There is a dynamic in some public and subsidized housing communities for the elderly and disabled that reminds of the witchcraft hysteria in 1692-1693 and of current social and political polarization in our world.
Each side accuses the other of bad acts, but their main arguments are that the "other" is not a good, moral person that deserves to be in "our" community. When there is mobbing---leadership condones or participates in bullying by a group---targets are unable to find protection.
This type of argument by moral value and identity is a serious and common problem in the housing community and in our society.
In a typical housing community composed of a diverse group of individuals, if there is to be peace and fairness for all, everyone needs to agree to accept and live within a code of conduct that does not require total conformity.
Lacking such a common framework, individuals and groups will seek to impose their own views and interests on others. This is how bullying and mobbing can arise---out of efforts to impose order on chaos. But these efforts are often partisan and selfish, seeking benefits for some at the expense of others.
In the historic witchcraft trials, the unity and cohesion of the community was seen to be threatened by the supposed allegiance of accused individuals to an evil force. Any person who was called out and accused was deemed guilty, and only those who plead guilty were spared the death penalty, perhaps because their confession allowed them to be reintegrated in the polity.
"Anyone could be a witch," Emerson Baker writes, "neighbors, friends, in-laws, wives, husbands, or children. Those who are different arouse your immediate suspicion. Perhaps they dress in an unusual fashion, or speak with an odd accent, or worship God a bit differently." Emerson W. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, (New York:Oxford University Press), 2015, p.285
In mobbing, the group demands obedience and cohesion and attacks outsiders. There can be no defense against the coordinated attack of the group if the official leadership---in housing it is the landlord---does not intervene.
How can we resolve these conflicts among community members? Ideally, everyone would engage in establishing basic rules for life in the community. When conflict arises, we should focus on specific acts and behaviors in the present. The complaint, if legitimate, should be in the form of
"Mr. Bad Actor said this and that, and did this or that, and kept me from using the common areas and/or tried to isolate me from other tenants; and these behaviors were intended to and did have the effect of limiting my right of peaceful enjoyment."
Efforts to demean, isolate, and harm individuals and targeting them by claiming they "don't belong here," or by noting their inherent personal characteristics (sex, race, ethnicity, language, culture) or any other alleged mark of inferiority or difference such as intellectual challenges or real or alleged mental health problems, or style of clothing, etc., are not acceptable and should be punished.
Some examples of bullying and mobbing might include: The leader and/or members of the group using bullying tactics refuse to allow the target to attend social events and meetings that are open to all tenants. They tell people in the community that they should not communicate with the target, the leaders of the bullying group use stated or implied threats to discourage people from continuing to befriend the target. They tell visitors to the community that the target should not live in the community.
By continuing to bully the target and to organize others against the target using gossip and threats, the group is mobbing; they are seeking to isolate and harm and even to drive the target out of their home.
The responsible landlord will make sure that management intervenes to protect victims and prevent further bullying and mobbing. According to the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, that is a legal obligation, failing to act to protect tenants from bullying is unlawful.
Some landlords don't know how to manage these social issues, some don't want to be bothered, and some actually use and encourage bullying as a management technique. They need help, and we need to hold them accountable. And victims of bullying need an ombuds office to protect them.
Bills now under consideration by Massachusetts state legislators:
- S984 / H1443 will provide new resources to assist in the administration of housing programs. This bill has been reported favorably by the Joint Committee on Housing and has gone to the next step, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. This is a victory for the advocacy of the Stop Bullying Coalition.
And S985 to establish an ombuds office has not yet been approved by the Joint Committee on Housing. That bill is intended to:
- create an ombuds office to investigate complaints and provide protective services to victims and
- use existing laws to hold landlords accountable by court action.
The Stop Bullying Coalition will continue to work to have these urgently needed protections made into law. We need your ideas and your support.
Emerson W. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, (New York:Oxford University Press), 2015
Janice Harper, Ph.D., Bullying and mobbing in group settings
Mass Attorney General, Advisory on Harassment, https://tinyurl.com/yyrjkzza
Jerry Halberstadt, Report: Testimony on Bullying Bills Before the Joint Committee on Housing