Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Tracing the Maddening Effects of Abuses of Authority: Rationalities Gone Violent in Mental Health Services and Universities

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Tracing the Maddening Effects of Abuses of Authority: Rationalities Gone Violent in Mental Health Services and Universities

Article excerpt

Organisations such as mental health systems and universities can be places where violence is part of the business as usual and hence taken-for-granted functionality of the workplaces. The paper challenges dominant perceptions of who is mad and what is dangerous to unsettle the largely unquestioned legitimacy of indirect and mainly, but not always, non-coercive forms of organisational power. To enable this analysis the research and language of domestic violence is presented to help anchor the nature of organisational violence so that it doesn't get ignored or deferred as non-problematic, as something that just happens somehow separate from peoples' actions or non-actions. The discursive and material nature of violence in our human organisations can be addressed through tracing the maddening effects it can have on people and by addressing issues of harm, loss and injustice through dialogue, resistance and restorative justice work.


This paper draws on literature from the past several decades and personal experiences to generate intentionally agenda-setting theory about violence as the abuse of power in organisations. Our purpose is to encourage dialogue and increase collective confidence to create safe, healing and intelligent spaces and places. We draw on a collective wisdom developed over a combined seventy years of experience as social workers to express our rage at the harm and injustices we see. We then reflexively review some relevant literature and share our guarded optimism for collective efforts to achieve dialogue and non-violence with people in these systems.

This paper has three sections corresponding with the main arguments we wish to present. Firstly, we name the problem of violence in organisations by giving voice to our anger and indignation at what we have read, heard, witnessed and experienced in our personal and professional contact with mental health organisations and universities. Secondly, we take stock and reflexively consider what we know to make sense of the violence by drawing on Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological systems theory. We do this as a way of positioning organisational violence in the same theoretical space as domestic violence to support our understanding of the former. Finally, we complete the paper by presenting some elements of a dialogical, non-violent model for developing non-maddening practices within mental health organisations and universities, absorbing the limitations of the present time/space and the conundrums that leap from our proposals.

Our goal is to illustrate one of the mechanisms by which Capra's (1982: 466) 'declining culture' has been able to resist transformation, namely the unquestioned rationality of power relating to authoritative organisational positions that are legally and socially sanctioned in Australian society. Specifically, we refer to the ideological function of impartiality and its intellectual partner, rationality, in managerial and professional spaces which can together 'be understood as a regulative ideal of reason' (Young 1990: 111).

In the two examples which follow, the pivotal rationality where dominant power abuses cohere (not accidentally) tend to mirror and refract the defining feature of the organisations' client/customer group. Thus, we can think of mental health systems as exhibiting unhealthy, irrational rationalities and universities as exhibiting unsmart, un-intelligent rationalities. That is, they mystify on the basis of their defining feature, which is the contradictory use of power to maintain dominant groups' interests. For our purposes, one of the ideological and discursive functions of belief in impartiality and rationality is that it:

Legitimates bureaucratic authority and hierarchical decision-making processes, defusing calls for democratic [and inclusive] decision-making ... it functions in our society to legitimate ... authoritarian structure[s] (Young 1990: 112).

Further, these accepted ways of doing business in organisations are cloaked in a respectability (Young 1990: 57) provided by the mystification of power and status/privilege of the professional and managerial classes. …

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