As someone who has written extensively about mobbing, which is to say, unrestrained group bullying in the workplace, communities, and schools, I have recently been compelled to confront my own role in the public lynching of psychotherapist Alyce LaViolette. Ms. LaViolette is currently testifying on behalf of Jodi Arias, a woman accused of first degree murder in the savage stabbing and shooting death of her former lover, Travis Alexander, in his Mesa, Ariz., home.
In my own essays, I have raised concern about the case being vastly different from the "Burning Bed" case that brought domestic abuse out of the closet, and the manner in which the tale of Snow White (which Ms. LaViolette discussed in a talk on abuse) might be differently understood in analyzing women's aggression and abuse. I maintain these concerns and share the concerns of others who have expressed grave doubt that Ms. LaViolette is sufficiently qualified and able to objectively assess domestic abuse, much less treat its victims and perpetrators.
But a hallmark of mobbing is that when those in a position of influence (in this case, the media) give the green light to criticize someone, criticism will rapidly turn into attack and if not restrained will become increasingly aggressive until the target is destroyed. As someone who has contributed to illuminating that green light by writing of my concerns, I now want to share my troubling discomfort about the shift from reasonable and necessary critique to the wholesale demonization of Ms. LaViolette.
In most cases of mobbing, the target is vilified for rumored speech and actions. There may be some truth to what is said, but the gossip that ensues rapidly exaggerates the wrongdoing, adding fabricated details with each retelling. But in the case of Ms. LaViolette, her speech and actions are televised live and are a matter of public record. In that regard, it is legitimate to critique her for her actual statements and publications. I would go one step further to say that it is not only legitimate to do so, but necessary given the gravity of the killing she is defending and the manner in which she is representing the research and data related to domestic violence. Yet the criticism extends far beyond her testimony and expertise, to her presumed motives for testifying, and even her very value as a human being.
For all the clamoring that Ms. LaViolette is motivated by greed to testify, the truth is no one knows why she has agreed to defend Ms. Arias's= implausible story. But one thing is clear -- she has steadfastly maintained her position in defense of Ms. Arias and there is no reason to believe she is anything but sincere in her beliefs. Moreover, the public has not been nearly as vocal in ascribing pecuniary motives to others involved in Ms. Arias near $2 million defense. Attributing her motives to greed has no basis in fact; it is a presumption based on speculation.
Far more troubling, however, have been comments on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook denigrating Ms. LaViolette for her looks, weight, age, and speculated sexuality. As the comments increase, they extend to calls for her physical harm or even death. Entire Facebook accounts have been created for the sole purpose of publicly disparaging her and ending her career. She has been followed and photographed, and her restaurant dining reported. Twitter users have urged people to express their "disgust" at her, and posted her phone number, leading to a barrage of harassing and threatening calls. More recently, a petition is circulating that as of this writing has more than 5,000 signatures. It demands that "Alyce LaViolette should no longer be given the opportunity to speak at abuse seminars based on her testimony in The State vs. Jodi Arias Murder trial."
Aside from the obvious First Amendment protections such a petition seeks to undermine, to professionally shun someone and prevent them from presenting their views just because those views are antiquated and unpopular is far more disturbing to me than the views Ms. LaViolette is espousing. There is real concern that her inability to objectively assess domestic violence may have grave consequences for those she counsels, but there are also grave consequences to any socially sanctioned effort to revoke a person's right to free speech. It is far better to present professional papers that critique her views and testimony, than to demand she be excluded, shunned and silenced from her profession for having them.
Similarly, there are currently over 500 one-star reviews on Amazon that have been posted denigrating her book, It Could Happen To Anyone: Why Battered Women Stay, even though the vast majority admit to not having read the book. This is a more ambiguous issue because if I have reason to believe that an author is not credible, and espouses views elsewhere that readers ought to be aware of before buying the book, it can be persuasively argued that leaving a one-star review of a book I haven't read is reasonable, given my knowledge of the author. But when hundreds do so in response to a social outrage, and these hundreds admit to never having read the book, then it might also be argued that Amazon should remove the reviews because they amount to a publicized smear campaign, something any of us who publish could find ourselves subjected to.
Alyce LaViolette was well aware of the facts of the case when she agreed to defend Ms. Arias and justify her confessed killing of Travis Alexander. Ms. LaViolette alone is responsible for her theorizing and her thinking and her testimony, and should be prepared to face criticism for these views just like any other professional claiming expertise on a topic. But it should come as no surprise that she had to receive emergency treatment at a hospital for anxiety attacks and heart palpitations when the attacks against her became so personal and vicious. Nearly anyone would fall apart at such collective aggression aimed at them and the only one responsible for such aggression are those who engage in it.
When we act against another without restraint and in a group, humans are capable of incredibly cruel and inhumane treatment of each other. The only way to reasonably challenge Ms. LaViolette is to keep the critique focused and aimed at what she has actually said and done. Dehumanizing and demonizing her does more to dehumanize those who engage in the attacks. Although I think it is highly unlikely she will ever have the capacity and desire to rethink her position and see Ms. Arias more objectively and rationally, the only way that she could possibly do so would be to make this a teachable moment, rather than a collective mobbing. Mobbing is a form of collective aggression that nudges us one step further along the continuum of violence, shifting us from criticism to cruelty in a heartbeat. Let's focus on the message, not the messenger (except to the extent of questioning her personal bias and professional qualifications). It's the message she's testifying to that merits attack, not the messenger who for whatever reason, has chosen to believe the unbelievable. Put the pitchforks away.
This essay was originally published with Psychology Today at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-bullying/201304/the-mobbing-alyce-laviolette