Asian-American Forum   

Winter 2009 Issue no.1

 

Feature- American Asian Literature- Beyond Stereotypes

ASIAN STEREOTYPES AND THE MEDIA

The image presented by the media is that Asians are model minorities. They immigrate to the United States, work hard, and support children who eventually attend college and become doctors and lawyers. This over-simplification of a long, arduous process during which Asian families suffer just as much bigotry as their brown or black-skinned brethren perpetuates resentment. "It is assumed that all non-Anglo-Saxons are uncomplicated stereotypes," Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her essay What White Publishers Won't Print. Everyone knows the story of the good Asian, so what is there to write about?

 

Even Asians have bought into the stereotype: obsessed with excellence, they are generally portrayed as agreeable tokens in the office place; these tokens overlook any derogatory remarks, accept when office politics bar them from promotions, and love their job so much, they are willing to forego living balanced lives like their white colleagues. Good Asians must sense when to keep silent (often) and understand should they dress in fashionable clothes and hairstyles, they risk exciting white people's envy. Not good.

 

The result is a fractured image, both within and outside the Asian community based upon a system of binary oppositions. Good successful Asians do not deign to recognize those who are "failures." The ones who failed, the Good Asian believes, failed through their own fault. Maybe they talked or expected too much; maybe they acted "too white"--that is, as intelligent and outgoing as any white person can. Or maybe they were too liberal.

 

The successful Asian can afford to buy beautiful objects d'art; handsome books line his or her shelves, and s/he goes on tours to China. But does this bring them any closer to the source of creativity, which is experiencing life not as a relentless climber, but perhaps in retrospect? Not as a collector, but as someone who protects the wellsprings of endurance?

 

Whether Asians ever gain the wherewithal which our black brethren have in unionizing and organizing culturally and politically to produce black magazines, newspapers, publishing companies and academic institutions is the challenge. Until then, we are faced with a sorry lack of literary tradition and unity. One has only to do a search on Amazon.com of <Asian American Memoirs> to discover the disparate nature of Asian-American literature. Key words and tags scarcely do our authors justice. My search did not turn up Maxine Hong Kingston, Sky Lee, Wayson Choy, or Shawn Wong. If anything, as many Caucasian writers were listed under the searches as Asians. Can one race offer to rewrite the memories of another without imbuing it with prejudicial sociolinguistics? Should the Good Earth be representative of Asian women or soft-porn images from Thailand? This is the equivalent of suggesting Gone With the Wind speaks for the entire South! We owe it to ourselves to fight for literary recognition and voice.

 

Response to Book of Chuang Tzu    by Christine Wong

Zhuangzi (also spelled Chuang Tzu in his Book) seems concerned about the bureaucratization of Confucianism throughout Chinese society, both in terms of religion and for political appointments, such as study of the four "Confucian Classics" for Chinese Civil Service examinations. He indicates how it is one thing to be proficient in espousing virtue and writing eloquently about the Analects, but another to actually put it into practice after one has secured a well-paid job. More often than not, achieving one ambition only leads to lusting after others, either because of peer pressure or because the appetite for good living has been whetted. 

 

Like the great Indian sages, Chuang Tzu suggests that the best way to become enlightened is through the discipline of meditation and the renunciation of the worldly paradigm. This is what he means when he says: "The perfect man is pure spirit," or describes how transformation can make us as free as "a butterfly" (4-5).

 

The modern world's values are insidious and begin working on us even as children. Several examples are mentioned not out of spite, but for illustration. When I was younger, I noticed that there was a translation of I Ching and The Way of the Tao on the bookshelves at home. They were very interesting, and naturally I gravitated towards reading them. For some reason, this was expressly forbidden by my Chinese parents. This made me feel very timid about the books, and I dared not ask for explanations of passages. In fact, what was considered good philosophical reading was a very sensitive topic. Years later, I took advantage of international film festivals in Seattle and viewed the movie, "Fanny and Alexander," and noted some parallels between the unfortunate treatment of the children and my own growing up experience. Being willfully disconnected or forced away from one's Xing or inner nature is destructive. From the years of drifting around, this much is obvious, yet now that I am older, my parents' perspective is more understandable.

 

The Confucian philosophy put into practice is that one's parents are like gods. Married to the biblical commandment "Honor Thy Father and Mother," anything less than filial piety is punishable. This is all right if one's parents are easy-going. But if one has strict parents, it can be misery. Belonging to the Chinese Catholic Church meant a merging of religious and Chinese cultural identity, and my parents yearned for this for us to the exclusion of everything else. They wanted us to be good eggs, to mirror what they would be if they had second lives. At Chinese Confucius School in Fresno, we had a principal who taught us "Li, Yi, Neem, Qi." I hardly remember what she was trying to teach us, but all I remember were those four essential qualities. All that strict character training and religion seemed only to have produced rebellious brats.

 

On the other hand, like many first generation Americans, my parents were attempting to protect us from wading in the shallows of the All-American girl or boy portrayed on T.V. and promoted by the Disney Club. They really could not walk the divide between taking us to Disneyland, then telling us to act Chinese. We were too easily impressed by the slick ads that it was far better to try to emulate the All-American. Thus, my feelings affected my Xing, and it became increasingly imbalanced as a teenager when I really began to question what was real, what was the true basis for morality, and my identity, and why I felt such a strong sense of dislocation. For on top of all this, my parents tried to shelter us from the going-ons of the nineteen sixties in California, which included peace demonstrations, strikes, drugs, and all kinds of strangely dressed people.

 

There was a lot of questioning about right or wrong, humanity and justice when it came to the war in Vietnam. Half the people felt that it was necessary to eradicate communism, and these were the conservatives, like my parents, who lived straight, ethical lives and went to church every weekend. Then there was a whole other half, the half that was "wrong" and they must have been wrong if they lived in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, and sold flowers from white buckets, and joined communes like the Hare Krishna after they tried to go straight because they had also experimented with LSD, homelessness, sex, and running away from home. They must have been wrong if their hair was long, or all frizzed out, or their blue jeans were tattered and they wore sandals, or if they hadn't bathed in a week.

 

The trouble was, I couldn't believe those young adults were really wrong. I was curious about why they were living the way they were. They looked as if they were trying to be really different, to do something other than just all go to college to become doctors and lawyers. My world consisted of those two halves that I needed to piece together, along with other parts.

 

My parents would never talk to me about the I Ching or Daoism. If I mentioned that I studied it from a Caucasian professor, my dad still might get huffy the same way he used to whenever he saw a white guy doing Kung-Fu. So I am really grateful I have accidentally been introduced to it at last. It's a piece of my heritage that sadly, too few Chinese today are willing to talk about, discuss, or admit to having read.

 

Essays

 

What are the most important issues in rhetoric or principles of literary criticism to write about and why.

            New Historicists have opened up the discussion of hermeneutics; that is, the interpretive framework or cultural theory underlying a work of art, allowing scholars the privilege of stepping back from a work, and place it in perspective or context with regard to history, sociology, race, gender, philosophies, psychology, politics, religion, art, etc. Writers unconsciously transmit assumed epistemes, and these operate to engage or disengage the reader or listener. For instance, for decades American History textbooks focused primarily on the conquest of the West by white pioneers, Statehood, and Manifest Destiny. Illustrations and photos were included with primarily only white people in them. History apparently was not made by any Indians except when they signed away their lands, by any Negroes except as slaves, by any Mexicans except during the Mexican-American war, nor did it seem as if Asians had ever stepped onto American soil, but to work on American railroads. The hermeneutics of white superiority and patriarchy imparted cultural dissonances within racial minorities leading to learned disempowerment. Understanding the hermeneutics of the dominant hegemony helps reveal the underlying discursive formations, making transparent the underlying assumptions, and empowering the reader to criticize. As Carl Rogers, the psychologist famous for promoting person-centered psychotherapy noted, a fully-functioning person is someone whose internal organismic valuing, positive regard, positive self-regard, and real self closely match societal conditions of worth, positive regard, conditional positive self-regard, and ideal self. Anything less tends to create incongruence leading to neurosis. Social artists, teachers, and critics have a responsibility to help reveal exclusionary epistemes when they are present, and expose them for what they are worth. This is important when mixed messages are present, such as a nonprofit organization whose magazine flaunts members' social status over organizational vision. Artists and writers today, now more than ever before, have an opportunity to rewrite history in the context of subaltern epistemes, and to promote an awareness and appreciation of cultural difference, or differences based upon identity, gender, race, philosophical values, etc. Doing this will widen the Eurocentric hermeneutic circle, so that minority epistemes integral to the foundation of American identity may be embraced.

 

How my proposed literary article would contribute to a better understanding of the nature and role of speech.


            My article would have at its core developing the ability to "think outside the box." What does it mean to "think outside the box"? It means, as early Indian philosophers and the professor taught, understanding the paradigms within which we operate, becoming aware of higher knowledge and a greater reality. When students learn, they are mostly taught to memorize, comprehend, and apply. People become confined within an area of expertise because workplace efficiency discourages undue analyzing or questioning.  On the other hand, it is natural for humans to long for the security which living within hermeneutic confines provide, so life seems simple and formulaic. How we perceive ourselves is selective, we process information by filtering, our interpretation is distorted; so is it any wonder that communication becomes unintelligible or confused?

            Westernized Catholics do not question the presence of the crucifix displayed in church or replicated in art. Yet to outsiders or children, the sight of a man nailed on a cross can be quite disturbing. The fairy tales which we are told as children became part of our unconscious, so that we exhibit gendered behavior and expectations. Today, television and movies saturate our minds with coded material faster than we can process, transmitting new cultural values. It remains the responsibility of intellectuals to analyze, criticize, and formulate responses to art, to "help shape taste." The least my articles could do, then, would be to stimulate intelligent criticism. 

             Developing criteria upon which to judge art and standardize levels of excellence requires an awareness of the paradigms within which art has functioned throughout history and the world. At Yosemite National Park, every spring there is an art contest, and the final exhibit has included displays of Bridal Veil Falls in photographs, oil painting, charcoal, watercolors--even Chinese ink brush! Each one offers a different perspective. What is not included in art and communication is often as important as what is included. Children and foreigners can sometimes easily identify when things are omitted, when there is dissonance, when mixed messages are present. Chaotic communication or art can operate to distort or corrupt the human mind, and this is why so many thinkers, from Aristotle to Liu Xie, theorized about what constituted clear speech and writing. Still, clear speech and writing alone do not help us "think outside the box." Again, this is the role of artists, such as poets who have the power to impassion our senses, help us live other lives; or the role of critics who provide us frameworks of interpretation so that we can appreciate linguistic (semantic) diachronisms. As a critic then, my articles would be effective if they engender a sense of universal time and place.   

              The grandest works of writers are rich satires; great satiricists have included Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Salman Rushdie. Satirists may pay a penalty for their biting humor, such as Jonathan Swift, Mary Wollestonecraft, or George Schuyler. But satire is necessary because it challenges assumptions. For instance, George Schuyler was the first Black satirist who questioned the identity of Black intellectuals as being merely "lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxons." Black and minority writers continue to suffer under the burden of whether they are operating within or outside accepted social constructs. This is particularly true when a writer's epistemes overlap in promulgating a radical viewpoint; a politically conservative Black artist will suffer the same kind of stigma which a politically progressive Asian artist might. Perhaps liberal versus conservative thinking is more of a litmus test of who readers identify with than race. By helping us see "outside the box," artists, thinkers, and writers help us appreciate and refine our definitions. As another example, for centuries black women struggled for identity against the shame of routine rape by white slave masters; deflowered, they were merely viewed as "breeders" and beasts of burden. It took heroines of unusual intelligence and rhetorical giftedness, such as Sojourner Truth, to help females learn that the shame was not upon them, but upon society. The upraising of black and colored identity continues today in the construction of Black literary criticism by gifted black intellectuals, those capable of developing discursive formations "outside the box." Maybe my articles will help encourage reflection regarding not really meaning what we say or think.

              In conclusion, by exploring the subtexts inherent in communication, including analyzing and comparing relevant epistemes, my literary articles will attempt to indicate submerged discursive formations, thereby encouraging readers to intellectualize further upon issues worthy of additional research, reading, writing, and discussion. 

 

 

Welcome

 

Links  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/asian_literature

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Asian_Canadian_writers

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Asian-American_authors

 

Creative and Nonfiction 

I like to think my work is creative enough that it serves as an awakening, for it is not necessarily representative of how the status quo thinks and feels. I have managed to move from issue to issue throughout my life, and yet always my perspective is influenced by my being a minority Asian woman. Being a minority Asian female is not that picture of "the exceptional minority" put forth by the media. On the contrary, the image has done much to damage the self-esteem of Asian females, if only because they don the Barbie Doll roles which are expected of them despite feeling hollow because they never allow themselves to live "outside the box." Worse, those who dare to be unconventional are frequently denigrated within and without the Asian community. We are not career automatons, solely motivated by the comforts of success--surely there is room for art and philosophy beyond fancy coffee room table books and art collections. This is the crux of the themes in all my work, even when I risk being stigmatized as a mere drifter.

 

Writing has been the core of my other self, the self that sought to clarify and analyze, to reach beyond everyday consciousness. For instance, as a family history project, my sister and I pieced together wartime memoirs from my father and mother's World War II experiences while growing up. It was my responsibility to transcribe, arrange, and edit these tape recordings, the end result being books that have been published and circulated among my relatives. I have also written autobiographical and fictional short stories from my own growing up experiences...In keeping with social conflicts or dilemmas experienced in real life, some of my writings expanded to the length of novelettes. Topics expounded upon included romance, work challenges, life transitions. Themes have revolved around gender expectations, ethnic tension, and identity. In some cases, biographical experiences melded into the fictional; in other cases, it transmogrified into creative non-fiction. Titles include: Vance and Love, My Marilyn, Pair of China Dolls, Termination of Molly, Clunker's Tale, Help!, Shadow of Hester, Tales from the Old Guide, among various others. Recently, I completed a creative non-fiction novelette entitled The Return, which is about my health journey.....All told, to date I have produced an estimated 448 pages of biographical, 482 pages of fiction, and 79 pages of essay/science fiction writing...It isn't such a significant volume, but one must consider that I have to balance a former career.

 

MORE TO INFORMATION TO COME...

 

On Mitigating the Causes of Workplace Bullying  

By Christine Wong  

 

            The following excerpt is from Termination of Molly Yeu, a novel about a minority woman engineer, whose castigation by supervisors and ostracizing by coworkers eventually lead to a nervous breakdown:


            The sound of macaques kept her awake at night. She could hear leaves crackling, twigs rustling, noises of their mating cries permeating and piercing her concentration, her eyes focused on that giant black screen: drag mouse to draw line, click icon to create text, click to add dimensions, check contour elevation nearby, perform gradient measure, then zoom-out, pan, and zoom-in to the next point. Now when she dreamt at night with eyes shut tight, her mind became a kaleidoscope of AutoCAD and Softdesk engineering computer aided drafting programs: multiple lines, dots and arrows busier than a psychedelic laser light show, brighter than the fireworks on Fourth of July, showed while she raced along, trying to stay ahead, gave direction, tried to maintain control. In this jungle of confusion, it was as if night had become day, while day became night, a place where even when she sought comfort and solace, such as at the Health Club after work, the noisy taunts and leering smiles of coworkers engulfed her, ready to cut her off, surrounding and entrapping her, till she was swallowed, sinking into the dark, foaming, green earth.   (Wong 29)

 

Regardless whether engineer Molly feels paranoid or suffers loneliness, the desired outcome is the same; she is the predestined bride of corporate Death. As an allegory, Molly represents the challenge of the twenty-first century: how to prevent workplace bullying. Workplace bullying is the silent menace, the shadow of tyranny that looms amid the soft opulence of the glowing halls of the corporate sector with its smooth green parkways and protective glass windows. Like Hal in Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey," workplace bullying's predatory machinations ensure destruction for the vulnerable crew. As in Shirley Jackson's "Lottery," a victim is selected almost at random, and once identified, the target becomes an anathema. Why does bullying occur and what can be done to reduce its occurrence at the workplace?  I will explore why bullying occurs in the context of my own nontraditional career experience, referencing fictionalized accounts, and follow up with recommendations on what should be done to reduce bullying.

            There is much to substantiate the classic stereotype of the bully in media. Usually the bully is depicted as a male with a perceived sense of superiority, such as size, strength, social status, or verbal intelligence. The classic bully torments his victim physically, such as through beating and kicking, or by name-calling or destroying his belongings. However bullies are not limited to men. Female bullies resort to manipulative power play, such as by spreading rumors, slandering, trying to intimidate, or excluding a victim from cliques. The end goal of bullies is the enhancement of their power base at the expense of others' comfort and autonomy. The price to society is such that bullies exercise their sociopathic tendencies whenever they are threatened or subjected to anxiety. Ultimately, bullies' maladaptive tendencies become chronic; eventually they may even become socially delinquent. Quintessential bullying is epitomized by such characters as Moe in "The Three Stooges" or Drafo Malfoy in "Harry Potter."

            Unfortunately, what is identifiably sociopathic in the schoolyard is often viewed as an asset at the workplace. Men are encouraged to be aggressive and hard-driving. Exhibiting machismo is often part of the image of the successful American male--someone who can clinch a deal, roundup the thugs, crack spy codes, counter terrorists, defend the weak, rescue the imprisoned. Boys are trained to model themselves upon fairytale princes, as heroes willing to go against the odds to slay beastly dragons. According to Andrea Dworkin, author of Women Hating, incipient formation of misogynistic attitudes emanate from the fairytale episteme because it is filled with binary oppositions; for instance, in contrast with dragon-slaying princes, princesses are modeled upon supine, passive, helpless and beautiful maidens. In Dworkin's view, there are only two definitions of women: "There is the good woman. She is a victim. There is the bad woman. She must be destroyed. The good woman must be possessed. The bad woman must be killed, or punished. Both must be nullified" (48). When children grow up, adult literature often substantiates the view that females should serve as submissive sexual objects or willing victims. 

            There are no dragons at the workplace, however--just people who, according to new literary historicist Michel Bakhtin, either are members of subaltern cultures, or are easily labeled as cultural Others: those traditionally marginalized, castigated, and under-privileged due to differences stemming from race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and religion. While much progress has been made since the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972, forcing people to get along in the face of socialized differences in attitude and preference has not been easy. As Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom: "Such legislation clearly involves interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts with one another" (qtd. in Martin 276). Friedman's viewpoint is that fair employment legislation not only lessens economic efficiency, but violates the right of businesses to hire whomever they please. 

             The challenges of minorities or females facing harassment at the workplace continue today in the huge backlog of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission  lawsuits. The difficulty of convicting harassers is exemplified in the Tailhook Association scandal of 1991: "Some 83 women were sexually harassed and assaulted by 117 of these Navy officers. No one was convicted of a crime, but several officers were disciplined and in 1992 the Secretary of the Navy was forced to resign" (Martin 281). Leering, suggestive remarks, overtures, offers, and presumptions that friendliness from an unmarried female coworker implies romantic interest should clearly be denounced as an infringement upon a person's dignity and autonomy.

            Most legal sources assert that discrimination and harassment cases are difficult to prove because of the extent of documentation required to establish a firm case. A supervisor may withhold information, use humiliation, make false accusations, practice blaming, make unrealistic job demands, exhibit divisive behavior, refuse to give due credit, or present loaded criticism with relative impunity. Surprisingly, none of this is necessarily credible evidence of discrimination and harassment or creation of a hostile work environment unless there is specific, substantive evidence that it is attributable to the alleged victim's race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, pregnancy, or age over forty. Additionally, there is presently little recourse against supervisors who practice Machiavellian tactics, such as deliberately creating a divisive, unfair, inconsistent work environment, except perhaps through labor union action. To compound the problem, a harassed employee often has little time to devote to her defense due to unrealistic job demands. Her load is doubled in that at the same time she is struggling to save her job, she suffers debilitation such as loss of self-esteem and emotional stability. Her psychological stamina gradually worn thin, the employee not only becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy of the dysfunctional employee in an increasingly hostile work environment, but often the crisis spreads beyond the workplace, destabilizing the victim's home and family life. Paradoxically, but not uncommonly, the harassed employee simultaneously seeks to escape her stormy situation through denial of the underlying motivations behind her harassment, caught as it were in a steadily downward spiral, with blind belief in those brief periods of calm and sunshine that somehow "things will all work out"; that is, she can ride out the present crisis at the office.

             Women pursuing nontraditional careers must accept the fact that a certain amount of chauvinism exists to which they are expected to adapt to if they are to survive. This chauvinism compounds the difficulty generally facing women, who only in the latter half of the last century began to experience wider acceptance into professional occupations other than teaching and nursing. According to Judith McIlwee and J.Gregg Robinson in Women in Engineering, it is differences in socialization that create divisions which can become exacerbated later on. Boys who become engineers had often been "tinkerers" when they were young; that is, they loved working on models, playing with Erector sets, assembling electronic gadgetry, taking apart car engines, and getting "grease under their fingernails." In contrast, girls are often steered into engineering almost by accident. Most likely, because they had excelled in science and mathematics, a career counselor or parent, such as father, suggested engineering as practical due to job openings and pay. Being socialized differently from boys, however, girls tend to be more docile, nurturing, sensitive, expressive, and people-oriented; they are generally not encouraged to become "tinkerers." Thus, not unsurprisingly, many female engineers emerge from engineering programs with a feeling of anticipation yet insecurity with regard to design, possibly stemming from a feeling of "tinkering deficit" (McIlwee 181). Pointing out that not all male engineers are "tinkerers" and that much of design experience is acquired through apprenticeship does not necessarily alleviate the feeling of difference:   

                    

Like the young female chemist who had worked on two of her antique automobiles while enrolled in the Basic Automobile Maintenance and Repair class, Lydia learned that it was possible for women to actively understand and apply the rudiments of automobile theory, maintenance, and repair. But of course, the male psyche is infinitely more complicated.  A wiser and more thoughtful woman, she realized that while a girl could penetrate the boy-code, she could never ever become part of it. And when boys became men, the man-code hardened into a dense wood, for which there might at best be a few guided trails through--and women were not allowed off the trail. Thus, no amount of knowledge or ability or understanding could penetrate the man-code, unless specifically invited. This was the code which males like her younger brothers shared, openly and oblivious of her presence. (Wong 13)

 

The excerpt above from Clunker's Tale demonstrates that men do not necessarily welcome women in their world. In a competitive, design-saturated environment, male engineer "tinkerers" may dominate workplace culture, and "locker-room" attitudes and politics can prevail to sap the enthusiasm and assertiveness of their female counterparts (McIlwee 116). In particular, engineering technicians whose view that engineering culture reflects gender role expectations may display their resentment of the higher salaries which women engineers earn through a variety of overt, workplace sanctioned tactics including skepticism, ignorance, exclusion, insubordination, and harassment.

            Many best-seller self-help books have been written about how to improve interpersonal communication at the workplace, such as Mars and Venus in the Workplace by John Gray, Talking from 9-5 by Deborah Tannen, and When I Say No I Feel Guilty by Manual J. Smith. One could suppose that it would be quite a simple matter if women and minorities would only take it upon themselves to learn how to communicate assertively and make "small talk" so that they can blend in with the guys and not isolate themselves. Yet dress and talk alone cannot prevent men from being lewd, engaging in crude conversation, or displaying "girlie calendars" in the back storage rooms. Diplomacy can only go so far without the support of progressive management. According to McIlwee and Robinson, women and minority engineers fared better in large companies in which networking opportunities existed and the rules for advancement were clear and consistent. In contrast, in small firms the lone female minority engineer may be unable to withstand negative attitudes, particularly when leadership is careless, weak, and retrogressive.

            The fact is that bad, poor, or careless management costs the company money in the long run. Employees who are demoralized and laid off will inevitably file for unemployment. Not infrequently, they require mental health counseling, retraining, and public assistance. In the process, the company itself can acquire a bad reputation, such as having a "sweatshop" atmosphere. The profession itself may suffer as members cannot keep up with membership dues, while the image of the profession as inhospitable for females and minorities persists. When management is poor or careless, workplace inefficiency increases, as the following excerpt from Termination of Molly Yeu describes:


Elsa is a bright, hardworking engineer, yet she simply has not been able to keep up with computer technology, partly because supervisors have claimed it wasn't necessary, partly because technicians, such as Ray, have kept her in the dark, claiming full responsibility for computer aided drafting duties. The result is that Elsa can scarcely keep track of her project cost overruns; no sooner has Ray completed one set of corrections, when new errors are noticed; Ray keeps Elsa busy with red-lining his work with errors attributed uniquely to himself, thus always manufacturing more work to do on the same project. Still, Elsa can scarcely do without him, and as if oblivious to his tactics, even treats him to lunch occasionally. Ray is gleefully cognizant of the damage he is doing to Elsa's reputation. (Wong 40)

 

Being in management can become misconstrued with possessing good leadership ability, whether or not such ability is evidenced. Leaders are not necessarily trained to encourage their employees (or themselves) to act responsibly and avoid abuse of power. According to Richard Loverd in "The Challenge of a More Responsible, Productive Public Workplace," there are eight common abuses of power: dishonesty, favoritism in defining legislative intent, unfair treatment of employees, unethical behavior, gross inefficiency, cover up of mistakes, failure to show initiative in the face of wrong-doing, and disregard of the law (45-46). Given that management sets the tone of the work environment, it is possible to imagine how when such abuses are present, supervisors tolerate situations such as bullying among employees:


The trouble was Molly had learned to smell the bait from afar. When she realized Ray provided poorly understood engineering layouts, that he habitually attempted to grandiloquently rationalize and obfuscate established office computer file management and software techniques as his own special technical engineering ability, for which he alone was privy, that he met her drafting requests with partial deliberation in order to confuse her regarding his elusive skills, she knew that the only way she would ever distinguish among his stratagems was to obviate his services by learning the hardware and software systems herself--and this she was willing to do, no matter the time or fact that she apprenticed herself in order to learn her subordinate's skills. Yet, just when she had mastered the learning curve and was gaining the upper hand on design-drafting of her projects, the Senior Technician Irwin had complained to Ethen, the Chief Design Engineer, about Molly not utilizing the technician available. It was these vindictive qualities about the in-house technicians that enabled them to render engineers effete. Technicians' years of service provided political leverage when they created issues with engineers; managers had the option of whom to side with since they supervised both; however, frequently managers resolved matters with respect to their own social aggrandizement rather than delve into underlying problems. Ethen, the Chief Engineer, knew little enough about computer engineering software versus operational productivity; what he did recognize was his blind antipathy for Molly. By necessity, Molly is entrapped into utilizing Ray, even if it is for the most trivial engineering details, and she knows she will never be able to request adequate accountability for the number of hours he charges on her project. (Wong 42)

 

In the above excerpt Molly, who works in local government, is unable to manage the engineering technician who works for her because she has no supervisory authority. Her boss sides with Ray, despite her pointing out that some office engineers are allowed to do all their own design-drafting. Not only is she denied credit for working late, but when her work is completed, her supervisor declines to review the submitted work for weeks. On top of this, her coworkers ignore her--a process that exacerbates her isolation: 


An engineer working at a CAD station looks at once involved and technical yet dependent upon the computer as if hypnotized, the mind inanimately captive. Molly sensed and felt even while she was working, coworkers glancing in curiously at her, spying as it were where they could just as easily have entered Molly's office and inquired. This made her inwardly feel reduced to an automaton. At times she felt so little civility towards her that her title corrected, she mused, ought to be Mechanical Engineer. Even the hothouse plant she'd purchased for decoration had recently contracted an unmanageable illness and died--she who could recall having been praised for raising plants outdoors and having a green thumb. Decorating her cubicle walls with favorite national park maps, cherished photos, and anecdotes cheered her only temporarily--her colleagues could care less, for if they ever saw anything, they said nothing. It was the same way with clothes; where her women colleagues made much private show and discussion of their wardrobe, they offered Molly cold-eyed frog stares when Molly wore any new clothes. It made Molly feel as if her clothes became vintage overnight, her personality its used shadow. The sad idea that however hardworking, talented, and attractive she was, she was still a trifle, dismissible, permeated her existence beyond the office, penetrating the reaches of her private life like formaldehyde working its poison. Then Ethen, the Chief Engineer, exhibited anger towards Molly when she refused to provide the office her home telephone number. Molly had been told it was optional, but obviously Ethen felt that should not be the case for Molly. It was also not the case that anyone had to say hello to Molly, so Molly really began to feel like a ship at sea, loaded with goods only she cared for, engineering manuals and specifications as her cynosures, paid for out of her own pocket expenses. (Wong 48)

 

The above excerpt demonstrates how bullying is really part of a complex sum of effects in a hostile work environment. Management, co-workers, and subordinates are allowed to treat Molly unfairly, make her project a low priority, induce and cover-up inefficiency, and display favoritism. The entire atmosphere is supportive of the sort of cronyism in which corruption or government fraud and waste frequently takes place. As described in Mobbing by Noa Davenport, it is these kinds of daily sums of effects that gradually wreak emotional trauma. The process is creeping, insidious, but the isolation of the target alone makes her blameworthy. Like Pentheus in Bacchae, she is made a pariah before the world.

            Bullying could be reduced if the hidden costs were made readily apparent to corporate executives. According to the Work Doctor website, sponsored by Gary and Ruth Namie, authors of The Bully at Work, the corporate costs in an average Fortune 500 company are estimated at sixteen million dollars per year in turnover, and eight million dollars per year in lost productivity. The costs of litigation begin at $104,000, while disability costs range in the tens of thousands. Multiply this figure with thousands of companies in the public and private sector nationwide, and the figure swells up into billions of dollars in lost revenue. A research study by Giga, Hoel, and Lewis at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom states "the total cost of bullying for organizations in the UK in 2007 can be estimated at approximately £13.75 billion" and that the total financial impact on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately £17.65billion (2). If the costs are so high, why does bullying persist?

            One possibility is that the costs are not well known or advertised. Raising awareness about bullying is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and the media has paid attention to only the most glaring cases, such as the bullycide of student Jared High. Progress on the bullying front has been remarkably more successful in schools and college campuses than at the workplace for numerous reasons. New emphasis on accountability has placed schools at the forefront for public scrutiny. The costs of safeguarding one's child are minimal compared to pursuing legal counsel, as is often required to stop bullying at the workplace. Since the shooting deaths at Columbine High School, safeguarding schools has become a top concern; naturally, this includes the menace which bullies signify when tolerated in classrooms and on school grounds. The reduction of class sizes due to charter schools and home schooling has encouraged administrators to support new legislation, such as the Anti-Bullying Law, H.B. 1444, in Washington state, which provides that each school district adopt a policy or code which prohibits harassment, intimidation, or bullying in schools. Follow-up state legislation has included the allocation of funds for anti-bullying and anti-harassment training and allowing protection orders. In 2008, this widened to include protection against cyberspace bullying. The activist NIMBY (not in my backyard) approach to bullies and victims has promulgated the growth of specialty consultants offering anti-bullying workshops. New journal articles, posters, and books authored by counselors and educators have accompanied publicity campaigns on how to identify and protect one's child against bullies. The website Bully Police USA proclaimed the third week of April "Bullying Awareness Week," a dedication supported by teachers and school districts across the country.

            Why has this phenomenon not caught on at the American workplace?  It could be that, children are such valuable protected commodities, society will go to great lengths to safeguard its progeny. It could be that the ubiquitousness with which the bully selects and strikes any child, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity motivates all mothers. No one wants his or her child to grow up with the reputation of an obvious bully. Whereas at the workplace, behind glassy towers and closed doors, the public is more easily misled. Victims are frequently targeted by more than one person, sometimes the entire work group. The victim herself, as mentioned in Termination of Molly Yeu, is often identified as a cultural Other, not fitting in with the group for some reason. Managers are not held up to public scrutiny, so they can be complicit in a hostile work environment either by being bullies, supporting bullying among workers, or both. When an atmosphere of abuse is tolerated, corruption tends to follow close at its heels.

           Bullies and inefficient work cliques create hidden costs as frequent turnover due to artificial "revolving door" positions, victim absenteeism, and excessive emphasis on cliquish socializing take their toll on production. An unethical work environment also affects personal integrity as employees are forced to sacrifice or compartmentalize moral values for the sake of the group. The creation of a schism between personal and public self results in an individual having "two roles, two lives, two masks, two sets of values"; hypocrisy fills the void of unity in fundamental values (Martin 44).

            According to the Ethics Resource Center (ERC)ís 2007 National Government Ethics Survey, the top four most severe ethics risks in government are employees putting their own interests above the organizationís (conflicts of interest), lying to employees, abusive or intimidating behavior, and internet abuse (15). In agencies with ethics programs, lying to employees and abusive behavior constitute the second and third most common kinds of misconduct respectively, but in agencies with weak or no programs, abusive behavior is the primary form of misconduct (ERC 17).

            There is a direct correlation between high risk of ethics violations and risk to the public trust; agencies with no ethics and compliance programs and weak ethical cultures suffer higher rates of misconduct, tend to have environmental conditions conducive to misconduct and to have top managers who either do not monitor misconduct, or are ignorant of interventionist practices. In 2007, nearly six in ten employees claimed to have observed misconduct; one in four employees believed themselves to be in environments conducive to misconduct; and seven in ten employees reported misconduct to their immediate supervisors (ERC 1-7). According to survey respondents, only 18 percent of government workplaces have strong ethics and compliance programs, and only 8 percent believed they worked in places with strong ethical cultures (ERC 11-12). The study found that the level of ethics risk is considerably lowered when there are well- implemented compliance and ethics programs and a strong ethical culture throughout the organization (ERC 16). Having a strong ethics and compliance program discourages misconduct by providing appropriate positive feedback for ethical conduct; it educates managers for handling misconduct; and it maintains a policy of no retaliation for reporting (ERC 11). A strong ethical culture significantly reduces misconduct and increases reporting. In agencies with well-implemented compliance and ethics programs and strong ethical cultures, only 36 percent of employees observed misconduct of some kind, while 75 percent reported observations of misconduct (ERC 18).

            The ERC's government statistics is a relatively useful indicator of the state of ethics in local and state governments--even private industry. The study concluded that ethics needs to be elevated in corporate agendas; existing ethics and compliance programs do not provide enough ethical guidance; if anything, whistle-blowing rarely goes unpunished; employees are not trained on how to handle unethical situations; negative consequences for those whose behavior is unethical is the exception. More published research and media attention is needed for revealing the corporate advantages of embedded ethical values as a wise investment in infrastructure. In addition, legislation, such as a Workplace Anti-Bullying Law, could be modeled after "The MORE Perfect Anti-Bullying Law" prepared by the watch-dog organization Bully Police USA. The ideal bill mandates programs; specifies training and education; sets up task forces; contains procedures for reporting, responding to, and investigating reports of harassment and intimidation; prohibits reprisal or retaliation against witnesses and victims; contains strategies for protecting for victims from additional harassment; and includes accountability reports and specific disciplinary and counseling measures for bullies and victims. 

            This is an ideal time to propose new ethics and compliance mandates and anti-bullying legislation because corporations are seeking government bailouts. Ethics mandates could easily be  incorporated with financial bailout packages as part of congressional oversight. Chief executive officers are supposed to be visionary business leaders, so this includes running ethical organizations. Ethics and professional responsibility remains an underdeveloped field, often viewed as subsidiary to corporate culture. As Martin and Schinzinger describe in Ethics in Engineering, the toll for poor decisions can be huge: disasters include the space shuttle Challenger, Three Mile Island, midair explosions from faulty aircraft design, cross-contamination of sewage into clean water supplies, and code violations resulting in building fires or bridge collapses. Understanding ethics theories is helpful in developing professional approaches to moral dilemmas with regard to bribery and fiscal responsibility, safety, education, accountability, discrimination, harassment, the environment, and human rights. A monitoring system of checks and balances could provide the transparency necessary to prevent unhealthy venture capitalism on the scale of Enron or corruption in the administration and awarding of lucrative military contracts.

            All workers have inalienable rights, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but people are not necessarily imbued with a Kantian sense of ethical duty. In fact David Ewing, editor of the Harvard Business Review, once described employee rights as the "black hole in American rights" (qtd. in Martin 265). Managers continue to infringe upon employees' privacy such as their choice of outside activities and to minimize issues of moral conscience. Only through legislation have rights been historically advanced. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric about the state of mind in which men commit wrongdoing:


They must themselves suppose that the thing can be done, and done by them: either that they can do it without being found out, or that if they are found out they can escape being punished, or that if they are punished the disadvantage will be less than the gain for themselves or those they care for. (Book 1.12)

 

A strong ethical work culture, one in which leadership is held accountable for their own ethics violations and in which there are employee evaluations for ethical behavior, would deter the kinds of desensitized cultural norms in which rights are violated. Through ethics in leadership training, management would learn to identify and prevent "groupthink" from squelching new innovations and allow flexibility and diversity to permeate through the upper ranks of the organizational ladder (Loverd 47-48).

            Under new ethics guidelines, mobbing or bullying incidents could be reduced as reporting results in intervention and bullies are identified. Managers should be able to apply real cost-benefit analysis ratios to projects rather than be influenced by political alliances and employee stratagems. Instead of old boy style cronyism, in which employees are retained and promoted primarily based on social popularity, in an ethical workplace, employees would be promoted on the basis of merit and production level. Culls might be identified for demotion; presently it is too often the case that the converse occurs: a hardworking but nonconformist employee becomes the cultural Other, ostracized by the dominant but indolent work group. 

            Bullying is part of a complex process that may involve differences in socialization, such as between genders, or be a dominant characteristic of an individual. Bullying is more likely to occur when a mismatch is seen, such as with women entering engineering. If society is ever to see women entering engineering in larger numbers beyond those who are math whizzes, it must increase opportunities for girls and young woman to become "tinkerers"; that is, by encouraging them to learn to "use tools, to build and repair, and understand mechanical principles" (McIlwee 181). There should be inclusionary changes in the media's portrayal, in the child-raising, and in the education of girls and young women so that engineering becomes a "realistic choice for the woman who is reasonably competent at math and mechanics" (McIlwee 181). At present, attrition is greatest among mediocre female engineering students because they develop limited academic support and resources with which to counteract workplace harassment (McIlwee 77).

            Workplace bullying costs the taxpayers money and reduces production efficiency, particularly when talented people are targeted. New legislation to improve ethics and compliance programs and promote strong ethical cultures can deter abuses such as bullying. If corporations are required to adopt ethics codes that can be enforced, to provide managers and employees ethics training, to protect employees who report abuses from suffering retaliation, and to be routinely accountable to an outside monitoring agency, the number of incidences in misconduct could be dramatically reduced. This would also improve production quality and workers' health. The media and nongovernmental agencies can work to prevent workplace bullying by conducting more research, campaigning to raise awareness, and working to promote new legislation that encourages corporate transparency. 


                                                                        Works Cited

Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. The Internet Classics Archive. 04 Oct. 2000.

            Web Atomics. 05 Mar. 2004 <http://classics.mit.edu/index.html>.

Bully Police USA Inc. "Proclamation for the Third Week of April." Bully Police USA. 2008.

            3 Dec. 2008 <http://www.bullypolice.org>.

Davenport, Noa. Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Ames, Iowa: Civil     Society Publishing, 1999.

Dworkin, Andrea. Women Hating. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974.

Ethics Resource Center. National Government Ethics Survey. Arlington, VA: ERC, 2008.

Giga, Sabir, Helge Hoel, and Duncan Lewis. The Costs of Workplace Bullying.

            Dignity at Work Partnership. Manchester, UK: University of Bradford, 2008.

Loverd, Richard A. "The Challenge of a More Responsible, Public Workplace."

            Public Productivity & Management Review 13.1 (1989): 43-59. JSTOR

            U of District of Columbia Lib., Washington. 23 Oct. 2008  <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3380910>.

Martin, Mike W. and Schinzinger, Roland. Ethics in Engineering. 3rd ed.

            San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

McIlwee, Judith S. and Robinson, J. G. Women in Engineering. Albany: SUNY, 1992.

Namie, Gary and Ruth F. Work Doctor. 2008. 3 Dec. 2008. <http://workdoctor.com/costs.html>.

 

Characters and events are fictitious and serve thematic purposes only.

Copyright 2009 by Columbia Press   All Rights Reserved.

 

Return to Asian-American Forum Home