Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label mobbing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mobbing. 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.

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.