By Matt Sharpe
Matthew Sharpe is the author of books on philosophy as a way of life, and a coorganiser of the Melbourne Stoicon-x events in Stoic week each year. He is instructor for the course, “How to Be a Stoic” at Think Inc, Academy and his new book, Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond: How to Keep Your Head When Others Around You Have Lost Theirs and Blame You, is out now globally.
Wherever there are social groups, it seems, there are bullies: from primary schools to offices and houses of parliament. There’s been a wealth of research in recent decades on how bullying works, why people do it, and what kinds of people are involved. The numbers in schools and workplaces are huge, as are the costs to individuals, communities, workplaces, and economies.
Nevertheless, most people who are targeted by bullies are caught completely off guard. They struggle to believe some of the things that happen to them. They wrestle with what they might have done to possibly cause this. They struggle with whether and how to communicate their experiences, and often, they develop severe forms of anxiety and post-traumatic symptoms.
Following the groundbreaking sociologist Heinz Leymann, whose works did so much to bring workplace bullying and its social dimensions (“mobbing”) to scholarly attention, bullying can be seen as a kind of psychological terrorism. It works by shocking and destabilizing and isolating a person. And then, once they begin to react, for instance by showing signs of fear, distress, or anger, it gathers a kind of vicious momentum: “see, this person is unstable … unsuitable for this job ... not really up to it."
Bullies who are smart recruit others to share the torment (and the possible blame). Many of them are adept at convincing bosses to back them up in advance, or else have ascended to leadership positions themselves, from whence they feel empowered to “manage people out” by means of standard bullying tactics: rumors, false accusations, exclusion from social events and information loops, disregarding of (or “blocking”) a person’s work, and other forms of low level intimidation, reaching down to discussing their private lives behind their backs (or to their faces), or sending aggressive or suggestive emails to see what buttons they can push.
The psychological and ethical challenge bullying targets face then cannot be taken too seriously. If ever there were a cohort of people out there who need Stoic care of the self, it is these millions of people who we know, every day, around the world, are facing up to the kinds of “tactics” I just listed, and more, as well as the negative social, emotional, and professional effects that they are intended to have.
In what follows, let me get straight to the heart of things. I mean the deepest harms that bullying can cause, as involving what Leymann (again) identified as a kind of five-frontal attack on a person’s capacity to communicate, their social being, the professional reputation, their capacities to keep doing their jobs, and as such, their larger selves.
A Place to Stand
If bullying was only ever a single incident of insult, baiting, backstabbing, selling another down the stream, throwing them under the bus …, that would be one thing. By very definition, however, bullying represents a pattern of such “offensive behavior through vindictive, cruel, malicious, or humiliating attempts to undermine an individual or groups of employees,” to quote the International Labor Organization. As mentioned above, the cumulative effect, especially when the bully recruits a “mob”, and gets a manager onside to prevent the target’s protests being treated fairly, is much more potentially damaging. The target’s ability to tell their own story about who they are at work, what they stand for, and what they are worth are all being undermined. In extreme cases, targets can end up feeling completely lost and profoundly violated.
Faced with this almost existential disorientation, when almost nothing they’ve taken for granted seems to be holding form, Stoicism’s core principles can be a profound anchor for bullying targets, as they were in times past for Musonius Rufus, Seneca, and others, sent into inglorious exile. As readers will know, Stoicism tells us that in our direct control at any time are a small number of things. There’s how and what you think. There’s what you wish for, and what you wish to avoid. And there’s what you do and what you say. Moreover, Stoics notice how we are never wholly determined by what is happening outside of us. After all, people respond differently to the same situations. And this can only be because they assent to different ideas about the circumstances and challenges they face.
And this much, however small it can seem, is a power which is decisive for their happiness or unhappiness, the Stoics believe.
For it also means that we have the ability as humans to look in different ways at even the most challenging adversities–like being insulted or ganged up on, excluded from one’s old social group, and facing the possibility of losing a job, unfairly, that they may have trained for, for years, and even done perfectly well for a long time, before the present situation arose. “These things may be real, but what am I going to think and do about them? What do I want, given that these things have happened? What are my options?”, these are the questions we can ask, according to Stoicism. And it is vital for people facing workplace bullying that they do ask them.
To repeat, it may not seem much. A philosophy never does, when viewed from a certain distance. But the capacity to own your own thoughts, beliefs, values, choices, and actions, is a lot, when bullying targets are facing a situation in which their capacities to speak and be treated with basic consideration in the workplace are being cut down, and when their ability even to defend themselves against slander are denied by poor management. At such times, it is deeply important that targets do not lose sight of this basic Stoic truth that they always have agency. And no matter what the mob of bullies and their enablers can take from you, within the workplace and its social networks, they cannot take away your capacity to think your own thoughts, feel your own emotions, and choose what you will do and say.
Give me a place to stand, and I can move the world, someone said. It is empowering for targets to remember what is true: that there are many things which bullies also cannot compel targets to be or do unless targets give their assent. This in fact is the practical strength of the Stoics’ core theoretical claim in their ethics, that virtue is the only real good.
This is a philosophical truth you can rely on and return to when, all too practically, the chips are down. It gives you a confidence—the Stoics call ittharraleotês—that whatever happens there are things “the bastards can’t take away from you.” And with confidence, you can start to rebuild, even amidst a storm.
You Are Never Only What Others Paint You As
If a person has agency, for the Stoics, it is because they are rational, social beings with the capacity to give and withhold assent to impulses and ideas, rather than being a slave to them, or to others. Therefore, we always also have an intrinsic, inalienable dignity. Indeed, many targets, research shows, are before the mobbing starts creative, passionate, independent, and conscientious workers. It is exactly such traits which provoke bullies’ envy, or the fear that the target might show them up. Alas. But there is a further, key Stoic idea here: however passionate a target is about their work—and this, by itself, is of course a virtue, not a vice or liability—they are not solely the person they are at work.
Even if a person works long hours, and presently has no life partner, they will have friends and associates from past jobs, from university, from school, from growing up. They will have a family. So, as well as this job right now and its stresses, targets of bullies are also a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a mother or father, grandson, or granddaughter, and perhaps a carer and source of joy, admiration and hope for others. And this is always worth remembering, when bullies are trying to pull a person down.
So, despite what some popular images of Stoic fatalism (“grin and bear it”, etc.) suggest, Stoic ways of responding to a mobbing situation are about anything but withdrawing from the world, or just rolling over fatalistically and playing dead. Stoicism affirms the fundamental dignity of every person, regardless of wealth, power, status, race, religion, gender, or anything else—including the backroom machinations of people who seem to have nothing more positive to do than take shots at someone else, and hide behind their institutional powers.
For Stoicism, as Tracy Chapman sung, all that you have is your soul. But the wonder is that that is a lot: it’s ownership of your life, no matter what happens externally to you. Bullying targets who never lose sight of this foundational Stoic idea have a rock on which to stand as they set about coming to terms with what is happening, and deciding what to do next.
The greatest tragedy in too many cases, however, is that targets cannot see this. Faced with the combination of colleagues whom they formerly trusted who turn away, or believe the worst of them without anything resembling a fair hearing, and managers so complacent or incompetent that they can’t protect their own workers, many targets who don’t have access to Stoicism feel that they have lost their whole world.
For this reason, the more bullying targets who can learn from this ancient philosophy, will be the better.