Bullied by the Best: Why the Bully Paradigm Is a Bad Fit for Understanding the Mob

Bullied by the Best: Why the Bully Paradigm Is a Bad Fit for Understanding the Mob

Janice Harper (Independent Researcher, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9485-7.ch002

Abstract

As the prevalence of academic mobbing gains increasing notice, the concept is almost always framed in terms of bullying perpetrated by a group of “bullies.” While mobbing is seemingly bullying writ large, upon closer examination bullying and mobbing are very different forms of aggression. In this chapter, the author discusses how the prevailing bully paradigm has conflated bullying with mobbing, and why doing so is problematic. By focusing on the behavior of animals, she shows how signs of submission and/or domination can end or escalate the aggression, attract others to join in, and cause leaders to ignore or encourage the abuse. She then turns to the ways in which workplace aggression has been cast in moral terms of bullies and powerless victims, while failing to account for the complexity and nuance of workplace aggression, as well as the role of the victim. Finally, she discusses the organizational context of the university, suggesting that there are specific features of the academy that make it ripe for mobbing.
Chapter Preview
Top

Introduction

As the prevalence of academic mobbing gains increasing notice, the concept is almost always framed in terms of bullying perpetrated by a group of “bullies.” While mobbing is seemingly bullying writ large, upon closer examination bullying and mobbing are very different forms of aggression. Bullying is typically a series of aggressive actions perpetrated by one or a few aggressive individuals against a weaker person. Bullying may be excused by leadership, even condoned in some cases, but the aggression remains limited to those individuals who find pleasure or profit in abusing someone. They may want the target gone, or they may prefer having them around to enjoy the power they experience by bullying them. The abuse itself is the objective, the damage done to the target the mere consequence of that objective.

In contrast, with mobbing, damaging the target is the objective, the abuse itself a strategy toward that objective. Academic mobbing is collective aggression against an individual, usually a faculty member, with the objective of eliminating them from the academic institution, stripping them of any ability to defend themselves (by way of destroying their reputation or branding them with false accusations of wrong-doing or criminal acts), defeating any legal claims they may have, and communicating to the group (the broader faculty) what happens to someone marked for elimination. It’s an abusive tactic with the goal of not just eliminating someone who cannot be easily terminated from their position (such as protected by tenure or contract), but with the added goal of control over the group.

Whereas bullying can be initiated by anyone who is psychologically prone to aggression against those they perceive as weaker, mobbing is almost always initiated by someone in a position of leadership, and perpetrated by an ever-increasing circle of administrators, faculty, and staff who may themselves have no history of bullying or interpersonal aggression and importantly, do not view their actions as cruel, but as necessary if unpleasant. Far from “bullies,” the majority of people who engage in mobbing are kind and humane people. The shunning they engage in is not viewed as abusive because it is a non-action—one which they are persuaded the target brought on themselves. The gossip they engage in is viewed as spreading news and bonding with other colleagues who share their experiences with the target and the drama that s/he has allegedly created. And the accusations they make are viewed as legitimate concerns—no matter how far-fetched and unfounded those accusations may be. By the time such accusations are made, the target has been the object of so much social distancing and so many rumors and acted in such seemingly disturbing ways—expressing their anger, anguish, and fears, demonstrating their confusion, exhaustion and desperation—that their every act and statement, past and present, is viewed with caution and distrust and often, reported to administrators.

In short, rather than being bullies, the majority of those who engage in mobbing have been persuaded by social cues that the person they are targeting is a threat to the organization, is deserving of the abuse they receive, and must be eliminated for the greater good of the group.

In an academic setting, what that means is that whereas a bullied faculty member may be mistreated and even shunned by one or a few of their colleagues, and this abuse may be ignored by administration and even influence the views of administrators over the targeted faculty member, that abuse is best understood in terms of the individual psychology of the actors. This is where such melodramatic characterizations of bullies as “psychopaths,” “snakes,” “evil,” and other extreme labels may reflect a kernel of truth. The abuses are being perpetuated by mean-spirited people who take pleasure in the control they have over someone else, in the pain their actions cause, and in the superiority they feel over their victim. For these perpetrators, there will always be someone to kick around, as well as someone to recruit to their cause.

When administration communicates to the faculty and/or other administrators that a specific faculty member is undesirable, however, whether or not that administrator takes pleasure in bullying, mobbing is likely to commence. The reason the person in leadership wants the target out may be related to bullying—they’ve found a vulnerable victim—but more commonly is related to a threat they perceive from the target—a strong and challenging personality, a public challenge to their authority, a grievance that has been filed, or just being a member of a group perceived as different from the group—a different race, a different gender, or a different ideology.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book:
Reset