The cumulative effects

Maureen Brian at Pharyngula, on PZ’s post about the limits to any perceived right to anonymity on the internet. She addresses a couple of commenters.

You both seem to be to be ignorant of or deliberately ignoring a key aspect of how we human beings work.

Plead innocence and confusion all you want but it is a factor which the bullies and harassers know well and exploit to the full.  Bullying and harassment work by the cumulative effects of abuse, lies, threats over time.  We may appear to brush off an individual incident but that does not mean we are unaffected or that we recover instantly from the hurt.  Bullies know and exploit this, keeping up the pressure and even working as a team so that their target never, ever recovers and can then be “teased” by which I mean abused for being over-sensitive / making it up / having no evidence.  (Sock-puppeting is just a pretend version of working as a team in the hope you won’t be spotted quite so quickly.)

This is why it is so hard to get, say, the police to take matters seriously  –  they look at a series of discrete acts no one of which is absolutely outrageous and fail to spot the cumulative effect.

This is the psychological equivalent of the old death by a thousand cuts and it’s time that all the “yes, but” brigade recognised that and stopped pretending not to understand.

It’s cumulative all right. Trust me on that.


  1. Eristae says

    It reminds me of this thing you can do with a candle. If you take a lit candle and pass your hand over it quickly, nothing happens. In fact, if you place your hand over the flame, you can hold it there for a few seconds without any serious effect. But if you keep your hand there, you will be burned, and the longer you hold it there, the worse you will get burned.

    Even if the flame is the same, it’s not the same to quickly pass your hand through it as it is to hold your hand continuously over it.

  2. MrFancyPants says

    Compounded microaggressions. Yes, it all adds up. And some people, like Skep Tickle, seem to take pleasure in adding to that sum.

  3. seraphymcrash says

    The candle analogy is really apt, especially when combined with Dana’s arsonist metaphor for dialogue with the abusers.

  4. brive1987 says

    We have a senior exec doing exactly this – little bits of aggression and intimidation, each one can be wiggled – even if you wanted to look like a fool and take the risk for bringing it up.

    Another peer exec has been marginalised as over reacting and emotional in her battle with the bully. Any complaint she makes now just further characterises this label. Others see this outcome and just keep their heads down.

    I have been waking up every morning at 4.00am.

    Thanks PZ and Ophelia for making the dynamic so clear.

  5. leni says

    @ brive1987- that’s why documenting helps. It establishes a pattern of abusive behavior that is not as easy to dismiss. I haven’t envied Ophelia’s position doing this. I don’t think I’d have the stomach for it and as much as it doesn’t let us forget, it doesn’t let her forget even more.

    It’s absolute bullshit :/

    Maybe there is a way you can help that coworker out without losing too much more sleep over it. I’m not trying to guilt you or anything- it’s your career and you need to do what you need to do. But she’s already been gaslighted. Any complaining she does is just making it worse, it sounds like. Anyway, I know you weren’t asking for advice, but whatever happens I wish you and your non-bully co-workers the best.

    Have you seen the workplace bullying video that went around a while back? I think you’d like it if not.

  6. brive1987 says

    Thanks. Per below I will be acting – but it has to be done carefully. You only really get one credible shot at these things before you also become part of the problem. I will watch the link – thanks again.

    I have been documenting the lindividual things. Problem is our CEO sees the person as the “hard man every company needs” and wants to ignore. Even our HR person is personally intimidated. A reorg is putting me close to him and the issue will go down this week as I will not tolerate this. It has been instructive to see how “off hand” comments about redundancies, who is expensive, who is old, who has been around too long coupled to out right professional slander about co-workers, aggressive language to suppliers and direct reporting to CEO can completely stuff a productive workplace.

  7. leni says

    That sounds incredibly toxic. I’ve lost sleep over far less. There are also some links under the YouTube video to other resources, I hope you can find something helpful.

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