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Showing posts with label Anne Applebaum. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne Applebaum. Show all posts

Friday, December 31, 2021

Atlantic's Applebaum adds to reminscences of academic, editorial freedom; mob justice rules now

In an article in the October Atlantic, Anne Applebaum examined the potentially devastating effect of cancel culture on academic and editorial freedom.

With her usual incisive writing, Applebaum compared contemporary cancellation with the summary imposition of the scarlet letter on Hester Prynne and described how today's mob justice is dangerously empowered by social media.

What's missing from Applebaum's tale is recognition that the threat to academic freedom is not new.  Workplace mobbing has been studied since the 1980s ("ganging up"), and, as I have written before, sociologist Kenneth Westhues wrote about the threat to academic freedom in a 2004 book. I know of what I speak (2005-10, 2017-19).

The following lines struck me as most salient in Applebaum's analysis.

A journalist told me that when he was summarily fired, his acquaintances sorted themselves into three groups.  First, the "heroes," very small in number, who "insist on due process before damaging another person's life and who stick by their friends." Second, the "villains," who think you should "immediately lose your livelihood as soon as the allegation is made." .... But the majority were in the third category: "good but useless.  They don't necessarily think the worst of you, and they would like you to get due process, but, you know, they haven't looked into it."

This observation is spot on.  My heroes once were two in number, another time zero.  One of my heroes paid a price for his chronic condition of character.  Villains are rewarded by employers.  But I respect honest villains more than I respect the "good but useless," who are the vast majority of academic colleagues, for their hypocrisy is galling.  That this group is the majority is precisely what makes "ganging up," or "mobbing," possible; the villains, otherwise, are too few in number to get away with it.  Especially in legal education, I have been horrified repeatedly by the selfish indifference to wrongs in their midst borne by people who hold themselves out as champions of civil rights.

Sometimes advocates of the new mob justice claim that these are minor punishments, that the loss of a job is not serious, that people should be able to accept their situation and move on.

Indeed, in my experience, I vividly remember one colleague acknowledging the wrongfulness of the persecution, but advising that I "just wait five years" for people to forget the false allegations.  Never mind the opportunity cost to career, nor providing for my family in the interim, nor the uncertainty that five years would be enough, nor the inference of guilt that would derive from acquiescence.

"I wake up every morning afraid to teach," one academic told me: The university campus that he once loved has become a hazardous jungle, full of traps.

Check.  My classroom students are both my greatest motivation and my greatest fear.  I think of both every single time a class is about to begin.  It is a difficult and stressful dissonance to manage. 

[T]he protagonists of most of these stories tend to be successful....  They were professors who liked to chat or drink with their students, ... people who blurred the lines between social life and institutional life....  [Yale Law Professor Amy Chua:] "I do extra work; I get to know them," she told me. "I write extra-good recommendations." ....

It's not just the hyper-social and the flirtatious who have found themselves victims of the New Puritanism....  Others are high achievers, who in turn set high standards for their colleagues or students.  When those standards are not met, these people say so, and that doesn't go over well.  Some of them like to push boundaries, especially intellectual boundaries, or to question orthodoxies.

First, yes.  Westhues long ago identified jealousy, revenge, and schadenfreude as mob motivators.  Hard work and success make one a target.  Second, also yes.  To be fair, early in my academic career, work probably was too much my life: too much overlap between co-workers and social life.  In my defense, that's not unusual for an ambitious young person, especially after relocating to a new city for a new career.  

I've been disabused of that ethic.  Co-workers willing to sacrifice you to save or glorify themselves are not your friends.  Workplaces and schools design social events with the intent to mislead, imbuing senses of belonging and community that only serve the master's interests.  At today's university, students and faculty rather should be forewarned explicitly that if they find themselves on the wrong side of the groupthink, they will be devoured by the mob.

Workplaces once considered demanding are now described as toxic.  The sort of open criticism, voiced in front of other people, that was once normal in newsrooms and academic seminars is now as unacceptable as chewing gum with your mouth open.

Just so.  The kind of hard-nosed, openly aired editorial critique that was a staple of my education as a journalism student, and which conditioned me to take heat and to be stronger for it, I wouldn't dare administer in today's classroom.  Some of my law students understand the new game and read between the lines, and they'll be OK.  Some will be shocked the first time they are across the table from an adversary or in front of a judge who wasn't schooled to coddle.

Students and professors ... all are aware of the kind of society they now inhabit.  That's why they censor themselves, why they steer clear of certain topics, why they avoid discussing anything too sensitive for fear of being mobbed or ostracized or fired without due process.

True.  I have resisted modestly on this front, refusing to purge sensitive content from class materials.  But I do prioritize-down the sensitive, choose materials strategically, and exert tighter control of student discussion.  As usual, this decades-old practice in the academic trenches became a point of public concern only when Yale and Harvard professors started talking about it, as if they discovered the problem. 

If nothing is done, Applebaum concluded,

[u]niversities will no longer be dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge but to the promotion of student comfort and the avoidance of social media attacks.

"[W]ill"?

The article is Anne Applebaum, The New Puritans, The Atlantic, Oct. 2021, at 60.