Whiplash: Great Film. But Does it Promote Bullying?

On a recent plane trip, I was fortunate to find that Air Canada had enhanced its collection of films and added several new releases.  Since this was a lengthy day time flight, I actually managed to watch four new releases, all of which were reasonably good.

But the film that has really resonated with me is one of the Oscar nominated films for 2015 – Whiplash.  This is an extremely powerful movie that addresses some topics that I have written and spoken about on this site and elsewhere.  The film is riveting but it is also quite disturbing.  Its music is outstanding and its direction and acting are both tremendous.

But here is the issue.  How is human excellence produced?  What causes people to become truly great at a particular activity, whether it is sports, music, art or some other discipline?  Of course, most of us can agree that hard work, drive, motivation and some natural talent are all part of the mix.  But the disturbing suggestion of this film is that being subjected to abuse is almost a prerequisite for being able to achieve greatness.  And that is portrayed as a good thing.

The movie is the story of Andrew Neyman, an aspiring young jazz drummer who has been admitted to one of the best music schools in the United States.  There, he is recruited to play under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher, a highly accomplished jazz musician.  Fletcher, whose role is played by J.K. Simmons, is a maniacal, abusive, foul mouthed bully.  Fletcher’s justification is that he knows how to produce great musicians.  He constantly repeats a story about how Charlie Parker only became great after a cymbal was thrown at his head when he made a mistake.  It is abuse and fear, runs the suggestion, that causes people to become inspired and to work hard enough to become great.

As a result, nothing is below Terence Fletcher.  The movie covers the gamut of abuse.  Fletcher publicly berates and humiliates his students.  His repertoire includes obscenities, repeated graphic sexual references, belittling, and even physical abuse.  All for the good of the students, runs the suggestion, even if the weaker musicians will be driven to failure, mental illness or even thoughts of suicide.

Sadly, the movie is a reasonably accurate representation of many bullies who can be found in workplaces, schools, sports teams and in other places, even churches and synagogues.  I can attest to having worked professionally with two of these character types and having seen, in real life, some scenes that could have been included in this movie.  As an employment lawyer, I have met with many people who have conveyed stories of similar incidents, even while working with public or charitable organizations.  I note that in a review that I wrote of Steve Jobs’ book, this type of bullying was one of the central themes – the way that Steve Jobs treated other employees and many other people.

Is this really the path to greatness?  I have a hard time believing that.  I can certainly accept that people need to be pushed to their limits to be able to accomplish the unexpected.  Keeping a music class for hours beyond the scheduled ending time or giving people enormously challenging goals and tasks is not abuse, in my view, even though it might be tough to handle for some.  In some disciplines, people might need to be challenged to their limits in a very physical way.  I can readily accept that in training for ice hockey, football or in military training the physical and emotional demands to which individuals are subjected could be excruciatingly high.  Even in other disciplines, the mental demands that are made, the time lines, the pressure all might be extreme.   And when that happens, particularly for those on the receiving end, it may seem hard to draw the line between demanding requirements and abuse.

In another movie that I happened to watch on this flight as well, Stephen Hawking was also pushed to his limits.  At an early age, the suggestion is that he and other students were given nearly impossible physics problems to solve in a short period of time and pushed to fight extremely difficult challenges.  But there is no suggestion that the professors felt the need to humiliate or abuse Mr. Hawking to bring out his greatness.

I can’t accept that in order to succeed, young musicians, athletes, artists or employees must be humiliated yelled at, sworn at and otherwise abused in order to become great.  Moreover, I can’t even accept the suggestion that these coaches, teachers, bosses and others behave this way because they are personally motivated to create greatness.  More often than not, one finds that the bully is employing this tactic because of his or her own inadequacies, real or perceived.  It may be an issue in the person’s personal life, a professional failing, or something else.  In workplaces, it may be the response to the perceived threat posed by a young up and coming individual.  I am not a psychologist so I can’t explain how bullies are created.  But I would think that these types of tactics are much more likely to be harmful and counterproductive in most scenarios.

I can certainly say that some of the best teachers and bosses that I have had, who pushed people to their limits, were demanding, strict and detailed.  But not abusive.  If anything, the opposite.  They generated respect because those with whom they worked really had the sense that the teachers or bosses were looking out for their well-being while trying to push them to their limits or beyond.  I have often read that type of summary about great sports coaches, military and political leaders or others.  That they inspired people to push themselves to the limit but that they also attracted tremendous respect and displayed empathy and compassion.

Fortunately, in workplaces, in some jurisdictions, like ours in the Province of Ontario, legislation has been passed to try to prevent and ban workplace bullying.  In today’s day and age, parent and student vigilance and changing attitudes help to diminish the likelihood of this type of behaviour in schools, churches and synagogues and other organizations.  But there is still a great deal of it out there.  And there are still many people who accept Terence Fletcher’s mantra – that abuse and fear creates greatness.  That is the very disturbing message of this film.

While the music in the film was excellent, the acting was very strong and the story was riveting, I was left wrestling with the film’s premise as the movie came to its conclusion.  I don’t feel that it was very much of a struggle.  I reject the premise even though I accept that this movie presents the argument as well as anyone might make it.

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