I heard an interesting story on NPR yesterday about humiliation. It's something I'd given thought to since reading the book Unbroken, a story about an American POW in Japanese camps. The things that the Japanese guards did to humiliate their prisoners were harder on them than the beatings and physical abuse, because it eroded their will.
Th NPR story was about a new book out about humiliation and the author's study of it. Why we revel in Others' humiliation. It's overall an interesting concept, and broadens what we think of as humiliation from typical embarrassing situations to more subtle ones.
I disagree with the author's stance that humiliation requires a 3rd-party observer however. He says "I don't think there can be humiliation unless there is a spectator observing it and registering it as shame and bringing the news elsewhere." He's wrong. There can be humiliation with just two people present, if one party has absolute power over the other. Ask any woman who's been sexually assaulted.
I was glad for this insight to explain the swath of of miserable, self-defeating, angst I suffered this afternoon after yet another work incident this afternoon. How can I get SO upset about something at work? Really, who cares?
There's a new project at work that is right up my alley, I've kept in touch with the guy running it, I've raised both hands saying I want to do it, I'm qualified, motivated, I have the time. The project is within my group and skillset and my manager is all for my doing it -- lemme at it.
But Mr Horrible wants someone else to do it, one of his hand-picked guys. The hand-picked guy said in a staff meeting that he doesn't know what to do -- so Mr H suggested that anyone in the group could offer help -- and then named everyone except me. I knew better, I stayed silent.
I was fuming all afternoon until some technical email discussion came up and I started to get involved anyway (if it's in writing I can ask questions much more easily), even talking to The Chosen One about it, who's bright but inexperienced. We agreed to meet tomorrow to kick off the project.
Then I got the email: Mr. H is adament about excluding "all others" from this project. Which means, me. He'd called for volunteers, but then when he hears I've volunteered, he shuts it down.
Thanks to the radio show about humiliation, I can identify the emotion. I was furious, frustrated, felt undervalued, felt left out. It's humiliating to be set aside like I'm worthless, even if I know that's only one person's opinion. It's not about respect. The American POWs were continually humiliated by Japanese guards they loathed and had no respect for, but their superior position allowed them to force the prisoners to perform humiliating acts.
This is a minor case, but that's what's been going for months: systematic, subtle, insidious humilitation, designed to drive me out. Eliminate all opportunity for me to contribute, learn, excel. Today's episode is the most egregious case.
Is it even worth attempting to demonstrate this old-style form of punishment to HR? He knows very well that HR can't mediate or judge on technical matters. He could claim that I'm needed on another project, and they can't tell if its busywork or not. He's just barely technical enough to know what work has a future and to make darned sure I stay out of it and that his guy goes into it. It's possible he even knows how much I like my work, how good I am at tackling a new project with enthusiasm and tenacity, and that's the number one thing he can take away from me.
I've invested so much in this fight that it seems like I'm giving up to say "screw this" and just walk. Not to mention giving Mr H the satisfaction, he'd like nothing better. He'd win. Am I big enough to live with that?
I always take it hard when I can't work on a fun new project, but this has an element of evil retribution. It is "humiliating" -- and I can use that word more easily now -- to be left out from my team, even by someone no one respects but who still holds our purse strings and uses them like marionnette strings.
I think I need to buy that book on humiliation, to understand it and know how to react to it. I appreciate the radio article about it, because it all fits and makes me feel less bad about myself for feeling so bad. I'm not just disappointed about not being able to work on a new project -- I'm humiliated. No wonder.
p.s. I wish my father were here. He was so insightful and able to pull out what's important. I remember him musing once with regretful amazement how much stock women put into their work, how darned much it meant to us, how we weave it into our identities. That gave me quite the insight into how men and women see their work differently. It's true -- how would my job look to me if I knew my family depended on it? Would it be easier to brush off the BS if I knew what mattered most was the paycheck? Or would I decide that my "job" was just to do what my idiot boss said?