Behaviors can be Bad; People are Always Complex

A person in my inner circle is being bullied at work. She’s relatively new to the team and when she brought in her signature high standards and courageous willingness to invite people to reach for them with her, those who preferred the status quo of eeking by got a bit riled up, spurred on by one particular person. That person has been willing to use all manner of language to describe my friend, none of it kind; that person has been willing to overtly and intentionally invite others to treat her in similarly dehumanizing ways.

Without that person? There would almost certainly have been others who grumbled quietly at the push toward higher standards (i.e. more work) but would it have devolved into full-on bullying? There’s no way to know.

I can say with some certainty that this isn’t about my friend. It’s about reactivity to change and since she has been the most visible proponent of that change, and a newbie to boot, she’s been the most convenient and obvious person upon whom to heap the blame. Not that that makes it more comfortable for her at work.

We see this dynamic all around us these days. Bullies can be loud and fierce and it is easy to take their ranting and behaviors very personally. I certainly feel it in my bones and guts each time I hear another story from my friend’s workplace, every time I read of another hate/fear-fueled crime or attack. In those times, I can feel a part of me that wants to boil down the perpetrators into two-dimensional renderings of people, monsters with no complexity or humanity made only of bile and rage. And yet a blog post by Brené Brown – Dehumanizing Always Starts with Language – lives tucked in the back of my mind and I feel her reminder that, “Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst.”

My friend’s challenge is to see the bully as fully human, working from wounds and history that have led him to the point of being cruel – perhaps even dangerous – while also pushing back against his behavior. More broadly, one of our greatest challenge as a world community these days is much the same: Standing up to the dehumanizing behaviors perpetrated by others without dehumanizing them in our reactivity.

In a conversation from 2005, the wonderful writer and activist Alice Walker described to Pema Chödrön, a renowned Buddhist nun and teacher, how she would work to see her political opponents – those who spurred her activist efforts – as the babies they once were, an exercise in remembering their humanity. It wasn’t always easy, she admitted, and sometimes she found it impossible, yet no effort to stay connected to our shared humanity is wasted.