Showing posts with label mobbing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mobbing. Show all posts

Thursday, September 9, 2021

So now you care about academic mobbing

Angry Mob by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0
Princeton politics professor Keith E. Whittington (on the blog) has a wisely worded op-ed, on The Volokh Conspiracy at Reason, on the too often abdicated responsibility of university administrators to push back against viewpoint-based campus mobbing of faculty.

"It is now a familiar pattern," he writes: attack, petition, social media campaign, demand for termination.  Of the university's duty, he writes:

University presidents have a responsibility in such a situation. It should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not, that they have a responsibility to actually live up to their constitutional and contractual responsibilities and refrain from sanctioning the faculty member for saying something that someone finds controversial. They should insist that harassment and threats directed against members of the faculty will not be tolerated. Professors should at least be confident that when the mobs arrive, pitchforks in hand, that university leaders will not flinch and give in to the demands of the mob.

I hope the piece hits the desk of every university president in the land with a thunderclap of j'accuse.

Yet it is fascinating to me to see described today as cliché what was once fringe.  Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, published his Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004) seventeen years ago, and that book was built on his earlier Eliminating Professors (1998).

By the time I met Ken in 2009, he was already the world's leading expert on academic mobbing.  He still is.  Westhues's website is still the online clearinghouse on mobbing as a sociological phenomenon. But he's almost never cited, at least in the legal lit.  I find eight references to Westhues on Westlaw's JLR database, and none in the last dozen years.

At a program at the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in 2010, I accepted the invitation of Westhues and Syracuse University law professor Robert Ashford to speak of my experience.  Ashford perceived a worthwhile connection to his inventive work in socio-economics, and Westhues flattered me with my name as a participle

The splash we made at AALS and in legal academics eleven years ago might be described well as mostly indifferent curiosity.  Mostly modifies indifferent, not curiosity.  

I wrote in the Journal of College and University Law in 2009 about the need for broader academic freedom, beyond published research and into the professorial "penumbra."  I presented at AAUP, besides AALS.  The article was cited once in a 2011 bibliography and once in 2013.  (Thanks, Profs. Benson and Jones.)  And that was that.

Not until cancel culture reached the well known coastal scholars of academia's elite institutions did mobbing hit the mainstream.  Now a lot of important people are wringing their hands over academic freedom and waning tenure.

Too bad they don't seem able to find my article.  Or Westhues's work.  Is there really a wheel until it's invented at a "top" school?

It's nice to see serious people having serious thoughts about academic freedom, at last.  But it's too late to give solace to a generation of victim-scholars.  And it's probably too late to resuscitate intellectual liberty on campus, for at least a generation yet.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Book Review: So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson



In an afterword to his 2015 book, Jon Ronson reported that So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was not the first-draft title.  

Indeed, it must have been a struggle to name this wide-ranging volume.  Ronson explores shame in many contexts, from the woman whose off-color joke about AIDS on Twitter “blew up [her] life” (as the N.Y. Times put it) to the clients of a busted prostitution outfit, to the featured participant in “a German-themed BDSM orgy” (as the New Statesman put it).  I’m not here naming the Twitter woman, because if you read the book, I think you’ll agree she’s been named—and shamed—more than enough.

By Ronson’s broad definition of public shaming, I’ve been there.  Ronson does little to distinguish those who fairly earned some degree of public shaming—such as a journalist who made up quotes—from those who were disproportionately rebuked, or just misunderstood, or falsely maligned.  Ronson’s light touch with judgment—he admits he has not always been so evenhanded in his own social media life—frustrated me at first, as I’m one who likes to see justice done, or at least to wring my hands when it’s not.  However, I came to appreciate Ronson’s approach.  His reluctance to reach normative conclusions forced me, as reader, to acknowledge my own.  Do I really know how This American Life fact-checks, say, David Rakoff, versus Mike Daisey (see “Retraction”)?  Do I need to have an opinion at all on what consenting adults do in their sex dungeon?  (See also extended adventures with Jon Ronson in the porn world at his 2017 podcast, The Butterfly Effect, coming to iTunes free in November.)

Judgment would get in the way of Ronson’s search.  Chapter to chapter, Ronson leads us in a dogged effort to understand the shaming mob.  (Cf. the excellent work of Prof. Ken Westhues on mobbing.)  When does the mob spring into action, and when does it not?  Ronson tells stories of public shamings from the perspectives of the victims.  He went to the trouble of tracking them all down to get their stories; the Internet doesn’t usually bother.  (In my experience, neither does The New York Times, nor even a respectable author.)  Can the victim do anything to fight back against a public shaming?  Ronson gives us a fascinating glimpse into the sometimes shady world of online reputation management.  And ultimately:  Is there such a thing as redemption in the Internet age?

That was the question that kept me turning pages.  Coverage of Ronson’s book since 2015 really obsessed on the implications of social media, but this book is about so much more than that.  Despite my ongoing research into online erasure, or “the right to be forgotten” (e.g., here and here, and an exciting panel discussion at NCA 2016, reported here and here), I was surprised to see Ronson make the connection.  He considers the RTBF later in the book, tackling the conflicted feelings about RTBF that a lot of people in the journalism world have over interacting rights to expression, privacy, and identity. 

I continue to be captivated by the redemption problem, which I wrote about in a Washington Post opinion column some years ago.  I won’t tell where Ronson’s search leads, because that would spoil the fun.  Suffice to say, there’s plenty of work yet to do, if justice is really our aim.