Making War With Bullies
Someone emailed me yesterday that they think I’m too cynical, and I wanted to address this, partly because we’re getting toward the holidays which, inevitably, makes me rather sentimental. I also apologize for what will be a navel-gazing end of week article.
I realize that I write a great deal of quite negative things, and I tend to take a cynical view of those who hold power, be they a manager, an executive, or someone who is writing about a subject who is failing to successfully calculate who has the power. But the reason I do this is out of a duty I feel in what I write to say what I believe is being missed or buried in a story, and another duty toward the worker and my readers.
I have always hated bullies. I was bullied as a kid - badly, to the point that I am surprised I made it through secondary school (let alone university) - and I will fully admit that it gave me a tendency toward axe-grinding. It didn’t help that my first job in America at a small PR firm showed me that adults were quite capable of the same kind of childish harassment, with the added benefit of being able to revoke your paycheck and, by proxy, your ability to live in the country. I had naively assumed that being a boss (which I’d really only witnessed seeing my father run his company and through my work at a magazine where I’d had a great boss) was a noble endeavor, where you nurtured and grew people’s futures. The truth was far messier, grittier and more depressing.
These experiences instilled in me the sense that anyone who has power - be it in their voice, their money or their position - should be using it to actively run interference on those who use their power to suppress others. If you have a voice and a platform, and you’re writing about something, you should be looking for the places where someone is being taken advantage of (directly or otherwise), and shine a big light on it.
This means that I am going to naturally seem angry or aggressive toward a lot of the material I read - and that’s because I believe the only way in which change happens is to actively interrogate the places where change must occur. In my Atlantic piece on the end of managers, I was specifically reliving the trauma from my first job, remembering a manager who told me she was “happy to throw people under the bus” as I wrote about how management enables the worst people to exact their worst instincts. It hurt - it always hurts - remembering being yelled at by people for mistakes they’d made, told that I was stupid, told that I was “next to go” multiple times a week, all while receiving no training or mentorship.
Up until today, I really had not thought about why I write this newsletter, or what my agenda is writing in writing it. A large part of it is that I really do enjoy writing - I am good enough at it that people read it, and I can write a lot. 315,000 words in a year. But my workplace writing has something else to it that really wasn’t super obvious until I started writing this: I am making war with bullies. Perhaps it’s childish to exact my weird revenge fantasy through the written word, but every time I am angry at someone for something they’ve written, every time I attack a policy, every time I call out a bad actor, I’m doing it because I see an imbalance of power and, by extension, a bully being given more power to exact their own petty will against people for reasons that don’t actually match with those given.
While there are a few things I’ve done that fall out of this category - my personal branding piece, for example - for the most part I have accidentally fallen into a bizarre world of bringing discomfort and anger to those who would suppress and oppress those working for them, or to those who would choose to use their power to hurt or take advantage of others. If you ever need a reason I’m writing something, it’s either because I find it interesting, or because I see someone using the power that I believe they should be using to empower others to suppress them.
This is also a specific reason I’ve been so angry recently. If you read my two pieces about Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen’s work, my anger is not about them personally, or because I believe they’re bullies, but because I believe they’re using their massive platform to accidentally (maybe?) empower bullies. Out of Office has (had?) the chance to be a definitional book that would give workers the ability to fight for flexibility - but the two excerpts so far feel like they’re joining the legions of books that help management justify breaking the backs of workers that want truly flexible work.
The same applies to the various New York Times and Wall Street Journal columns I’ve dissected. Asking a bully whether they “meant to hurt someone” almost always ends with the bully apologizing, claiming they “didn’t mean to,” and then doing exactly the same thing again not long after. Quoting an executive who participates in and aids in a toxic workplace culture is asking a bully whether they think they’re a bully, and then printing that they’re a good person because they took your phone call.
I’m definitely being emotional when I call these people abusers or bullies, but how else can I interpret these things? How else am I meant to take someone in power doing something to their workers that hurts them for no reason other than their own selfish philosophies? Am I meant to sit here and tolerate it? Am I meant to give these people the benefit of the doubt, when they seem incapable of doing the same thing to their workers?
I also deeply resent people when they pull punches. Pulled punches are the reason that abusive, cruel people gain power - because nobody told them to shut the fuck up.
A Remote Chance
I genuinely believe that remote and flexible work are huge opportunities for everybody in an organization, including the managers and executives. I also do not see many people with a reasonable-sized platform who are regularly, repeatedly attacking the organizations that are trying to send people back to the office for spurious reasons. I do not see people calling out those who are giving a platform to these managers and executives, and over 300,000 words later, I still do not see many if nay people fighting back against this tide. In fact, I see an abundance of articles every week that find new economists and professors to quote about what workers should do, or have done to them.
I am not a standard bearer for a movement. I am a privileged person with a company I can run remotely, and I am lucky enough to have had an education and a family and stability growing up (and now!). It feels disingenuous at times for me to write “about the workers” - though I “work,” work for me is writing words on the computer, with the knowledge that I will not be fired, with significantly less danger of destitution than most people. As Oogie Boogie once said, I’m going to do the best I can - and use this platform as, at worst, a place where there is some record of a dissection of a mass-media movement against labor.
I do have hope, though. While there is a vast, coordinated campaign against workers, I also believe that the sheer volume of anti-remote material is evidence of fear. I think that companies that can work remotely but choose to send people back to the office are finding workers are simply leaving, or refusing to apply. Based on my Here Is My Problem column emails, it seems that workers are aware of these problems - they are aware that better conditions are possible, that more flexibility is possible, and that those in power simply don’t want to give them it.
This is, to me, the most exciting part of this entire newsletter. Many labor abuses are a result of people feeling like they’re the only person experiencing it, or that their disgust at a particular manager or executive is just their own personal problem. While I’m writing, I constantly wonder if someone else has said what I’ve said - that I’m not just duplicating someone else’s better product - and the sense I get is that while people have said versions of what I’ve said, they have failed to go the distance and punch the bully in the gut and spit in their face.
I hate writing this partly because I do not want to seem like I think I’m better or smarter or above anyone else. If I’m saying something someone else isn’t saying, I consider that a massive systematic failing - I do not consider what I write to be revolutionary, and at best I find that I am simply better at going for the throat than others. I’m also, if I give myself even the smallest compliment, able to be cogently angry. Maybe I’m not. Not like this newsletter costs you anything.
But, if you wanted to know what my agenda is, that’s it: I want to rough up bullies, I want to make them feel bad, I want it to be on the record that they’re bad people, doing bad things, and I want to call out those that aid them, regardless of their intention.
I do not rely on this newsletter for anything other than intellectual stimulus and catharsis. I hope that you’ll keep reading, and that I’ve made it clearer why I am how I am, and that I wasn’t too annoying in the process.