Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Documentary traces gun rampages back to hostile workplace issues ("Murder by Proxy: : How America Went Postal")

I had placed the documentary “Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal “ in my Netflix instant queue about a week before the tragedies in Oregon and then Connecticut.  The 2010 film (73 minutes), by Emil Chiaberi, from Key Element Films and Aldamisa Releasing, turns out to be all too relevant.  I had to wait a few days, though, just to deal with this.

The film starts out by defining the phrase “going postal”, in reference to the workplace violence (usually perpetrated by recently fired employees) that had become associated with the United States Postal Service because of a few incidents in the 1980s and 90s, particularly at Royal Oak, MI and Edmond, OK.  About half of the film deals with the problems in US post offices or sorting centers as workplaces. Some former employers talk about the brutal management culture, and the tendency of the automation and machinery to overwhelm the workers, and even cause them to be injured (as with carpal tunnel).  I almost had a job as a letter carrier (at age 61) in 2004, and would have gone through with it if it were not for a last minute medical concern about a hip injury in 1998.  My own history, after my career-ending layoff at age 58, post 9/11, at the end of 2001, had become a matter of “paying my dues”.

The film moves on to other workplaces, including a printing company near Louisville, KY and then the 1999 incident at Xerox in Hawaii.   The film then takes the position that the workplace violence has been setting an “example” that encourages outbursts in schools (especially Columbine in 1999) and other civilian settings by disgruntled and sometimes psychopathic people. Given recent history, this is a chilling interpretation.
The film mentions Ronald Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers in 1982, as a sign of a new kind of belligerence against “ordinary” workers and union –busting that increased in Reagan’s “trickle down”, “supply-side” world.  (As Ross Perot used to say, “Trickle down didn’t trickle”.)  

The film presents “management” as treating workers as pawns in some sort of Darwinian (or Spencerian) process (not exactly chess).  Management tends to look at lower paid workers as those who “didn’t make it” competitively and are where they deserve to be.  Totalitarian societies and sometimes religious communities try to rationalize this sort of thing by saying that everyone should take his turn with rites of passage experiencing peasantry (in extreme forms, that’s Maoism).  In theory, if everyone took his turn with dirty work, those who survived deserve to be elevated and there could be no worker resentment, and no crime.  In some smaller totalitarian societies, this sort of thing seems to work.

The danger, then, is that when an individual “fails” in this competition (or rites of passage), he might see no value to society’s norms and lash out, believing he is making a final statement.   “It’s your fault that I failed.”  It may not be so different from what motivate the 9/11 hijackers – if you understand the idea of collective shame (even religious) as an unacceptable emotion.  The film takes us through some of the more recent horrors, including schools, with this interpretation.  It’s scary nihilism. The film compares the victims in an incident to ants that we step on – we either don’t see them at all or we don’t see them as people or as valued.  It then defines the word “proxy” in that context.

Underlying all of this presentation is an even more disturbing idea, that we have to demand that people “make it” somehow as individuals, and then don’t see them as inherently personally valuable as people when they just can’t.  There is only the “hidden resource” of compassion left.

The film makes a particularly disturbing point about homeland security, that the greatest danger (to utilities and energy companies particularly) could come from disgruntled workers from within, rather than from overseas enemies.  
There is one other valuable point in the film that should not be glossed over.  It is indeed all too easy for management in an employer to create a hostile workplace environment. Even comments made on the Web in public can show contempt for certain kinds of people and create a workplace issue -- an observation (in the conflict of interest area) that has long concerned me. 

The official site is here


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