Keeping Score


The secularisation of martyrdom is often overlooked as a by-product of modernisation, but sufficient evidence of its existence can quite easily be found across the public and private domains of modern life. It is in the workplace though that martyrdom finds,
while not exactly a natural home, a functional space within which its psychodramas
can be played out. The workplace martyr, personified in those who see themselves as unjustly carrying the burden of colleagues, produces his/her own set of special effects in organisational settings, ones that fuel the fire of gossip and envy, while paying self-serving testimony to their own gallantry and honour.

Secularised martyrdom shares with its religious counterpart the property of bearing witness, giving testimony against the sins of others. Outside the religious context, martyrdom can be understood as having quite different roots – while religious martyrdom (a concept shared across most major religions), is associated in theological terms as a sentiment fuelled by sacrifice and purity, unsullied by earthly concerns – its
less heroic counterpart is very much couched in the world of the relational, where one suffers for the sins of co-workers – shirking, laziness, careerist opportunism and the struggle for status.

Once that distinction is made, however, the similarities are striking, both versions of martyrdom valorising the sacred over the profane, seeing in the latter the roots of inequality and ethical brutality. Fuelled by a sense of injustice, the self-appointed status
of workplace martyr brings with it a barrel-load of suffering, the sense of persecution
fuelled by the earthly rages of resentment and humiliation. Just as importantly, this all-too-modern version of martyrdom desires not just to be a witness to the horrors of others – it must also be witnessed itself. The display of modern martyrdom gives testimony against the failings of others, the martyr always, somehow, covering themselves in glory and honour.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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