Saturday, September 4, 2010

Intellectuals or Birdbrains?

Several years ago, I read an article about a phenomenon known as "mobbing."  Mobbing is something birds do when they perceive a threat: they gang up and attack the potential predator, driving it away.  As John Gravois writes in "Mob Rule" (The Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no.32, 1 April 14, 2006), "The birds seldom actually touch their target (though reports from the field have it that some species can defecate or vomit on the predator with 'amazing accuracy'). The barrage simply continues until the intruder sulks away."

In the 1980s, Heinz Leymann, a German psychiatrist and industrial psychologist working in Sweden, applied the term "mobbing" to workplace behavior that constitutes "an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker" (qtd. in Gravois).  Leymann offered an extensive list of characteristics of mobbing: "You are interrupted constantly"; "you are isolated in a room far from others"; "management gives you no possibility to communicate"; "you are given meaningless work tasks"; "you are given dangerous work tasks"; "you are treated as if you are mentally ill" (qtd. in Gravois).

Although Leymann's description might seem slightly humorous (or unfortunately all-too-familiar), mobbing is no laughing matter.  In fact, Leymann would go on to suggest that over 10 percent of all suicides in Sweden could be linked to incidents of workplace mobbing.  Leymann's work led to the creation of anti-mobbing laws in France and raised awareness of the problem throughout Europe.  Recently, Leymann's work has been continued by Dr. Kenneth Westhues, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. (For an extensive list of resources on mobbing, see Westhues' website).

What is particularly striking and, in my opinion, particularly sad is the fact that, in the studies conducted by Leymann, Westhues and others, universities in general and academic departments in particular are among the most frequent sites for incidents of mobbing.  What begins as the gradual isolation of a "target" individual (as Gravois describes it, "Colleagues begin to roll their eyes at you during meetings. You get the sense that more people dislike you than you once thought"), quickly escalates into "petty harassment" ("Your administrative requests are repeatedly delayed or misplaced. Your parking space is moved to the outer reaches of the lot. Your classes or meetings get scheduled at odd times"), and culminates in a "critical incident" that leads colleagues to insist on administrative action--in effect, "the incident confirms what they have always suspected about you" and "makes them wonder aloud what you're really capable of."  This confirmation and concern often takes the form of a petition, signed by many, if not most, of the target's colleagues.  Even if the behavior is ultimately stopped at the administrative level, win or lose, the target generally leaves the job, usually feeling mentally and emotionally traumatized in the process.

As Gravois notes, incidents of mobbing overlap with a parallel principle of human behavior, what Cass R. Sunstein, Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Chicago has identified as "The Law of Group Polarization."  In "The Law of Group Polarization" (The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2002, pp. 175-195), Sunstein argues that "members of a deliberating group predictably move toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by the members' predeliberation tendencies" (176, italics in original).  So, if we are all in agreement before we meet to deliberate an issue, we will predictably endorse a more extreme collective position after the meeting is over.  Ultimately, Sunstein's research has shown that regular meetings of like-minded individuals "without sustained exposure to competing views" frequently result in extreme movements (176). 

Sunstein summarizes the resulting dilemma quite compellingly: "If deliberation predictably pushes groups toward a more extreme point in the direction of their original tendency, whatever it may be, do we have any reason to think that deliberation is producing improvements?" (177).  Obviously, this is a crucial question for every American, living in a representative democracy that is founded on principles of rational deliberation and debate.  

Sunstein's conclusions are interesting: on the one hand, "enclave deliberations" (discussions among like-minded individuals already in agreement) can lead to extremism, but on the other hand, in discussions conducted in heterogeneous groups, "participants ... tend to give least weight to the views of low-status members" (177).  Thus, low-status members of a social group can benefit from meetings of like-minded individuals because these deliberations "might be the only way to ensure" that "unjustly suppressed views" can be further developed and eventually heard (177).

In the end, for me, all of this seems like an interesting merging of the ideas I've tried to flesh out in two of my earlier posts--my reflections on Madison's arguments against domestic factions in The Federalist Papers #10 and my thoughts about the representation of suburban conformity in Sam Mendes' film "American Beauty."  On the one hand, as free-thinking, rational human beings, we all support the idea of dissension and debate.  On the other hand, we have all witnessed some form of birdbrained behavior--like mobbing or group polarization-- that is ultimately unworthy of free-thinking, rational human beings.  To sustain the one and eliminate the other is clearly no easy task.  

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."