One of the least discussed aspects of bullying and mobbing, and perhaps the most powerful and damaging, is the practice of shunning. Shunning is widely practiced among certain religions; the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Scientology, even the otherwise forgiving Amish have made shunning a religious tenet to control the conduct of its members. Families routinely shun other family members, whether through disinheritance and outright withdrawal of any contact or support, or the deafening "silent treatment" that some spouses and parents engage in as a form of punishment for real or perceived offenses. People are shunned in their communities, their clubs and their schools. But perhaps shunning is most common in the workplace, when a worker is targeted for collective aggression and elimination, or "workplace mobbing."
When a person is marked for punishment or elimination by management, workers instinctively avoid being seen with that person for fear of their own status being tarnished in the workplace. But to targets of shunning, the near instantaneous isolation almost always comes as a shock, and the intensifying silence that encircles them is indeed deadly. The impact of shunning is so severe that those religions, organizations and families which routinely employ it do so because they know just how effective a form of social control the practice can be, debilitating even the strongest people once it commences.
When a person is shunned, it is because they have done something to displease someone, or are perceived as distinctly "different" from the group and are therefore an "unknown" force. Shunning is thus a feature of a broader spectrum of aggressive behaviors, including accusation, sabotage, investigation and other efforts to control or remove the person from the group. To shun a person consequently isolates them at the very point when they most need support. It further erodes their self-esteem and their ability to withstand attack. Moreover, when a worker is targeted for elimination, once they are shunned it becomes very difficult to defend their position as former supporters disappear, and even more difficult for them to find new work. And shunning is a particularly effective tactic to undermine a worker's legal claims, however legitimate, because it is very difficult to prove a negative. Shunning is a non-action -- to shun is to avoid, not to interact.
Yet for all its destructiveness, our society treats shunning as a virtue. In virtually all professional self-help books on how to succeed at work, a person is advised to avoid unpopular people, "trouble makers" or anyone else who is under attack at work. A good deal of the current anti-bullying rhetoric makes it a strategic and moral imperative to collectively shun anyone accused of bullying, a rather ironic tactic of workplace aggression. And self-help books promoting optimistic thinking commonly advise their readers to avoid "negative" or unpopular people. Indeed, human instinct itself suggests that stigma is contagious and it is better to be seen with those who are successful than those who are crashing from once revered heights of their profession or station, in many cases unjustifiably or unfairly.
I understand the motivation to avoid those whose own dilemma may prove stigmatizing or discomforting. Yet I remain troubled by the failure of our species to extend compassion to those who need it the most. The instinct to avoid those who are unpopular with leaders is well recognized in the animal kingdom -- chimps and wolves being among the most notable in tormenting their unpopular brethren when the alphas do so -- and humans share such survival instincts. But we differ from these animals by being blessed with the ability to give meaning to the events in our lives, and to intellectually discern complexity and nuance -- the very features of social aggression that lead to shunning. Our capacity to understand the complexity of social conflicts ought to suggest that whatever our human counterparts are suffering, chances are there is plenty of room for compassion -- and patience -- in how we approach them in their troubling times.
To survive as humans, we must rely on social support, and when we withdraw that support on the basis of unpopularity we might advance our own social survival, but we erode our own capacity for compassion and our own potential to be fully human and humane. Whether we shun someone professionally in the name of professionalism, in our religious institutions in the name of God, or in our own families in the name of pride, we lessen ourselves, our spirits and our humanity. Silence is not always golden, it is deadly when it extends to shunning, and once commenced, it is difficult to stop. But on individual levels it can stop, if each of us considers how and whom we shun. We rarely shun the most nefarious of leaders in our groups and organizations, but we routinely shun those who are powerless or losing power, however good-hearted but imperfect they may be. And when we do shun, we rarely call it by name, and virtually always shift the blame to the target as having brought it on themselves, regardless of their suffering. We justify shunning through gossip, revising our opinions of those we once respected and in many cases loved, and by diffusing our responsibility as we note others are doing the same.
The longer we shun a person, the harder it is to break the silence and make peace. But there is no better season by which we might do so than the holiday season. Should old acquaintances be forgotten, or might each of us consider those we have forgotten because, for whatever reason, we joined with others to avoid another person's pain? You may give no greater gift this season than to reach out and un-shun someone whose social isolation you have helped create, however unintentionally. At most, you risk rejection. At best, you help to heal a heart, at the very least, your own.
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