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Saturday, April 22, 2006

brutish behavior ratified by procedure

The purpose of a university, Mr. Westhues contends, is to maintain a spirit of openness, independence of mind, and civil debate. "A university cannot achieve its purpose as a tight ship," he says. When a mobbing occurs, that spirit of openness gets strangled by groupthink, bent on someone's elimination.

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. . .

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.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

posted by back40 | 4/22/2006 02:04:00 PM


an ethnomusicologist friend sent first-person account of a mob victim - said friend characterizes the guy's work as 'brilliant' but controversial, it really attacked the discipline, but at the same time he doesn't know the circumstances of the sexual harassment suit etc, nor the nature of the 'welter' of psychological problems he refers to

I'm reminded of some social psych article, maybe posted here?, about the value of gossip in disseminating valuable group information that can't be acceptably communicated 'officially'. these 'mobs' sometimes kind of manifest themselves as a gradual, distributed enforcement of a tacitly-agreed upon group judgment, everyone chipping in a little bit to subtly create a hostile environment to exclude and eventually remove 'bad apples' that everyone knows the group would be better off without but that no one has the authority or will to remove more directly - not just the inconveniently brilliant but the abusive, intimidating, incompetent, distracting, and otherwise counterproductive etc. I don't think it's easy to get that kind of 'mob' consensus behind the exclusion of anyone that doesn't have it coming one way or another. though academia is maybe one place where it's probably worth the institutional costs to have some assholes around to shake things up...

By Anonymous john, at 11:01 PM  

"everyone knows the group would be better off without but that no one has the authority or will to remove more directly"

Better how? If you combine this behavior with the poor performance of homegenous groups in problem solving it looks different. Think echo chambers and Sunstein's Law of Group Polarization - as more people agree with one another on an issue their agreement becomes more strenuous and the positions more extreme.

By Blogger back40, at 12:16 PM  

there are 'dark siders' in most workplaces, not just in political/activist circles - those that consistently abuse the rules, deceive, intimidate, and/or otherwise obstruct the harmonious functioning of the group. it's kind of one of those 'know it when you see it' situations, but there is a point when the negative externalities of a 'bad apple' become greater than the positive externalities from his different perspective. obv I'm not saying that these mobs are always or even mostly 'right' in these situations, but I'm sure they have pretty good reasons in some cases. just because diversity of opinion is often undervalued doesn't make it an absolute value.

By Anonymous john, at 1:14 PM  

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