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Film exposes ambiguities of workplace bullying
Why was the media so quick to jump to conclusions after a tragic suicide at the University of Virginia?
What Killed Kevin? is a documentary that must be watched by anyone who wishes to understand why society’s intensive anti-bullying efforts have been failing. It is fundamentally different from every other documentary on bullying I know of, all of which have an agenda of intensifying public outrage against bullies.
To grasp the true importance of this film it is necessary to realize that the story it reveals is not a rare exception to anti-bullying efforts but the rule. Anyone responsible for investigating bullying complaints in a school, company or organization routinely encounters the same kinds of problems Beverly Peterson exposes. Furthermore, the unscientific methods and questionable ethics employed by the anti-bullying activists in this film are also representative of the modus operandi of anti-bullying organizations in general. Peterson even has the courage to use the term “witch hunt” to describe the situation she uncovered. Witch hunt is, in fact, an accurate description of the anti-bully movement as a whole. As Peterson discovered, accusing someone of being a bully has become a remarkably easy and effective way to destroy their career and bring misery upon their family.
The modern world is well into its second decade of intensive anti-bullying warfare and all it has to show for its efforts is a bullying “epidemic” or “pandemic.” Whenever a new bullying-related suicide highlights society’s failure to eliminate bullying, it is predictably followed by passionate cries that anti-bullying efforts must be intensified. Not only are these cries made by the general public, they are also made by revered scientific bullying experts who should be obligated by their professional standards to question why antibullyism is failing rather than blindly promote it.
The most financially successful bullying documentary to date is Bully, produced by Lee Hirsch. His film is simply a more professionally produced version of every other anti-bullying documentary, whose agenda is to combat bullying by raising awareness of the suffering of its victims.
How this film is different
Ms. Peterson’s film is truly groundbreaking. Like Hirsch, she embarked on this project with the expectation of revealing the horrors caused by bullying. Unlike Hirsch, she has functioned as a true investigative journalist, willing to abandon her anti-bully agenda when confronted with inconvenient facts. As she says, “I began this film as an advocate against workplace bullying. But what I found instead was proposed legislation that had turned into a witch hunt, whether or not a proof of guilt or innocence had been determined.”
Her courage deserves our admiration, for anyone daring to challenge the sanctity of antibullyism is bound to face vicious attacks by passionate anti-bully crusaders. What Killed Kevin? is, to the best of my knowledge, the only professional-level film that will give you an accurate picture both of the tactics of the anti-bully industry as well as of the most basic problem underlying antibullyism: determining who is the bully.
I would dare to speculate that even Peterson is unaware of the extent of her film’s importance. A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of a leisurely dinner with her in a charming Staten Island restaurant. I got the impression that she is not aware of how typical the story is of anti-bullying efforts. And she continues to harbor a belief that anti-bullying policies, if only formulated the right way, can somehow succeed in creating a society in which everyone feels they are treated with dignity by everyone else. The idea that bullying can be legislated out of existence is so tantalizing that even Ms. Peterson has difficulty appreciating the profundity of her findings.
The real story
The ‘Kevin’ of her film is Kevin Morrissey, who committed suicide on July 30, 2010 while serving as managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), a literary journal of the University of Virginia. He had been invited to the position by his friend, the journal’s editor Ted Genoways. Their work relationship had been progressively deteriorating, and Kevin entered into a depression, convinced that Ted was going to fire him despite his reassurances to the contrary. One morning Kevin called 911 to report a killing and then shot himself in the head with the dispatcher listening. The sensation-loving national news media hungrily jumped on the story, turning Kevin into a symbol of the widespread scourge of workplace bullying.
Peterson, herself a survivor of workplace bullying, chose to join the pack of reporters investigating Kevin’s story. She says, “In the end, I was finally able to connect with all of Kevin’s coworkers. What they told me would make me question everything I knew about the topic.”
Based on the interviews in the film, Kevin’s experience at the VQR doesn’t remotely resemble what could be defined as bullying. In fact, a case could just as well be made that Ted felt bullied by Kevin. Kevin was anything but an ideal, saintly worker who became a hapless victim of a power-hungry boss with nothing better to do than inflate his impoverished ego by tormenting his employees. Kevin had grown up in what his sister, Maria, calls "a pretty disfunctional family." As an adult he was insecure and prone to great mood swings, exuberant when things went well for him and devastated when they didn’t. Ted Genoways took the chance of hiring his friend Kevin even though Kevin informed him that he had many jobs in which a friend hired him and before long he lost not only the job but also the friendship. When his relationship with Ted was spiraling downwards, he told Ted, apparently reflecting on his previous work experiences, “I see your role as a manager is very simple. You either have to make me happy or you have to try to get rid of me.”
The real bully
Peterson doesn’t label anyone in the film a victim or a bully, as she allows us to come to our own conclusions. While several people in the film clearly present themselves as victims, not even one acknowledges being a bully. Surprisingly, though, the only person in the story who clearly fits the image of a bully is none other than our country’s leading workplace anti-bullying crusader and creator of the Workplace Bullying Institute, Dr. Gary Namie, PhD! He took advantage of Kevin’s suicide to press for anti-bullying legislation that would likely result in greatly increased demand for anti-bullying consulting services.
The following is the process by which Maria discovered what happened to Kevin at work. When she heard of Kevin's suicide, she called the VQR and spoke with an employee, Waldo Jaquith, who used the word "bullying" to describe what he felt Kevin experienced, though he did not know of the concept of "workplace bullying" and didn't mean it in the way that Namie does.
Wishing to understand what "bullying" meant, Maria did a Google search and came across the Workplace Bullying Institute, in which Namie describes workplace bullying as a "systematic, laser focused campaign of interpersonal destruction, a unilaterally declared war by the perpetrator–the bully–on a couple of targets. And they do this because they cannot stand the competence, the strength, the emotional intelligence, the likeability of the targeted person. They will use political influence up the hierarchy and bring it down to crush the target." She emailed the Workplace Bullying Institute, and Namie called her a few days later to discuss with her what had happened to Kevin. With essentially no details of the case, he informed Maria that Kevin had been a victim of the kind of systematic targeting for destruction described above.
Waldo, with disgust, says that Namie continued to present that picture of what happened to Kevin, without even bothering to call him (Waldo) to verify what he had meant. Waldo says he thought about Namie, "You jerk, you have no idea," and that "It looked to me like opportunism built on ignorance." Yet Namie's version is the one that came to define to Maria what happened to Kevin and has driven her activism for anti-bullying laws. She and her family have subsequently filed a lawsuit for ten million dollars against Ted Genoways and the University of Virginia.
Namie also tried to take advantage of the suicide to pressure the university to hire him as a consultant after it had previously passed him over in favor of what Namie called a “motivational speaker.” He wrote to them implying that Kevin would still be alive had they hired him instead, and that they should do so now.
Peterson also documents the bullying perpetrated by anti-bullying activists, who embarked on a campaign against Ted Genoways and his family, bombarding them with hateful and even life-threatening letters and phone calls. These attacks, and anti-bullying accusations and investigations against Genoways, caused tremendous grief to him and his family, and may have contributed to his decision to leave his his job at VQR.
What Killed Kevin? is a story of the pivotal case that made workplace bullying a hot media topic. However, it is a microcosm of the field of bullying. Anti-bullying advocates routinely bully anyone who stands in their way and passionately fight for anti-bullying laws without any scientific evidence that they work or even can work. They predictably capitalize on any suicide that can be presented as remotely related to bullying, such as those of Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clemente, to coerce legislatures to pass draconian anti-bullying laws. Schools and other organizations, eager to identify and eradicate bullies, are ceaselessly confounded in their efforts, as each side passionately insists that they are the victim and the other is the bully. And filing bullying complaints is almost certain to cause profound and prolonged suffering to the accused and their families.
The general public can be excused for blindly supporting antibullyism because it sounds so right and they can’t be expected to know any better. But why would scientists like Namie be engaged in activities that are so unscientific? Why would scientists who are devoted to eliminating bullying act like bullies?
It’s because, as I have written many times before, the field of bullying is not really scientific. Science is about trying to understand objective reality. Science-minded psychologists understand that every phenomenon has a purpose, that everything we do–or don’t do–has repercussions and affects the way people think of us and treat us, and that there are likely to be unintended negative consequences to any interventions.
The field of bullying has taken root in psychology but is actually based on a law-enforcement paradigm. It looks at social life through legal lenses in which people fall into one of three categories: innocent victims, guilty bullies, or bystanders who either passively or actively enable bullying to occur.
There is a fundamental difference between the psychological profession and the legal profession. If I am a psychologist and you are my client, I am interested in objective truth–in seeing the whole picture, especially your role in creating your reality. My job is to help you reduce hostility in your life and increase your happiness by getting you to take responsibility for your problem and leading you to a solution. I can’t help you by blaming other people and fighting them for you.
On the other hand, if I am a lawyer and you are my client I am not interested in revealing objective truth. That is the job of the judge. If I am presenting your role in creating the problem, you should fire me and get yourself a good lawyer. My job is strictly to take your side against your opponent, fight them as hard as I can, and try to get the court to punish them and make them pay. The better I intimidate the opposition, the more successful I will be in helping you.
Now you can understand Dr Namie’s professional activities. While his profession is psychology, he is not teaching clients to take responsibility for their problems. He is functioning as their legal advocate against their alleged bullies and their employers. He has certainly discovered that helping people wage legal battles is far more lucrative than counseling them on how to improve their workplace relationships on their own.
Namie has created a business with a scientific sounding name, “Workplace Bullying Institute.” However, it is not a scientific institute but a legal advocacy institute, and one of his major board members and collaborators is Prof. David Yamada, a legal expert. If there is any kind of research going on there, it is not for the purpose of objectively understanding the phenomenon of bullying. The Institute exists explicitly for building a legal case for victims against their employers and for lobbying for laws that make it easier for them to win lawsuits. That’s why he portrays anyone who claims to be a victim in absurdly glowing terms as supremely competent angels and demonizes bullies as power hungry, conniving creatures with no conscience. This is not science.
It is not only Peterson’s film in which Namie comes across like a bully. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek refers to him as someone who “bullies bullies,” though the author apparently admires him for this. However, one needs only to read his writings and watch his videos to see how nasty he is towards alleged bullies. He calls them “snakes, assholes, jerks, creeps, thieves, extortionists, psychopaths, bitches and terrorists.” He instructs employees who feel bullied to do to their employers precisely those actions that he defines as bullying. He teaches them to dig up information against them, to get allies on their side against them, to keep detailed records and to file complaints against them. These actions are bound to cause havoc and misery to the company and cost it lots of money. If their bosses didn’t already hate them before they began following Namie’s instructions, they will certainly do so afterwards.
Dr. Namie also lashes out at anyone who writes anything about bullying that he doesn’t like, demeaning their personalities and professional competence. To see a perfect example of bullying, read Namie’s attack against Debby Mayne, an etiquette expert who wrote an advice piece on avoiding workplace bullying. Poor Debby. I wouldn’t be surprised if she never dares to mention workplace bullying again. Or read his condescending treatment of anthropologist Janice Harper, who dared to refer (quite accurately, I must say) to the “anti-bully hysteria” in her Huffington Post column. I shudder to think what he will do to me if he discovers this article.
How can our nation’s leading workplace anti-bullying expert be a bully?It’s because we’re all bullies. (Yes, me too. In this article I am bullying Gary Namie.) Bully is not a diagnosis but a subjective experience. We rarely think of ourselves as bullies. We almost always see ourselves as the innocent victim and the other as the evil bully. Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance is an attempt to explain our unique human tendency to justify our own behavior to avoid awareness of our hypocrisy. Both philosophers and psychologists have long been aware that we are highly adept at seeing faults in others while being blind to our own. Namie certainly doesn’t see himself as a bully. It’s the people whom he attacks that experience him as a bully and themselves as his victims. In his own eyes, Namie is a moral crusader fighting on behalf of virtuous victims against the evil bullies of the world. But as history shows, crusaders are rarely harmless. They self-righteously attempt to destroy those they identify as evil and feel great doing so.
The anti-bully witch-hunt
Peterson discovered that the process conducted against Ted Genoways was a witch-hunt. Someone needed to be blamed for Kevin’s suicide, and Ted was the most convenient target.
But it’s not just this case that is a witch-hunt. The term witch-hunt may sound harsh, but it is common social phenomenon. And it is an accurate description of the anti-bully movement.
A witch-hunt comes about when society experiences some kind of epidemic and doesn’t know the cause. Self-proclaimed experts who present themselves as paragons of virtue declare that they have determined the source of the epidemic to be specific evil people, such as witches, and that they have the key to identifying them. They dehumanize the witches, spread fear and hatred of them, and intimidate anyone who doesn’t join the witch-hunt. The naïve public, desperate to end the epidemic, and not wanting to be accused of being a witch or a witch-collaborator, enlist in the hunt. It is easy to get people to join because they know they are not a witch, so the witch must be someone else. However, the witches are rarely easy to identify because they look just like us. Mass paranoia quickly engulfs the society as people suspect and accuse each other of being a witch. Furthermore, killing the witches doesn’t make the epidemic stop because the witches don’t cause the epidemic. Ultimately, the most evil, destructive people are not the witches but the witch-hunters themselves.
In addition to hunts for witches per se, history is replete with witch-hunts against Jews, gypsies, women, children, blacks, racists, homosexuals, homophobes, capitalists, Communists and terrorists. The most popular witch-hunt of all time is our anti-bully movement, a gut reaction to the spate of school shootings and suicides by young people who presented themselves as victims of bullies. The hunt is spearheaded by academics armed with psychology degrees informing us that bullies are to blame for the massacres and suicides, and crusading against bullies in order to put a stop to these tragedies. Bullying researchers provide us with a never-ending stream of findings about the high prevalence and destructiveness of bullying. The media, which love a good witch-hunt to promote ratings, disseminate their terrifying findings to the public. Governments the world-over have been pressured into passing anti-bullying laws, turning the bully witch-hunt into an official legal mandate. Schools and workplaces are now forced by law to apprehend and eliminate the bullies in their establishments or they can face costly lawsuits.
The entire world has enthusiastically pledged allegiance to antibullyism because almost all of us think we are the victims and are thrilled by the idea that society will get rid of our bullies for us. We don’t bother considering that with bullying so prevalent, someone must be doing it, which means we are about as likely to be accused of being a bully as a victim. Meanwhile, anti-bully hysteria has become ubiquitous, with bullying having surpassed drugs as the number one fear of parents. Mutual accusations of being a bully have become rampant in society. And the number of anti-bully lawsuits is growing. Unfortunately, as with all witch-hunts, the massive efforts to identify and eradicate bullies have failed to impede massacres and suicides because bullies don’t commit massacres and suicides. They are committed by people who experience themselves as victims.
Dr. Namie is a witch-hunter par excellence. He has dehumanized bullies by labeling them animals, a tactic routinely employed by racists to justify persecuting and even eradicating groups they consider to be evil or inferior. Just as Hitler called Jews swine and white supremacists called Blacks monkeys, Namie animalizes bullies in the title of his recent book, The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization. Only a society in the grips of witch-hunt fever could let a scientist get away with describing fellow human beings by such terms. He has proclaimed himself as a crusader on the side of absolute good against absolute evil, and he tries to intimidate us into taking his side by declaring that if we don’t, we are de facto pro-bully and anti-victim. In the same article in which he argues that if we are not anti-bully then we are pro-bully, he declares, “We are not anti-bully.” Does this mean Namie is pro-bully?
In the concluding remarks of that article, Namie says, “On behalf of the 54 million Americans bullied at work, WBI asks pro-bully advocates to switch sides. You’re on the wrong side of this moral issue. Come join the good guys and gals.” Yes, let’s not be on the side of the evil witches. Let’s join the virtuous witch-hunters.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying there is no room for suing people at work. The legal system is needed for dealing with crime. If someone at work has committed a crime against you, take legal action. Hire a lawyer, not a psychologist. But if a crime has been committed, that crime already has a name and a good lawyer will be able to identify it. It might be something like extortion, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, theft of wages, racial discrimination, libel, slander, rape, or assault and battery. Calling an act “bullying” doesn’t clarify anything. It only befuddles the situation. And accusing someone of being a “bully” implies that he is by definition guilty. Our legal system considers people innocent until proven guilty.
This film deserves a huge public relations budget
A structure built on a faulty foundation will end up crashing down under its own weight. Like all witch-hunts, antibullyism, despite its good intentions and monumental popularity, is doomed to continue failing because logically it can’t possibly work. How can we get rid of bullying when our anti-bullying leaders routinely engage in it? Just think about it: 54 million victims of workplace bullying! With so many of us being victims, who is doing the bullying? If we want tough anti-bullying laws, we shouldn’t be surprised when we find ourselves being the defendants in court.
Social scientists are trying so hard to create a harmonious society in which everyone feels they are treated with dignity. Our anti-bully crusade has instead been unwittingly promoting hatred and intolerance. What Killed Kevin should help us realize that we will never achieve a peaceful society until we stop seeing the bullies in other people. As Jesus said (and I am strictly referring to him as a teacher of wisdom, not as a divine character), “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:5)
What Killed Kevin? deserves the kind of huge promotional budget enjoyed by Lee Hirsch’s Bully, backed by the Weinstein brothers. In fact, it deserves a much bigger budget, as its message is far more urgent for the public welfare. And I hope the news media, whose mission is to disseminate information, including that which is unpopular, will also give this film the kind of free publicity it gives to Bully. The public has been informed ad nauseum about the pain caused by bullies. It needs to learn what’s wrong with the campaign against bullies.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.
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