Thursday, 8 November 2007

Ghosts in the machine

"If you know someone being bullied, then speak out. It's not a spectator sport" ended a letter to the THES today. But then came the irony, 'Name and address supplied'.

Those purged from 'UK Universities PLC' now have 'sanctuaries' to which they can retreat. Seemingly requesting grace and liberation from such a plague, self-confessed 'targets' of workplace bullying can seek solace and reassurance that they are not alone in forums devoted to bullying and even specifically to bullying in academia.

At first approach, such forums seem an oasis. Finally a place where others are waiting to listen and able to believe the many similar stories of bullying recounted by fellow members.

These forums are primarily self-managed, often the offspring of anti-bullying blogs or websites and seem to present no political agenda.

They are soft and reassuring. But for the university worker trying to reconcile the harsh reality of their working life with the fantasy of cyberspace, the extent of the help that such forums can really provide is illusory.

The first problem is obvious within the perversion of character assimilation that inevitably pervades such virtual communities, where anonymity is the norm. The motivation for victims of bullying to avoid revealing their identity is apparently underpinned primarily by fear of reprisal or the responsibilities accompanying legal proceeedings. But others may have different motivations.

In accepting such anonymity, members of such forums are required to trust that those hiding behind invented pseudonyms and personas are not the very managers they are there to confide about. Or, perhaps worse, that those to whom they entrust their stories of the most painful and undignified of realities, are only there to study them and gather data for their latest research into bullying, management or online social networks. Even the bullies may frequent the forums, risking to turn them into perverted tools of voyeurism.

You can never know. People play characters, often symbolic, in a sort of psychotic immersion.

Usually the plot of the story is distressingly the same. A new actor enters the scene claiming to have been bullied, seeking suggestions. They will invariably receive them; from emotional support to psychological counseling and even legal advice. But this comes from unknown characters who, after experiencing bullying for themselves, have self-trained at home whilst on suspension or in the wake of their dismissal and have subsequently become self-qualified consultants in law and finance and psychological counselors all in one package.

Countless references to other cases, to books, quotations, papers and blogs, create a cushion of information. Certainly many speak of how helpful this can be in coping with the first shock of being bullied, often out of one's hard-earned academic career, often never to return.

The reality though, is that the anonymous characters, regardless of the intentions (good or otherwise) of their creators, are unable to provide support which finds correspondence in real lives. In a compulsion to play the characters of the bullied and the counsel, there is no ability to recognise the mistakes made. It is nothng short of taboo to argue and doubt the intentions of those who claim to help. There is no need to demonstrate and prove fact, as we must do in the real world.

The twist lies then in the point at which the initial comfort created by anti-bullying forums, meets the real world. The legal battles. The poverty. The ill health. The strained relationships. The loss of direction and hope. Instead of empowering, the cushion of these forums too often dulls and relaxes.

At the moment when shock and anger sould be focused towards action, the temptation is instead to seek consolation and calm.

At the moment when the union should step in to battle for the worker's rights, there is a void, which forums etcetera aim to fill.

There is clearly a sinister argument that it is more convenient for bullied, purged academics and other workers, to adopt characters and escape behind their computer screens. Disparate, divided, hidden from each other, rather than making noise on the road, in front of parliament, at the gates of universities.

It is not just a question of not receiving the legal representation you expect from your union. It is the disturbing and sickening enactment of the union, colluding as silent accomplice to the bullying. No-one is out protesting on the road, everything continues as normal. Sociopathic managers breath sighs of relief as the 'uncomfortable' academic (a.k.a. bullying target) is successfully purged after a long campaign. Union reps and others settle back down to their alienating routines. A final email from the chief bully - often a dean and/or professor without doctorate - formally and authoritatively marks the end to the story and the cowardly former colleagues are only too happy to move on.

Unable to trust their union and often too deep in debt to hire legal help, many turn to the forums for help.

Sometimes, one can find new friends and those working tirelessly and admirably against bullying, but there is another character lurking online and off. That is the bullying entrepreneur; the individual willing to profit from this plague.

Sure enough, who ever said bullying can only be a loss for British business? We now have insurance services to protect businesses from the legal costs of their bullying. We have Occupational Health contractors ready to hand out convenient diagnoses to limit the liability to employers and convince workers they just weren't strong enough and need to learn to cope better. And we have 'management consultants' with multiple personalities able to guard corporations from the 'risks' and 'consequences' of bullying.

Then there are those profiting less directly from bullying; the sponsors of anti-bullying days (there are bullying days then?) who would let us all believe that they are bullying free organisations ready to battle against our pain - Ah! to be in Wonderland!

Yes, bullying Britain has become a business. And lastly in this, we have the unions. The ones who should take care of all this politically, at local level and beyond. Those whose job is to prevent, and take action when they fail to prevent.

What does a union gain from such impotency against bullying?

More importantly, what do academics (or other workers), bullied or not, self-organised, motivated, committed and above all responsible, have to gain from doing what a centralised neutralised union does not?

Surely, when the anonymous speak out online, it is but bits and soundbytes. Until workers can take pride and courage to unite and fight back their usurped rights with loud voice, they will remain the ghosts of the bullied, serving the machine of UK Universities PLC.

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