Bullying through emasculation – bad practice, bad management

Nov. 30, 2013 @ 12:53 PM

One of the most asinine things I have ever heard on the radio was from a sports news commentator, who said recently that it was ridiculous to think that an NFL football player could be “bullied.”

Presumably, due to their size and strength, large men who routinely endure the impact of a refrigerator to their heads cannot be fazed by someone trying, through words, to mess with their heads.  As a West Texas girl, I know football, and, as a female professor at an elite university, I know men.  Men are definitely capable of bullying and being bullied, regardless of how much weight they can bench press or how many fancy degrees they have.  It has to do in part with their being men.

A very wise, older bishop commented about one manager we both worked with that he’d never seen a man so effective at emasculating other men.  It was this manager’s modus operandi: control through emasculation.  You can’t emasculate a woman – that is – make her feel like a woman.  A woman is a woman, and, while you can bully women in all sorts of miserably effective ways, you can’t bully a woman by accusing her of being a woman.   A tried and true way to bully a man is to call him feminine.  A common epithet to use on a man is a derogatory term for a part of a woman that designates her as female.  (The word is a synonym for kitten.)  Grown men can be intimidated to toe the team line by creating a context where they are afraid of being shamed in front of others as less than fully masculine.  I’ve seen truly gifted, creative faculty colleagues wither under the subtle hazing of an administration that consistently labels their research “weak” or their writing style “shrill” or their scholarly output “small.”  A boy growing up in the United States  is carefully taught through a chorus of loud and quiet cues that he is supposed to be strong (not weak), that his developed voice is to be low (not shrill), and that the size of his body or some other measurable extension of his ego is to be large. 

Some men don’t so much wither as harden in such a context, putting up a shell of stoicism and even keeping their distance from anyone vaguely vulnerable or anyone actually female.  But stoicism requires, for most human beings, expending mental energy that would be so much better spent on other things.   Bullying through emasculation is bad sportsmanship and bad management in part because, while it may elicit compliance, it squishes any spirit of creativity.  It also rots true camaraderie from the core.  Within such a system, men sense that their dignity is precarious, as their teammates or coworkers may be asked to turn on them.

A few football players I know were kind enough to talk to me about the recent bullying story concerning the Miami Dolphins, and one expressed dismay that the young man had kept such a long silence about the abuse he allegedly endured.  Maybe his silence was in part about shame.  In my experience as a teacher and as a pastor, I have learned that women or men who have endured abuse for any length of time are often embarrassed.  It can be excruciating to go into detail about a pattern of prolonged bullying, enduring people’s well-meaning questions or incredulity.   I also know that it can be a tricky business pointing out to male co-workers that their conformity may be due to strategic bullying.  Men don’t necessarily appreciate being shown how they are being subtly controlled by men (or women) managing them.  Rules about what makes a real man a real man intensify the pressure to pretend nothing is happening.

While domination through shame may seep like a poison through a team or an organization, courage can also be contagious.  A key question I learned to ask in community organizing is this: “Tell us a story about when you stood up for yourself.”  Sharing stories about hard-won courage in a workplace can help break the spell of stoicism or acquiescence.  Here is a story from Texas football.  My dad’s middle school team was the Palo Pinto Possums.  The girls had outnumbered the boys in the vote for mascot.  To be fair to the girls, possums are fierce, in their own little way.  But a possum’s best-known defense is to roll over and play dead.  My dad says those boys played the best football of any team, they were so determined to reclaim the humble possum for grandeur.  It is possible for boys and men to refuse to be divided and conquered through tactical emasculation.   Heck, these days, it is even possible for a few girls to make the team.

Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of Christian ethics at Duke University.