My father used to say of music from my generation, “If you can’t play well, play loud.” Paying attention to current events through television, radio, and Internet news, I see that many so-called civil rights activists, politicians, and commentators use a very similar mantra. If you can’t put together a factual, truthful argument, just argue louder. Too often we allow people to shout us down, criticize our beliefs, and dehumanize us just because they are louder, not because they are right. I have seen upstanding, moral people back down from their opponents, or retract their words because the other side is making so much noise, and they will keep doing it as long as we allow them. We are afraid of what will come from their angry words and violent actions, but what we really need to be afraid of is what they are doing to our world (both personal and global). It is time to hold firm to our beliefs and our sense of self. We cannot allow others to shout us down, make us feel inadequate, or intimidate us.
I learned this lesson the hard way, as most good lessons are learned. In my mid-twenties, I worked with a very difficult boss, who belittled most of her employees and created a generally crappy work environment. To make matters worse, she knew nothing of my field of work. Each day I struggled to make myself go to work and ignore her snide comments, threats, and criticisms. She obviously had never taken a leadership course in her pursuit of the Ph.D. she touted to everyone. You know, the course where they teach that employee productivity increases in a positive, encouraging environment. Instead, we all just consoled each other and went out of our way to avoid her.
I tolerated this toxic work relationship for almost a year. I was stressed and I hated my job. This all changed one day when I finally got up the courage to tell my boss that she was out of line in her criticism and her manner of speaking to me. I did this professionally and with a respectful tone. It was a tense few moments, but it was worth the effort it took not to dissolve into my chair as she glared at me. From then on, things were different. She spoke in a respectful manner. She asked my opinion and reasoning. She even smiled once in a while.
I believe that this woman only showed respect to people who showed respect for themselves. As long as I was willing to be belittled, she was willing to be the belittler. If I was going to let her shout at me and call my work inferior, then she was going to do it. I realized afterward, if she really didn’t like my work she would have fired me long ago. She just wanted to feel like she was on top, and she did that by making the rest of us feel like we belonged on the bottom. By standing up to her, and I emphasize that I did this professionally, I showed her that I had respect for myself and my work, and that she could no longer treat me poorly. I believe we can apply this scenario to conflicts in today’s society.
Unfortunately, there are people who feel better about themselves when they can make someone else feel bad. It’s a power trip. It usually doesn’t last long, so these people need to find more and more opportunities, both with the same target and new ones. They are intimidating and will use any method to get the result they want, which is fear. Fear on the part of the target that this person can somehow cause them harm. This, of course, is the usual threat, that the target will lose livelihood, reputation, assets, and even safety.
Now, take a step back and consider the amount of harm this bully (and that is what these power trip-driven people are) can possibly cause. Make a rational decision about whether or not living in fear, anxiety and lack of dignity is worth whatever they may or may not be able to take from you.
In my case, I could have easily lost my job, which could have had a domino effect in my life. However, continuing to allow myself and my work to be criticized and my reputation to be ruined, was not a healthy option and made it worth the risk. If I can’t stand up for myself and my convictions, no one else will, and I leave myself open to these bullies, who can shape my life and society in a very bad way.
It is not easy, but by demonstrating respect for ourselves and our own beliefs, by not backing down and tolerating ill-treatment, we can gain respect from others. Calling out disrespect, untruthfulness, and fear tactics can send the opposition running. We must remember, it’s not about the volume, it’s about the message.