March 05, 2008


There's an article in the 14 April 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education, called "Mob Rule," by John Gravois, that examines a phenomenon known as mobbing, in particular workplace mobbing (and even more particularly, academic workplace mobbing), defined as "an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker." His descriptions of targets and the general pattern of action remind me of Rene Girard's and James Alison's on scapegoating.

Gravois exlores the stages and elements of mobbing, which has a usual pattern: a period of increasing social isolation, a period of petty harassment, leading to a 'critical incident' that demands swift action and adjudication.

Some comments that resonate with my experience (and that certainly correlate with Girardian thought):

  • Groupthink: "The Law of Group Polarization, formulated by Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, says that a bunch of people who agree with each other on some point will, given the chance to get together and talk, come away agreeing more strenuously on a more extreme point. If this tendency has a curdling effect on intellectual debates, it can have a downright menacing effect when the point of agreement is that a particular colleague is a repugnant nutjob."
  • Elements of the Mobbing Process: "Calling some departmental mess a mobbing does not imply that the victim is wholly innocent, Mr. [Kenneth] Westhues [a sociologist at the University of Waterloo, Ontario] says. But it does imply that the campaign against the target has probably been based on fuzzy and unspecific charges, that it has proceeded with a degree of secrecy, that its timing has been hasty, that its rhetoric has been overheated and overwrought, and that it has been backed by an eerie unanimity."
  • Original Sin: "'I have a friend who says that there's only two kinds of people in the world,' Mr. Westhues says, 'those who believe that there's original sin and those who don't.' 'I think probably mobbing research as a whole is more on the side of the original-sin folks,' he says."
  • Traits of Mobbing Targets: "Essentially, Mr. Westhues says, anything that can be a basis for bickering can be a basis for mobbing: race, sex, political difference, cultural difference, intellectual style. Professors with foreign accents, he says, often get mobbed, as do professors who frequently file grievances and 'make noise.' But perhaps the most common single trait of mobbing targets, he says, is that they excel.

    "'To calculate the odds of your being mobbed," Mr. Westhues writes in his most comprehensive book on mobbing, The Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors, 'count the ways you show your workmates up: fame, publications, teaching scores, connections, eloquence, wit, writing skills, athletic ability, computer skills, salary, family money, age, class, pedigree, looks, house, clothes, spouse, children, sex appeal. Any one of these will do.'"
  • Mobbing - A Charged Term: "'Mobbing is such a colorful term that it tends to pre-empt debate," says Rich Fedder, ... the chairman of the Southern Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. 'It plays into an American love of talking about victims.'

    "... Leveling the charge of mobbing can be a quick and easy way to seize the moral high ground in a dispute. And while Mr. Westhues does, in fact, see Mr. Bean's case as a mobbing, he largely agrees with this argument. 'There's a tendency for anybody who wants some leverage in campus politics to say, You know, I'm being mobbed,' he says, 'and the whole thing becomes quite meaningless.' This is one reason why Mr. Westhues, unlike many mobbing researchers, is dead set against anti-mobbing legislation. ...
  • Institutional Justification and Complicity: "'One of the most painful experiences in my life,' Mr. Westhues says, 'has been to go to dismissal hearings where everybody is sitting around a table as if they were embodiments of pure reason.' What's really going on in many of those settings, he thinks, is just brutish behavior ratified by procedure."

"He said that universities should , that, in his opinion, simply dignify pettiness and give professors a chance to have power over one another. ... He argued that an ethics committee 'lets people play judge' and 'brings out the worst in good people.' ...

  • Creating a Mob-Neutral Environment: In his classes at Waterloo, Mr. Westhues addresses his students as Mr. and Ms. and urges them to address him in kind — not as 'Dr. Westhues' and, just as importantly, not as 'Ken.' He explains to them that he is not there to lord over them, nor to be their friend (friendship being the flip side of enmity), but to engage with them professionally as fellow citizens in the pursuit of truth.

    "This is an earnest attempt to foster the kind of atmosphere that Mr. Westhues believes is relatively safe from mobbing -- one where there is not too much authority, but also not too much familiarity."

1 comment:

Stuart said...

You could add the Concorde Fallacy: the probability of continued investment in an activity is directly proportional to the investment already made, and entirely independent of the prospects of the activity's successful outcome. In the original Anglo-French aircraft project taxpayers managed to expend 660 million pounds to earn a total revenue of 280 million operating 16 planes for the benefit of conspicious expenditure by the rich and famous.

Likewise once an institution fails to recognise bullying in the workplace, the financial and emotional expenditure demands further efforts to prove that the allegation is unfounded.