Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Defending the Bully

| 17 Comments

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I’ve been bullied recently. Someone I know really well harassed me on email and I wrote indirectly about it when I wrote “When I’m no longer little” earlier.

For those of you who know me f2f, you’d be completely shocked because I’m really difficult to bully. I mean, if I were someone else, I would be afraid of messing with me. I speak out against injustice and I am not afraid to do it in front of our uni’s highest admins. I spoke out against our uni’s admins repeatedly at the time I was negotiating my shift from staff to faculty contract. A critical time. Of course, I had the support of my immediate boss, but I also could not remain silent against injustice.

And yet, today, when someone told me the same person who threatened me last week had harassed others, and asked whether I would be willing to make a case, to report it, I hesitated.

Such a hypocrite, right? But it is a kind of empathizing with my oppressor. Dangerous.

And then I was reading bell hooks (in Teaching to Transgress), about how in patriarchy we are often victimized by those close to us.

When I think about that person and what made him act that way, I think of the following:
He lashed out at me because he felt threatened by me, by my influence
He lashed out at me because he felt hurt that I had not reached out to him in a particular way.
These are both power and control issues.
And only a weak person who himself felt threatened would need to bully another in response.

And yet, that person, in some other ways, was a benevolent presence in my life, has helped me through a lot, even though he has also hurt me in multiple ways. Sure, he bullied and threatened me, but he did not break me and cannot do so. I saw through him pretty fast and held my ground. On one hand, I feel the urge to protect other people from him, and yet I do not feel I could do this to him.

I know, I know. He’s done it to me, but i understand why he felt the need to do that. And I know about all kinds of pain and suffering he deals with. I do not want to add to that. In some ways, he has lost enough of his own self-respect by what he did to me and a few other things he did later. And I am virtually unscathed but for a momentary scratch.

And yet he could hurt others.

And I am in a dilemma. Is this what happens to women of abusive husbands, who understand why their husband is driven to alcoholism and abuse, who accept it, and then inadvertently allow the same man to later hurt their children?

Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I now reproducing patriarchy, by letting this not get further?

Do i have the right to personalize this at all? To say that given my history with him, I should let it pass? Or do I have a responsibility to report this so as to support and protect others he has bullied?

Or do I have a responsibility to help him, let him know that his behavior is unacceptable, that he needs to question his actions and apologize for what he has done to me and others? This sounds like a good plan. Except I am practicing avoidance until this calms down, and again, he’s already suffering a lot.

But how can a situation like this improve? I don’t know.

I’m torn.

17 Comments

  1. It’s so true that people who are close to you or with whom you work closely are sometimes the ones who bully you. That’s tough because when you identify that person as a friend it’s more difficult to admit that what their language or behaviour is inappropriate. You keep balancing it out with all the good things they do.
    I wouldn’t be getting into a role where you were pointing out to that person that they are actually bullying. Alarm bells for me. That’s my experience anyway. When I’ve been bullied the hardest part was to distance yourself from that person instead of trying to be nice. Of course the bullying situations vary and some are more easily dealt with. Just my thoughts, Maha. Look after yourself – sounds like you are.

  2. Oh Maha, the situation you describe speaks directly to me. I have been in it.

    First of all, I’m just so flat out sorry that this has happened to you, and I really can imagine your surprise. There’s often a belief that bullying addresses itself to weak people, and that when it happens, there’s good on one side and bad on the other and that’s that. When it happens to strong people with a grounded sense of self, there’s such a sense of amazement. And now what?

    I learned that nothing can begin to prepare you for the misgivings and second-guessing that goes on in your head when you’re in it. If you’re a reflective professional, you can see the hurt on the other side, and it’s just incredibly hard to figure out how to take the next move, because bullying itself is a very complicated dance involving a sense of victimhood from the other. And it so often feels that you can only confirm that sense if you react—and especially if you report.

    No one can advise you who’s at a distance from your institution or situation, no one knows best the other relationships, structures or support available to you that enable you to judge your next move in relation to safety to you, balanced against the wellbeing of others.

    But I want to send you the strongest possible message of solidarity, respect and admiration for your careful laying out in this post of the way in which something we can name as bullying gets at the heart of the practices we value as reflective professionals.

    You have written something incredibly important here, that every workplace manager should read. Thank you.

  3. Maha, the thing about walking away or being tough enough to shake it off is that just doesn’t work. It clings to you and won’t let YOU settle down. As an active person who does things in an authentic way I can’t see you chopping off a connection–doesn’t fit the logic of who you are.
    Was just reading (over and over) the first two chapters of “Interpersonal Neurobiology” by Daniel J. Siegel on relationships being a flow of energy that we may not be able to turn off. This says to me that we aren’t weird for considering the bully’s situation nor do we seem able to dismiss an established connection when it starts being negative.
    I’ve managed to work myself into a bad relationship with my oncologist that needs fixing and I feel strangely obliged to understand where she is coming from even though there appears to be no particular advantage. Why should I care that her behavior hurts me as a patient? There’s lots of other oncologists available to me and she was “assigned” my case by simply being available on the day I came into the clinic. I could just walk away and it would be over.
    Maybe the price of knowing people as are so good at comes with the condition that you can’t un-know them without a damaging yourself?

  4. @Bali_Maha bullies exploite weakness in others. Sometimes they are blind to their own behaviour. Stopping it is different to reporting it.

  5. I think I can predict your answer to this, Maha, but are you absolutely certain that he was aware that he was bullying you? Bullying is sometimes more the case of impact rather than intent. You felt bullied (of course I don’t doubt that) but it might be worth trying to establish if he *meant* to bully you or if he’d wriggle on a fork tine labelled ‘being forthright’, ‘stating my opinion’, etc. Just a thought.

    I was bullied once (not recently). So was a colleague of mine. We we were both men in our thirties and we were bullied by an older woman in the workplace. We both won substantial financial damages… but it meant we couldn’t work there anymore. Or at least, I couldn’t (I can’t speak for my colleague). It was horrible but it needed to be done. I had a Union Rep to negotiate a deal that felt increasingly surreal the further into the discussions we travelled.

    Thoughts are with you. A difficult situation. But I’d make sure (if I were you) that management is aware; that you keep it all written down (the bullying diary); that he is aware that you have his comments on the record.

    • Hey David, i have responded to u privately with more detail. I didn’t even think it was bullying until others pointed it out. Now it is very clear to me it was.

      • Hi Maha. I think, in that case, you should put it all on the record. Tell someone in authority. Go to the top if necessary… as painful as it might be. Especially if he’s doing it to others as well.

        • I agree with this Mathew. When this happens, it’s best to document it, preferably with your HR department using normal channels. What you say to HR should be confidential and not reported to anyone else, including your supervisor, but everything about you goes to them eventually. Doing this can help to protect you, make you feel you have done something, and has a low risk of blowing back in your face as a more public complaint might do.

  6. @scottx5 “Maha, the thing about walking away or being tough enough to shake it off is that just doesn’t work. It clings to you and won’t let YOU settle down.”

    This is an excellent point; I agree wholeheartedly.

    • We work in education and this field depends heavily on collaboration and good-faith among colleagues. Bullying is symptomatic of serious dysfunction in the workplace or within an organization. I was recently bullied at work and left my job as a result. At the end of it, there was nothing left to salvage and the experience left me certain that I had been wasting my time for several years already.

      Bullies are sociopaths and they need therapy, not sympathy. Turning this back on ourselves and asking what involvement we have in it personally is a natural reaction for educators, but it is very destructive and it does not address the root cause of the problem. Bullies do not want approval or co-operation, they only want fear. You can spot them because no one is ever indifferent to them, people either avoid them because they are fearful, or they suck up to them because they are fearful. Bullies will also be obsequious to those in authority. They will try to establish close relations with such people, and them use them to intimidate others.

      When we are bullied we have a moral and ethical obligation to do something about it. If left unchecked, bullying can deeply undermine an organization and destroy everyone’s hard work for years to come. The outcome of our action may be that the bully leaves, or it may be that we leave, but in either event we have done something about it. Doing nothing is also a response and it is the wrong one.

  7. I also agree strongly about keeping a record, especially of emails. You may choose (or be asked) later to speak up, when your recall isn’t fresh. And I really agree that it’s right, and hard, to reflect on the question of intent. Understanding just how intent can be relevant in these complex situations doesn’t mean defending anything, it just means that we have a clearer sense of what’s before us.

    Did you look at the questions in the Guardian’s recent bullying survey? It’s not the right term for every bad thing that happens, and it’s not nothing either.

  8. So much good and detailed advice here I hesitate to add anything else but can’t resist repeating a couple of time-worn maxims. “Always listen to advice – you don’t have to take it!” and “Pick your battles wisely – fight only the important ones and let the rest go.” Take care Maha!

    • Thanks everyone – it is a lot of good and supportive advice, and i will come back and contemplate and probably take a combination of it all – but i am blessed to have so many caring ppl around me.

  9. Agree that doing nothing is wrong. Left alone the behaviour becomes the norm and can even work its way into relationships outside the actual parties involved. I worked at an organization where certain categories of job titles could be treated like dirt and other seemingly caring staff could turn nasty on a person based on nothing but a simple written policy.
    Sadly, I think most people are cowards and many forms of bullying are acceptable. My experience is though standing up to bullying is necessary it comes with the cost of being shunned for not accepting certain twisted social “arrangements” as not to be talked about.

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