special” and capable of “anything” but rather in a much more modest and realistic, “grounded” in our deepest intrinsic personal feelings and motivations, and seeing and respecting both the limits of our “uniqueness” and the limits of our capacities, we run the risk of over-stepping our personal boundaries.
Those boundaries, unlike the sidelines on the football field, or the ‘key’ on a basketball court, are not marked out on our individual pathways. They have a tendency to emerge only after we have over-stepped them, when someone else yells, “Stop!” And it would seem, at least to this observer, that we are not very good at touching the arm of one who might be about to over-step a boundary, for which act s/he might live to regret for a very long time.
The institutional culture, the leadership culture, in all of the powerful offices and board rooms, have a singular responsibility to own and to acknowledge when they are abusing their power. That dynamic or theme, however, is in very short supply, in too many quarters where the occupants definitely know better. Whether they are hiding behind tradition, rules that are “absolutely right” for this institution, including the institution of the church in all of its many forms, or protecting their own “ass” by defining their modus operandi as “the end justifies the means”…in a wild-west, tyrannical exercise of testosterone (by both men and women)…or as the result of expectations of their perceived investor list…or for some other reason, they are really the prime mover of most of the victim attitudes and actions….even among novelists, playwrights and creators.
Tilting too far one way, as in physics, however, has the predictable impact of trending back to the other end of the pendulum. And it is this oscillation that we have to come to recognize, and to slow its pace and compress its compulsion, if we are going to stabilize otherwise intractable forces and individuals.