Carrying a Message Further • Part 2 – The Problem of Bullying in Social Justice Activism
How academic theory + revolutionary fervor legitimizes abuse
This is the second chapter of “Carrying a Message Further”, Part II of the “All We Are” series. These writings explore theories of ideological conditioning, ideas in the book “Cynical Theories”, the doctrine of “lived experience” (in which I explore my own lived experience of losing a close sibling to a tragic death), and reflections around Dr. Erec Smith’s argument for using empowerment as a basis for teaching, as laid out in his book, “Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: the Semblance of Empowerment”.
Erec Smith’s book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition begins with a prologue, in which he distinguishes two types of philosophical debate in Nichiren Buddhism: shoju and shakubuku.
Shoju, Smith states, is a method of exposing the truths of reality “in which one gradually leads another to the correct teaching according to the person’s capacity and without refuting his or her attachment to mistaken views.” It is the gentle approach that introduces truths to the student (whose current view of the world lacks wisdom) in a way that is slow and that begins with the perceptions and understandings that the student already has—some of which are accurate but tragically incomplete.
“This is an approach used when one feels an audience, of one or many, would not fully understand the elaborate truth or is not yet ready to think beyond long-held beliefs. Traditionally, shoju is used on people ‘without wisdom’ who, apparently, know no better than they have been taught.”
Shakubuku, on the other hand, gets straight to the heart of the matter from the understanding that the audience of our communication is ready for the unadorned truth. As Smith puts it, “shakubuku is an unapologetic speaking of truth to power” and is “the act of correcting false views while not pulling punches”.
Smith then states that most of his intended audience will see his book “as one of shakubuku”.
And they would be right. Since his years in graduate school, Smith informs us, he has been politely questioning “the nature of anti-racism in academia”, including some of the “scholarship and methodologies meant to eradicate racism from the individual and structural levels'', using the shoju method. But, after a period of time in which he tried the method of gradual questioning and the soft approach to challenging some of the ideas and practices that came out of anti-oppression ideologies that had taken hold of academia, he eventually came to the realization “that the boat really needed to capsize.”
Capsizing the Boat
This doesn’t mean, however, that the gloves have come off or that he has chosen to join in the fight with the intent to humiliate, defame, or “own the opposition.” In fact, quite the opposite. In keeping with the basic philosophy of Buddhism that informs the book, including the foundational Buddhist practice of “right speech”, Smith ends the prologue with a note to his audience that while he has chosen to speak candid truths to those who have seized the levers of ideological power in the world of academia, he does not do so with the intent to hurt people.
“So, I write this short prologue to let you know that I have no desire to hurt […] anyone. That being said, saying what I think needs to be said may cause people to feel like I am attacking. I already know that some people are taking my critiques personally. I already know that my views have been considered ‘hurtful.’
It should be noted that in choosing the shakubuku approach and openly pointing to that choice as foundational to this book and to his other recent writings (see Smith’s Newsweek piece on how expanding the definition of “harm” infantilizes people of color), Smith is offering up an undeniably firm respect for the wisdom and intelligence of his target audience—those who do not require a gentle, incrementalist nudging towards a more multi-dimensional, compassionate, and wise perspective.
Yet, in spite of the obvious respect, recognition, and deference he demonstrates to his intended audience, Smith beseeches this audience to conjure their best selves and their most open of mind-states in the service of discovering truth in the spirit of cooperation and humility.
I can only tell you that I seek truth and justice and I write this book solely from that interest. I genuinely hope people will read, engage, and critique it to their heart’s content. I want to know why they agree or disagree with my conclusions. One of the main motivations for this book is to encourage a productive and generative approach to disagreement and discourage attempts to silence, shut down, or shame others into submission.”
Having now placed a clear pronouncement around his intentions to not cause harm in the prologue, Smith continues onto the introduction with a clear and concise description of just what his book intends to do, beginning with the reminder that while he is dedicated to “the eradication of discrimination against people of color”, especially as a Black man, he is also compelled, “as a scholar of rhetoric and a fan of critical thinking”, to present a strong critique of current antiracism teaching practices.
From the introduction, which he titles “Something More than a Negro”:
“I argue generally that feelings and opinions have replaced critical thinking, or at least a robust critical thinking, in attempts to decenter whiteness and challenge hegemonic forces in academia. These feelings and opinions seem to have led to framings of the world that see violence against people of color in places where it may not necessarily exist, which works as an obstacle to dealing with actual racism. What’s more, the prevalence of feelings and opinions of reason and facts leads to ‘strategies’ that, if followed to their ultimate consequences, are more effective at enhancing group dignity and esteem than in actually making progressive changes to structural racism that can benefit our students and society at large. One cannot successfully change reality if one is effectively estranged from it.” [Bold emphasis, mine]
Smith informs the reader at this point that though he will spend some time exploring pedagogy (the philosophies and practices of teaching), his “main argument will be political and ideological”.
“Indeed, I argue that anti-racism initiatives and the narratives and ideologies that feed them result from a ‘primacy of identity’ that, itself, results from a strong sense of disempowerment that leads to fallacious interpretations of texts, situations, and people; an infantilization of the field, its scholars, and its students; an overemphasis of subjectivity and self-expression over empirical and critical thought; an embrace of racial essentialism; and a general neglect of rhetoric itself, especially regarding context, audience consideration, and logos.” [Bold emphasis, mine]
For some readers, a few questions might arise at this point.
Why would Erec Smith, a Black man with a Ph.D teaching rhetoric and composition at the college level during a time in which the voices and lived experiences of “Black and brown bodies” are being celebrated, studied, and explicitly centered in media, education, and politics in the United States and other Western countries feel compelled to communicate a lack of ill intent at several points in the beginning of the book? Why would an obviously well-intentioned, highly educated person of color need to offer caveats and preambles of any kind to justify a choice to speak openly and honestly about what he believes is in the best interests of people of color?
The answer is likely to include the prevalence of radicalization into totalist ideology across the political spectrum in the contemporary West and the resulting ideological possession that has taken hold of large swaths of people, including those who work in academia.
In other words, the totalist mindset needs to be placated.
And the answer might also include an acknowledgment that the advent of social media and a large variety of digital platforms has caused extreme views to become further distorted and then widely amplified in a society that has become awash in a culture of bullying, mobbing, reputation destruction and economic retribution, and malicious gossip in the name of the ideals of Critical Social Justice.
Simply put, the mob will go after people who step out of line.
In such an atmosphere, one has to be careful not to be associated with the bad.
As I discussed in Beyond Cynical Theories, the minds of many people in the Western hemisphere—and especially the United States—have become captured by a profoundly cynical view of the very nature of reality, which has resulted in the justification of interpersonal cruelty and the lack of moral restraint in those who have chosen to step into “a fight to the ideological death” against their perceived adversaries on “the other side”.
It is for this reason that one of the major frames through which I will explore the issues presented in Smith’s book is the frame of bullying. I will explore Smith’s own experiences of bullying in both the hegemonic atmosphere of a small mostly white conservative college and in the larger decentralized atmosphere of progressive anti-racist activism as well as the ways in which the bullying behaviors in both atmospheres are justified by “True Believers” who have been conditioned by a “totalist” ideological mindset. I will also describe how Smith’s conception of the aggrieved “Rightful King” mindset interacts with his conception of the aggrieved “Sacred Victim” mindset and how the defenders of the Sacred Victim mindset falsely accuse those who criticize victimhood ideologies as coming from the mind and heart of the Rightful King—the now common bullying tactic of reputation destruction and intentional misinterpretation.
In academia, this fight has been going on for a very long time, and for some targets, when this fight is taken into the realm of social media and online discussion forums, it can become vicious, vicious indeed.
In March of 2019, Inside Higher Ed published an article called “More Than Hateful Words”, which covered the heated discussions and bullying behaviors that have emerged in the Writing Program Administration Listserv (or WPA-L) over the past few years. The WPA-L is an online resource where writing scholars, part-time academics off the tenure track and others in the field of teaching writing can exchange ideas, share opportunities and discuss issues and trends related to the field. In recent years, issues and controversies around racial identity and movements to “decolonize” the curriculum across all grade levels have intensified in online platforms, department meetings, school boards, and virtually every public square, which has caused considerable strain in the teaching profession and for members of the public at large.
The official WPA-L listserv (like many educational organizations) is a microcosm of what is happening on a larger scale. The student population is diversifying at breakneck speed, which means that educators need to keep pace so that they can competently attend the task of honoring the “linguistic pluralism” of that population with its “multiple Englishes” while also maintaining enough of a baseline standard to keep society coherent and capable of fostering communication between and among its people.
This is not an easy task. It requires educators to develop an interest in students’ own ways of speaking English (which is called “discourse communities” in education circles), their cultural backgrounds and many other aspects of their humanity. A chief commitment in this endeavor is the development of cultural humility. To put it in simple language, teachers at all levels need to imagine what it’s like to be the “other,” to be a person who belongs to a community that is like a satellite that circles around the center planet, existing on the margins, and not considered as central or important in the scheme of things. That is, the student’s sense of self (or identity as a member of a marginalized community) needs to be considered when teaching her the craft of writing in English.
According to the article, issues discussed in the WPA-L listserv included the need for white writing teachers to examine their “visible and invisible privileges”, the duty of all educators to question the dominance and one-sidedness of traditional “standard” English, which was created by “privileged white men,” and the need for the field of rhetoric and composition to center the voices of marginalized communities in its research, its literature, and its teaching. Part of this endeavor involves the practice of “sitting in discomfort,” and, according to the frameworks of intersectionality and post-colonialism, those who are deemed to have “privileged” identities must learn not only to center the voices of and lived experiences of the marginalized, but to actively “de-center” themselves, their own communities, and their own experiences. Ultimately, this project is about consciously participating in “counter-hegemony” to offset the dominating (hegemonic) tendencies that are pre-supposed to exist in those who belong to one or more privileged identity groups and to dismantle the hegemonic structures that the privileged identity groups built for their own advantage at the expense of others.
These practices are aimed to uplift the marginalized, which is a worthy project as far as it goes. But, the past decade has shown that these practices can be taken so far that a culture of bullying can arise in which those who are not “doing the work” of “antiracism” good enough or who wind up saying the wrong thing, or simply run afoul of the doctrines of Critical Social Justice and adjacent anti-oppression ideologies become targets of harassment campaigns and relentless accusation. One of the interesting patterns that often arises in these campaigns is that often the members of the harassing mob end up claiming that it is they who are the ones being abused, bullied, and harassed.
Erec Smith had several such encounters in the WPA-L listserv, which he relays in his book, “Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition”. In each mobbing episode, both people of color (POC) and “white allies” ganged up on him for having a point of view that dissented from the orthodox doctrines of Critical Social Justice and its unique brand of antiracism. And, he is not the only person of color who has experienced this. In a May 13th Tweet, he reported the same phenomenon as it was happening in real time:
“Right now, on a rhetoric listserv (WPA-L), a POC is being attacked for having an opinion unbecoming of a person of color by both whites and POC. What's worse, his bullies are claiming that THEY are the ones being bullied…”
This experience of bullying was not new for Smith. The only thing that made it different was the fact that the bullying was coming from those who self-identified as “progressive”, a class of advocates that linguist John McWhorter has called “The Elect”. Years earlier, Smith experienced a different type of bullying culture as a Black academic, isolated, disrespected, and “othered” in a small, liberal arts college with an almost entirely white faculty—an experience that was not at all uncommon for Black academics over many decades.
Racial Bullying and “Othering”
In 2013, Smith shared his experiences of the unique blend of racial bias and academic bullying in an essay he contributed to a book called “Defining Locating, and Addressing Bullying in the WPA Workplace”. The book was put together by Bethany Davila and Cristyn L. Elder and includes survey data they collected from writing program administration (WPA) workplaces and essays by seven academics, recounting their experiences as targets of academic bullying campaigns. The experiences of these academics ranged from homophobic harassment; top-down bullying from tenure to non-tenure faculty; women facing condescending forms of sexism; cultures of “academic fundamentalism” that acted as a precursor to bullying; the silencing, forced self-censorship, and mistreatment of “contingent” faculty members (adjuncts); the bullying of pre-tenured WPAs of color by white tenured faculty; and, in Erec Smith’s case, the “academic insularity” that contributed to subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bullying and racial bias that he experienced as a writing center director, diversity program designer, and the only academic who specialized in rhetoric and composition at his former institution.
Smith’s contributing essay, “A Barbarian within the Gate: The Detriments of Insularity at a Small Liberal Arts College” describes a pervasive culture of “collective indifference” and even dismissive callousness towards his work, the down-playing of his role as a diversity worker charged with the responsibility to increase diversity and inclusion in the writing program, and the relentless broadcasting of casual contempt towards his specialty in rhetoric and composition, which was not seen by his colleagues as a legitimate form of academic scholarship.
Smith describes the beginning of his five-year stint at the college as a “barbarian at the gate” who appeared to be “infiltrating the ivory tower” and therefore posing a threat as the harbinger of “the impending death of traditional notions of the humanities”. He also describes how “this insularity manifests as both racial (my status as black man and diversity worker)” and as “discriminatory” against his own discipline of rhetoric and composition, which meant he spent a good deal of his professional time dealing with a culture that reinforced the “protection of academic hegemony” and an active resistance against anything new. He also understood that “the presence of minorities, too, revises the perception of Anglo-centric superiority and the norms and mores that come with it”, especially when the minorities are bringing in new disciplines and ushering in a more culturally diverse universe than the one that this nearly all white faculty had been accustomed to.
Even civic engagement outside of “erudite” scholarly research was frowned upon or ignored as illegitimate.
“For three years I included civic engagement—the tutoring of inner-city middle and high school students—in my writing center teaching and tutoring course. I partnered with high schools, community centers, and public writing centers…. No one cared that I was taking it upon myself to secure a campus van to drive my students forty minutes into the city and back for weeks at a time. It was not important work. No one knew why I was doing it (despite my telling them), and no one cared that I was doing it. No one.”
Connecting with people outside the institution—especially young people—was a civic action, one that brought the academic enterprise out from the world of disconnected, rarified abstraction into gritty reality where a real difference could be made in the lives of real people. And yet, in Smith’s words, this strange out-of-touch academic subculture seemed to believe that “to work with non-academics was to do non-academic work and thus unimportant work”. In the minds of his colleagues, Smith felt:
“Interdisciplinarity and civic engagement [...] were seen as the actions of those who simply did not belong”. Thus, to acknowledge my outreach to surrounding institutions and organizations was to take part in exercises of inferiority.”
Academic Insularity and Cultural Homogeneity
Smith sums up the academic culture at this college as one characterized by an “academic insularity” that “gives way to a cultural homogeneity” that acts like “a quarantine of sorts”, ever mindful to keep away from “the contagion of the masses”.
In this insular environment, it was nearly impossible to retain faculty of color, as “two tenured Black males and one tenure-track female were let go”, despite the fact that many in the faculty referred to themselves as “family.” How possible could it have been when there was a monoculture that marginalized them? For Smith, “as a black man—one carrying a torch for diversification to boot”— he was “a reminder of the outside world that was always threatening,” as he was “an African American rhetorician in such a community,” whose very presence was “to agitate, inherently” and received by the community as “a black sophist charged with worsening virtue and pulling refined sensibilities into base, anti-intellectual savagery.”
And, it hurt.
“Through either ignorance or subterfuge, I was presented as the less-than-worthy non-academic whose minority status, focus on diversity of culture and discourse, and desire to reach out beyond the college walls solidified my designation as ‘Other.’”
Over time, Smith came to the realization through hard experience that sustained exposure to an atmosphere of disrespect, othering, belittling, and bullying can be detrimental to a person’s physical and mental health.
“After a while, the bullying had me doubting myself when doing routine tasks I had taken for granted for years. I developed chest pains that caused me to wear a heart monitor. (The pains turned out to be a result of stress, which the colleagues who caused the stress had predicted.) My experience surely illustrates the power of stereotype threat.”
And, most importantly, he realized that—in this stodgy old world of tradition, convention, white superiority, and hegemonic customs of language, writing, and hierarchical professional academic culture—anything new he brought to the table would continue to be dismissed as invaluable and alien and, therefore, unworthy in the eyes of the gatekeepers.
Fortunately, Smith found his way to greener pastures a few years later, as a more progressive vision of inclusiveness began to explode onto the education scene, threatening to turn the old world represented by those five years in the Hegemony Hinterlands upside down and inside out.
But, Erec Smith would come to learn in only a few short years that the patterns of herd behavior, insularity, and ideological bullying would re-emerge from an entirely different world of ideas—a world of ideas that would claim to speak for all of the world’s marginalized people, non-Christian religions, atheists and misfits, the physically disabled, the neuro-diverse, and gender and sexual minorities.
As Smith would discover, bullying for the presumed greater good has become widespread in the second decade of the 21st century. Whether online, on the streets, in the arts, or in politics, schools, workplaces, and spiritual communities, bullying for justice has become our king.
The Bullying Problem: Invisible Epidemic or Strategic Phantom?
Recent years have seen a rapid proliferation of digital platforms, from work and personal emails to social media sites, dating apps, and smartphones. If we want a megaphone to communicate our displeasure with a person, group, movement, or idea, and we want an immediate audience to express that displeasure to, we do not have to look far. There’s nothing wrong with expressing our displeasure or with expressing anger or even rage, as long as it’s not violent, threatening, or repeated.
When we indulge our darkest, most abusive impulses and target people in a relentless campaign of repeated verbal “beatings,” we have entered the world of bullying, and that is a problem for us to be on the lookout for. And when we enlist others in this bullying campaign, we have then crossed over into the world of mobbing, which can have severe consequences for targets far beyond the public smearing of the target’s character.
It’s important to establish what we mean when we use the word “bullying,” especially in an age in which we are seeing not only a rise of cyberbullying but also the rise of the additional problem of the word “bullying” being overused and even actively exploited to gain the upper hand in a situation. The overuse of the word “bullying” has given rise to a pattern of false allegations even in situations that are simply a disagreement over public policy and in interpersonal conflicts that do not involve violence or threats.
While ten years ago (2011), it seemed necessary to raise the alarm around interpersonal abuse and bullying, it has now become additionally important to educate the public about what is not bullying.
In his 2016 groundbreaking paper on concept creep, Dr. Haslam described six distinct areas of human pathology that in recent years have had their definitions greatly expanded. The result is that the meanings (or concepts) of what constitutes abuse/neglect, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice have changed. In other words, the boundaries of what those words once described crept outwards to the point where they now cover a much larger number of behaviors and mental states. It’s now much easier, for example, to claim that another person’s actions have been abusive, traumatizing, racist, or misogynistic than it was just ten years ago. It’s also much easier to say that a person’s beliefs or personality traits are coming from a condition of mental derangement, delusion, ignorance, or addiction than it used to be.
The tendency to mis-categorize behaviors or to over-apply pathologizing labels to what were previously regarded as human errors in judgment or moments of lack of self-control has begun to spread to such a degree that the public perception around what constitutes human pathology has become muddy and confusing.
In response to the growing problem of concept creep, many articles have been coming out explaining the differences between popular perceptions of negative behaviors and painful experiences (e.g. bigotry and trauma) and the authentic realities that the original terms point to. Some misperceptions involve the amplification of a phenomenon, while other misperceptions involve the belief that certain behaviors and experiences are more prevalent than they actually might be in reality.
One example of a common misperception that writers are trying to clear up for the public involves the bullying tactics of gaslighting and the false accusation that others are gaslighting us, leading psychologists and others to write pieces explaining what gaslighting is and what gaslighting is not. It’s important to keep in mind that the primary motivations for some of these writings has been to shed light on the pattern of intentionally labeling disagreements as gaslighting to discredit people who have questioned our positions.
With so much confusion, it has become crucial to clarify definitions around what constitutes real abuse and bullying, so that we can distinguish the real thing from the normal, everyday conflicts that arise around paying the bills, raising kids, educational policy, social issues or any other disagreements that might lead to interpersonal conflict between two or more parties of equal status.
In the June 3, 2021 Atlantic article, Is Workplace Bullying a Genuine Phenomenon?, psychologist Elizabeth Englander defines bullying in simple terms:
“Bullying doesn’t refer to just any type of social cruelty, however; it’s specifically when an individual or group repeatedly and deliberately attacks a less powerful person. Bullies abuse their power continuously to make their target’s life a living hell.”
Englander also states in this article that just because we use the word “bullying” to describe someone’s behavior “doesn’t make it so,” and a single instance of meanness or a belittling comment here and there by a jerk is not the same thing as “waging a repetitive campaign of cruelty”.
So, the definition of bullying is clear. Bullying is about engaging in deliberate, relentless, repetitive, intentional attacks designed to hurt the target of the bullying.
My Professional Interest in Bullying
The impact of bullying has been an interest of mine for years, especially after several years of teaching in middle school and alternative high school settings. During my public school teaching years (before transitioning to college teaching), I worked with parent councils, school site councils, faculty senates, students, and administrators to draft bully prevention and school climate plans, and have seen upfront how effective proactive, multi-stakeholder planning can be in creating safe climates that do not allow any room for persistent, repeated bullying campaigns against any targets.
These types of intentionally designed environments are ones in which we can clearly see two messages simultaneously: 1) This is how we do business here; and 2) We don’t do that here. This is something that I had known intuitively for years, but it took some formal training to really get a sense of the mechanics involved behind the building of productive working environments.
In the late 2000s when I began my training in organizational change and pedagogy in a graduate education program in Educational Transformation at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, my interest in the phenomenon of bullying pivoted to the study of bullying between adults. During this period, I was exposed to theories that illuminated the connections between an organization’s micropolitics and the organization’s outcomes, and I was interested in how these patterns operated in educational environments.
In my earlier years of graduate study, my focus was on the micropolitics of public schools, and my Masters thesis covered the relationships between a school’s onsite governance structures, political behaviors among faculty and staff in individual schools, and their impact on outcomes. This thesis included the study of the relationships between faculty and student senates, parent councils, school site councils, administrations, support staff, faculty, librarians and parents and how the absence of active management of a school’s internal politics (which is sometimes called positive politics) can lead to unproductive conflicts.
One of the most influential books that informed my graduate and post-graduate work—and that continues to inform my views—is Robert V. Carlson’s Reforming Reform: Perspectives on Organization, Leadership, and School Change, which presented an in-depth analysis of organizational learning theories, addictive organizations, micropolitics, leadership theory, democratic governance structures, and the impact of these elements on educational outcomes in individual schools.
The following passage illuminates the power of democratic governance in educational environments:
“In the absence of any official rules, schools can become narrowly engaged in and distracted by micropolitics. Micropolitics are not necessarily a bad thing except when they infringe upon the rights of others and resort to forms of subterfuge and intimidation. In organizations built on principles of democracy, rights and responsibilities are more clearly articulated and public. Politics are forced to operate with a moral or ethical framework, which acts as a cross-check against individual political maneuverings. Mechanisms or processes should exist for holding individual actions accountable regardless of position of authority and for seeking redress for inappropriate actions. For democratization of educational institutions to occur, we need leaders more grounded in democratic principles and who understand their role in providing for wider participation than is currently the case.”
The offsetting of “individual political maneuverings” through the creation and maintenance of democratic governance structures is vital if we wish for an organization’s politics to “operate with a moral or ethical framework,” and this is especially important in K-12 schools and colleges which directly influence the character of those who will be running society in future years. The establishment of democratic principles and clear structures for democratic governance are a necessary safeguard to ensure that authoritarian approaches do not find a home in educational institutions across all grade levels.
Unfortunately, organizations with strong democratic governance structures are not entirely immune to having their outcomes negatively impacted by internal micropolitics, especially when the informal culture of the organization has made room for bullying behaviors to emerge. In schools, colleges, universities, and other academic environments, this is called academic bullying, an increasingly widespread problem which threatens to undermine the entire enterprise of education if solutions for prevention cannot be found. Many studies have come out in recent decades elucidating the problem of academic bullying in educational workplaces, including:
Breaking the Silence: Overcoming the Problem Of Principal Mistreatment of Teachers by Joseph and Jo Blasé
When Teachers Talk: Principle Abuse of Teachers (the Untold Story) by Rosalyn Susanne Schnall
Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It by Barbara M. De Luca
Confronting Academic Mobbing in Higher Education: Personal Accounts and Administrative Action by Caroline M. Crawford.
In addition to these and other books, the past decade has seen articles after articles coming out about the problem of academic bullying and its impact on faculty and staff health and effectiveness and student outcomes with pieces published in Nature Magazine, The Conversation, Inside Higher Ed, Science Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Guardian, and many other media platforms.
I became interested in the topic of workplace bullying after more than fifteen years of observations and professional experiences in public school settings in a wide variety of roles and from my observations as a tutor and instructor in various private, public, and nonprofit academic programs from the late 1990s to the early 2010s. Although my graduate work was not centered on the problem of workplace bullying, mobbing, and emotional abuse, the research I conducted for my graduate thesis project was in some ways a response to what I was able to learn from from my experiences, culminating in a model for community and workplace development that I originally called “Kindness at Work”. In 2014, I re-wrote the thesis in layperson’s terms and published the model, now called “Three Supports for Community and Organizational Development”, on my website, Support Your Mission, which was set up for a consulting practice.
Over the next several years, I continued my studies in professional communication strategies, conflict resolution, and the various leadership models that I am now teaching at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology and became involved in the Healthy Workplace Movement which is led by Suffolk University legal scholar David Yamada, the author of the anti-workplace bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.
In late 2014, when I was working on an essay on Robert K. Greenleaf’s model of servant leadership, I contacted David for permission to borrow part of the title of his essay, “The Social Responsibilities of Public Intellectuals at a Time of Extraordinary Need”, and, with his permission, published my essay, “Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need”. Later that year, David asked me to present the model of Servant Leadership and my professional communication curriculum that centered on the “Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work” at a Healthy Workplace workshop he ran at Suffolk University in Boston. At this workshop, I was fortunate to meet many other professionals involved in this movement, including organizational scholars, social workers, educators, social psychologists, therapists, and other legal and workplace scholars who were David’s colleagues and leaders in their own right.
What struck me about this workshop and the human dignity movement in general is the straightforwardness, compassion-orientation, and realism of its many participants, and I count myself as fortunate indeed to have been connected to this network. To date, David remains one of my top influences in the areas of workplace ethics, professional communication, and a relatively new area of scholarship called Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies.
David’s writings on the New Workplace Institute site (which includes two posts on servant leadership) offer a treasure trove of articles that provide tips on how to recognize workplace bullying patterns, descriptions of healthy organizational behavior, and announcements of important milestones in human rights advocacy, such as the launch of his organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, which advocates a healing and restorative model for approaching criminal law.
And if any of his writings might appeal to the largest variety of advocates who work on different causes related to human rights, dignity, and social justice, I can’t think of a single work of David’s that tops the Suffolk Law University paper he wrote for the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, Intellectual Activism and Public Interest Law.
Finding Common Ground in Anti-Bullying Movements
It’s interesting to note that David was somewhat troubled by a few statements Elizabeth Englander made in the Atlantic article I quoted above. In a blog entry on his New Workplace site, he noted that “she questions the reality of workplace bullying”, pointing to the following passage from her article:
"Ultimately, the word bullying may be simply a distraction. Whether a workplace problem fits the definition of bullying is secondary. What’s more important is promoting professional behavior and workplaces that improve the lot of employees.”
Noting that the two of them had much “common ground” in the recognition that bullying definitionally must include repeated behavior and the intention of causing harm, he writes in this piece that:
“Ultimately, by reserving the mantle of ‘bullying’ mainly for applications to children, her commentary overlooks decades of research, public education, clinical, and advocacy work on an international scale about workplace bullying and mobbing. Perhaps had she done a deeper dive into that abundant body of work, rather than build her piece around individual instances of bad bossism, the published result would’ve been different.”
In the final section called “Why Can’t We Seek Common Ground Instead”, David acknowledges something that I want to draw particular attention to as I near the end of this essay. To make it clear what I want to draw attention to, I will break up some of his statements and add commentary of my own.
“Ms. Englander’s primary domain is bullying among children. Mine is workplace bullying.”
As a public school teacher who participated in creating whole school improvement and bully prevention plans, I once considered bullying among children to be a primary domain in my informal and formal studies around bullying and school climates. And, through my graduate studies and my active participation in building onsite governance structures in public schools and at the college level (drafting and leading the collaborative revision and ratification process of bylaws and charters for school faculty senates and, most recently, a college senate), I considered workplace bullying, conflict resolution, and related issues between and among employees and employers to be a primary domain as well as I have moved forward in my career.
I now consider my primary interest around the problem of bullying to be in the area of what can variously be called political bullying, ideological bullying, moralist bullying, or activist bullying. This type of bullying has increased not only in social media spaces from extreme elements and bad actors across the political spectrum, including “alt right trolls”, “right wing reactionaries” and “far left” activists, but also in real life activist spaces, professional online discussion forums, threaded email conversations, mobile phone text messages, in-person meetings, and informal gatherings.
For the purposes of the All We Are series, I have chosen to focus on the ideologies and bullying behaviors that are manifesting on the left side of the political spectrum for reasons that I will describe in the next two chapters of “Carrying a Message Further.” For now, I will simply say that it is the far left world that I live in, so even if the same excesses and abuses I will be describing can be said to be coming from the right side of the political spectrum, I am not experiencing or witnessing those abuses in the same way or to the same extent. Most importantly, it is the left side of the political spectrum that I have a natural affinity for, as I fully explained in the introduction to “Beyond Cynical Theories,” which means that I have more at stake in resolving the excesses that I have come to be familiar with on my own “side.”
All that said, it’s absolutely vital for all anti-bullying movements that place human dignity, physical and emotional safety, collective liberation, and the individual rights of all human beings at the very center of our activism to share our insights so that we can reduce the unnecessary suffering and interpersonal cruelty that all forms of bullying bring upon people.
In a similar vein to what I just stated above, David Yamada provides, towards the end of his essay, the following advice about the need for us all to work together on behalf of children and adults everywhere:
“I respect that, at times, the dynamics of school bullying and workplace bullying are different. Indeed, I and many others have likened workplace bullying more to domestic abuse than to school bullying in terms of core relational dynamics. But I have increasingly regarded these differences as being less important than the similarities.
[…] The heart of the movement to address workplace bullying and mobbing has always been in steadfast support of efforts to respond to other forms of interpersonal abuse, such as school bullying, cyberbullying, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment. We’ve also learned that it’s unproductive to get overly hung up on labels and vocabulary, especially when it comes to the risks of creating turf battles.
[...] The more constructive common ground is to comprehend that bullying behaviors exist at every life stage and to share many related insights for our mutual benefit.” [Bold and italics mine].
And there it is. If we are serious about human dignity and genuinely interested in safeguarding the right to be free from harm of all people, then we will need to speak up about the forms of bullying that exist not only “at every life stage” but in every arena of society in which we can clearly see that bullying is occurring.
In our highly divided society, at this very moment, we need to summon the moral courage to speak out against the climate of intimidation, silencing, bullying, mobbing, and interpersonal cruelty that is occurring against our brothers and sisters and transgender siblings in the name of human rights and social justice.
To do anything less is to walk away from our obligation to reduce harm and suffering where we see it—especially those of us who have the influence and connections to do something about it and to insist that our friends, partners, comrades, and colleagues who share our causes live up to the highest ideals that our shared causes represent.
The first step is to name what is happening, so that we can do something about it and bring our world closer to the fair and benevolent vision that we have declared our allegiance to.
The name I am proposing to describe this phenomenon is social justice bullying.
The Prevalence of Social Justice Bullying
To date, I am not aware of any comprehensive studies about social justice bullying. However, there are many articles, Twitter collections, and online videos that have documented the widespread phenomenon.
Whether we call it cancel culture, callout culture, mobbing, or the “activist strategy” of publicly humiliating targets to “hold them accountable” for perceived wrongdoing, social justice bullying is something that’s real, and we need to find a way to reduce its impact on our interpersonal relationships, our workplaces, communities and neighborhoods, and on the public’s relationship to truth-telling which is intimately connected to the freedom of conscience, speech, and expression that are necessary for truth not only to be told, but to be discovered.
Bullying in the name of ideals happens on all sides of the political spectrum, and can rightly be considered a permanent potentiality in human behavior. But some forms of bullying have their origin not only in the group psychology that is part of the human experience, but also in the specific ideological constructs in an ideology that serve to legitimize the acts of bullying as a morally just action. We can see the influence of conceptual political frameworks on the choice to engage in bullying and mobbing behaviors in the video that was captured on November 16th, 2012, at an event hosted by the Canadian Association For Equality (CAFE). Warren Farrell was the featured speaker at this event, and college students who self-identified as feminists showed up not only to protest the event but to prevent it from happening.
The student activists can be seen shoving attendees of the event, insulting them with humiliating sexual innuendo and slurs, attempting to keep attendees out, and hurling accusations of misogyny and other accusations at anyone who wanted to go inside. One young man spoke on camera about losing two male friends to suicide, and how these events in his life drew him to the talk.
Although the event above is only one anecdote, it is representative of a style of social justice activism that has become not only popular but formally adopted among the wider culture of social justice activism. If the all-bad one-dimensional “enemies” we are fighting are perceived to be Nazis, fascists, racists, White Supremacists, homophobes, transphobes, xenophobes, and men who support “rape culture,” why shouldn’t activists show brute strength, rage, humiliation, dehumanization and raw power to defeat them?
The bullying culture and the ideologically conditioned mindset that has given rise to it has become so severe in recent years that many social justice activists and writers who share the goal of advancing human rights and progress have come out in public to join other critics of this culture by writing articles, speaking on podcasts, producing documentary films, and giving public talks to draw attention to the problem. Although by no means exhaustive, the following list provides a window into the current zeitgeist of social justice activism culture:
It’s Time for Us to Call Out Bullying by Social Justice Warriors by Cathy Young, which describes public incidents of “social justice bullying”, including one series of events that led to a suicide
Everything is Problematic by Yarrow Eady, which describes her descent as a college student “into a dark political world” from which she finally found “escape”
In Praise of Allies: Wherever we’re going, we’ll only get there together by Nicholas Powers, which describes the need for activists to be less bitter and more welcome to allies to their causes
The Problem with Wokeness by Ayishat Akanbi, which describes the culture of cruelty and resentment that has colonized movements for justice
No justice without love: why activism must be more generous by Frances Lee, which offers a vision for a more compassionate approach to activism
I Was the Mob Before the Mob Came for Me by Barrett Wilson, which describes his descent from being a well-known social justice “star” who publicly bullied others in the name of his ideals to becoming a target who was forced into a life of anonymity
Everything Oppresses, an anonymous Twitter account that collects thousands of non-famous events in which everyday, ordinary people are being publicly mobbed and/or fired from their jobs for small offenses or for speaking out against social justice bullying
Africa Brooke Speaks Out Against the Bullying Culture
One of the most powerful and moving writings that have recently come out is the piece, “An open letter: why I'm leaving the cult of wokeness” which was written by Africa Brooke, a writer, public speaker, and self-development coach. The letter is written like a poem with stanzas mixing up bold and italics and other stylistic choices to drive home the defiant spirit of Brooke’s declaration of independence from the group think and cult ideology that she calls “wokeness,” “social justice,” and “the successor ideology.”
She begins the letter with the following words:
“If there's one thing I'm NOT afraid of, it's being 'cancelled'.
If being cancelled means me living in integrity as a human being who thinks for themselves, CANCEL ME TODAY!
I repeat; I am not afraid.
What I'm truly afraid of is existing in a world that forces me to submit to an ideology without question, otherwise I'm to be shamed (or pressured to shame myself) and cast out of the community.
A world that tells me that because I inhabit a black body; I will forever be oppressed and at the mercy of some omnipresent monster called 'whiteness.'
That because of the colour of my skin; I am a victim of an inherently racist system by default - and me rejecting the narrative of oppression means that I am in fact, in denial.
In the same letter, Brook later points out the ideological conformity and the constant fear that she has noticed in “wokeism” culture:
“It's necessary for me to mention that I'm having these conversations with black people because some individuals think that it's only white people who are pushing back against wokeism, and it's far from the truth.
What is worrying though is how many more of us feel afraid to talk to our own friends, our partners, our spouses, our colleagues, our family - of fear of being branded as 'wrong-thinkers'. How are we supposed to understand each other if we're living in constant fear of saying the 'wrong' thing?”
This echoes Frances Lee’s concern, which they raised in “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists”. Lee, a Ph.D candidate in Cultural Studies describe a culture of fear in which even Lee, a transgender non-binary person of color is afraid of stepping out of line:
“In response to the unrestrained use of callouts and unchecked self-righteousness by leftist activists, I spend enormous amounts of energy protecting my activist identity from attack. I self-police what I say when among other activists.”
Is this the state of affairs that followers of the Successor Ideology are looking to install in Western societies? It’s hard to believe that anyone with even a small degree of pro-human ethics and psychological maturity would want to create a world like this. Yet, this is the world that is being created, which is leading a growing number of people who wish, in Brook’s words:
“[to] no longer be an active participant in any culture or movement that encourages groupthink, outrage on demand, fear and violence, revamped segregation, fabricating history, cancellations masked as accountability, self-centeredness… the normalisation of racism towards white people, the disempowerment of black people masked as social justice, the constant redefining of existing language, ignoring self-responsibility, constant pathologizing, oppressed vs oppressor mentality, and the pressure to conform and comply…”
Social Justice Bullying: Concluding Thoughts
Returning to Erec Smith’s series of Tweets about the bullying that is regularly happening in the online discussion listserv for Writing Program Administrators (WAP-L), we can see why the number of people who reject many of the more extreme tenets of Critical Social Justice is growing. Smith points out that “when people respond to stories like this with incredulity,” all he has “to do is show them the emails. (I'm glad the WPA-L is archived!)”.
The mass deprogramming that is beginning to take place is becoming easier due to the voluminous online paper trail left behind by the reckless overconfidence of the emotional abusers and kindly inquisitors who have chosen to overplay their hand in the name of social justice by harming reputations, destroying relationships, and undermining trust throughout our society.
The True Believers who choose to engage in abuse and bullying—stomping and pounding away at their perceived enemies— believe they are doing so for a noble cause and carry out their perpetration with enough academic polish and linguistic savvy to offer the cover of legitimacy. Smith aptly describes the abuse in this Twitter thread as “mud slinging in long form, with attribution, and footnotes.” And with the mountains of footnotes, attribution and mud tracks they are surely leaving behind, future historians are likely to be quite grateful, as they begin to compile the copious notes from today’s cultural revolution for tomorrow’s history books.
Whether the bad actors that Smith has described as going “beyond strawman fallacies” or as “just plain lying about what people are saying and doing” or simply projecting their own unprocessed need to indulge in rage and mental beatings, at some point the jig will be up, and the rest of us will no longer tolerate having to walk between the raindrops to avoid the attacks that we have come to expect.
Telling our stories is what is needed. Shining a light is what is called for. Opening up what has been closed. Revealing what has been covered.
Again, Smith Tweets:
“My motto for these things: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." This listserv is a treasure trove of empirical evidence of what the academic "woke" will do to destroy those who don't agree with them. I am who I am because they did the same to me two years ago.”
Over the next several chapters, we will examine some of Erec Smith’s ideas around “sacred victimhood,” micro-aggression theory, the primacy of group identity, and the influence of language on reinforcing racial essentialism and separateness and in creating a sense of disempowerment for individuals who have been initiated into the world view of the specific ideology known as Critical Social Justice. We will also cover some of Smith’s ideas around instilling in all students, and especially students of color, the freedom of conscience, intellectual autonomy, and the right to think for oneself as an individual beyond the circumstances of birth, the conditions of life, membership of a group identity—the birthright of all people from all walks of life.
As we will see, when we conceive of the world as being entirely constructed by power dynamics and as a struggle for dominance between our own group identities and the group identities of other people, it becomes all too easy to justify social violence—and sometimes even physical violence. And once the primacy of identity has established itself as the alpha and omega of our existence, we run the risk of surrendering our autonomy to the ceaseless cycle of self-protection and fear.
Whether we have identified with the entitlement of the rightful king who lays claim to historical dominance or with the preciousness of the sacred victim who lays claim to wisdom and special insight, Smith warns us that the primacy of group identity is a dead-end path that can only lead to frustration and disempowerment.
But, there is a great beauty in the recognition that this path leads to the deadest of ends. For, we are then free to discover the path of true empowerment and authenticity. And as we will see, these are two elements of the human experience that guardians of wisdom throughout the ages and in all cultures have always known to be worthy of defending.
Because they are both sacred and right.