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How outrage mobs silence academics — and what we can do to stop them
When the protection of academic freedom is compromised, scholarship and greater society suffer the effects.
- Social media has made it easier than ever to succumb to mob mentality and let our worst instincts and impulses run rampant. Outrage mobs pose a new and unique threat to professors' academic freedom.
- Although expressing moral outrage can feel good, bad actors can use outrage mobs to further their own specific agendas, leaving careers ruined and productive discourse even further out of reach.
- University leaders should stop caving to outrage mobs and start standing up for academic freedom, both for students and professors.
Academic freedom is a protection that's long enabled students and professors to make the most of higher education by facilitating the free exchange of ideas. But today, outrage mobs are chipping away at this freedom by trying to silence what professors can teach, research, and express in their private lives.
Outrage mobs are aggressive groups of people who temporarily band together online – and sometimes in real life – to denounce people whose ideas they disagree with. While outrage mobs can arise in other contexts – celebrities are frequently targeted, for example – given the importance of academics' ability to explore difficult ideas freely, they are particularly problematic in the university context. Without open academic pursuit and scholarship, imagine the extent of society's missed opportunities in regard to scientific discovery and technological innovation.
It usually happens like this: A professor expresses a view or conducts research that someone finds offensive. The offended people — who may or may not be affiliated with the university — express outrage on social media. Others join the mob. The mob then demands that the professor be punished or fired. in some cases the mob harasses the professor online or in person. Far too frequently, particularly if the professor is in a part time role, the administration gives in to these demands.
Angry mobs are nothing new. But social media has made it easier than ever to succumb to mob mentality and let our worst instincts and impulses run rampant. Outrage mobs pose a new and unique threat to professors' academic freedom, which depends on their ability to question conventional wisdom. And the threat isn't only that professors might lose their jobs, but also that academia might become less intellectually dynamic.Outrage can be useful to society. It is, after all, a strong moral emotion that spurs us into action when we witness injustice, and it encourages people to come together to right wrongs in their communities. But not all outrage is created equal. Outrage is often disproportional. Further, the impact of networked outrage can often be far beyond what any outraged individual imagined or desired. This makes it all the more important to be aware of its often-corrosive and unintended effects.
Academic freedom: What it is, what it isn’t and why there’s confusion
Outrage mobs' chilling effect on academic freedom
Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher and assistant professor at Rhodes college, in 2017 published an article in the peer-reviewed feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Her paper addressed the question of trans-racialism, a timely topic given the recent news coverage of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who famously claimed a black identity. In the paper Tuvel examined if the arguments used to defend a transgender identity apply in a similar fashion to the question of transracialism. In this she adopted a technique common among philosophers – testing if reasoning used on one issue would apply equally on a different issue that appeared a close parallel.
While the article was not meant to be controversial, it generated a sizable negative response, particularly on social media. This was closely followed by an open letter signed by over five hundred academics to the journal's editors alleging (falsely) many ethical lapses and harms– this resulted in the article being retracted (an unprecedented move).
For Tuvel, a junior scholar who has not been tenured (and for whom publications are crucial) this decision directly impacts her future career. It is worth noting the irony that the ancient female philosopher Hypatia, the journal's namesake, is believed to have been murdered by an angry mob of zealots.
It is true that since then Tuvel also received a sizable amount of support within philosophy, and the event has led to important conversations. Yet, it does show that in this era of online outrage young academics looking to speak on any contested topic of the day risk their career.
While the outrage focused on Tuvel came largely from the left of center and inside the academy, that is not always the case. For example, in 2017, Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, published an article describing how modern technology has revealed that many statues from the ancient Western world were painted. Of course, the paint faded over time, and the marble Greco-Roman statues we have today appear in a shade of white.
But art historians had mistakenly believed that ancient Greeks and Romans intended for their statues to be white, and therefore they equated white with beauty. This has long shaped the way we view the antique world, Bond argued.
"The assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region," she wrote for Hyperallergic. Bond suggested that this misconception has over time indirectly supported racist views, and she noted that white supremacist groups like Identity Europa often "use classical statuary as a symbol of white male superiority."
A handful of right-leaning media outlets picked up the story. Campus Reform, for instance, published a piece with the headline: "Prof: 'white marble' in artwork contributes to white supremacy". Soon enough, Bond became the target of an outrage mob, which threatened her, harassed her with anti-Semitic references, and called for her termination.
"What they want to believe is that there is a liberal professor that is so sensitive to race issues that she will make race issues out of anything," Bond told ArtForum. "They want to make me an example of the hyperliberalization of the academy."
The university defended Bond. John F. Finamore, Bond's department chair, called members of the outrage mob "internet trolls" who "did not understand her argument.""Free exchange and criticism of ideas is central to academic research, and attempts to shut down anyone by threats and bullying are detrimental to free speech," Finamore said. "We in classics support [Bond] and the need for a humane atmosphere of productive exchange of ideas."
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) before the Holy Office in the Vatican. The astronomer was condemned by the Tribunal of the Inquisition for having defended the theories of Copernicus, 1632. Painting by Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury (1797-1890), 1847. Louvre Museum, Paris.
Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
So, what motivates outrage mobs?
Expressing moral outrage can feel good. That's because the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate pleasure, when we punish others for violating a moral norm. Social media can multiply this effect. Outrage mobs are usually motivated by political ideology, and people on both the left and the right engage in them. But recent research has also revealed other motivations, beyond mere political point-scoring.
It also helps to develop a sense of group solidarity and establish our moral identity within a peer group. Sometimes this can go further, with outrage being a means to signal superior moral status. By saying what we are against we define who our friends and enemies are. In the noisy world of social media outrage is a loud and clear signal of where you stand (and get likes and retweets).
This is especially true in an era of political polarization where expression of outrage can be a vent for frustration. But it's important to remember that outrage mobs are emergent phenomena that only exist because individuals choose to participate in them.
After enough individuals jump into the fray, a mob forms that can seem greater (and louder) than the sum of its parts. Worse, bad actors can use outrage mobs to further their own specific agendas, leaving careers ruined and productive discourse even further out of reach.
What can universities, students, and faculty do?
University leaders should stop caving to outrage mobs and start standing up for academic freedom, both for students and professors. When a controversy emerges and an outrage mob forms, leaders should clearly and publicly declare their commitment to academic freedom.
A good example comes from California State University, Dominguez Hills, where Professor Brooke Mascagni was targeted by an outrage mob for expressing political views in her classroom. The university stood by her, issuing a statement that read:
"Part of an education is exposing students to differing positions and opinions on a topic, in an effort to encourage critical thinking. At all times, students at California State University, Dominguez Hills are encouraged to exercise their right to free speech, free inquiry, and freedom of expression."
Students and faculty can protect academic freedom by not succumbing to the mob when a controversy emerges on campus. First ask: Do I know all of the facts behind the story? Is the alleged offense really that bad? What was likely the intent of the professor? Is the best course of action to shut down dialogue and force others to agree with your position?
Outrage mobs lose their power when calmer heads prevail. Besides, who wants to be part of a mob? The value of higher education is not learning what to think, but rather how to think for yourself. And thinking independently requires the freedom not to follow the herd. As the American Association of University Professors wrote in the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure:
"Genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry, and freedom of speech, are scarcely reconcilable with the prescribed inculcation of a particular opinion upon a controverted question."
Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?
- Upward counterfactual thinking refers to "what if" statements that make us think about how our lives could be better if we had made different choices in the past. Downward counterfactual thinking refers to "what if" statements that make us think about how our lives could be worse if we had made different choices in the past.
- Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
- While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.
“Upward” versus “downward” counterfactual thinking<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDM2MDY2OX0.njWs1qrV1vDBxU1V75tUduUW4TjJvEHglDWsK8ZF2l4/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C556%2C0%2C209&height=700" id="a15fa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98314d4d2b256ed08f42d369fe4ae080" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept of man thinking about the past one line drawing counterfactual thinking" />
What are upward and downward counterfactual thinking?
Image by one line man on Shutterstock<p><strong>What is upward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Upward counterfactual thinking happens when we look at a scenario and ask ourselves "what if" in terms of how our life could have turned out better than it currently is. </p><p>Examples of upward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I wish I had taken that other job instead of this one 10 years ago - my life would be so much better if I had." </em></li><li><em>"I wish I would have gotten the part in that high school play, maybe I could have gotten into a theatre school and become an actor…"</em> </li></ul><p>Both of these examples have the ideology that if you had made different choices, your life right now would be improved. </p><p><strong>What is downward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Downward counterfactual thinking is, naturally, the opposite of upward counterfactual thinking in that we think about how things could have been worse if other decisions had been made. </p><p>Examples of downward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I'm so thankful I studied secondary education in university instead of psychology like I had originally planned - I love teaching high school kids and I never would have gotten to do that…" </em></li><li><em>"I'm so happy I left David when I got the chance, I can't imagine still being in an unhappy marriage with someone who doesn't support me…"</em> </li></ul><p>In these examples, we see the idea that if you had made different choices your life would not be as good as it is right now. </p>
How counterfactual thinking can impact your life<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjI2MDQxOX0.DIVQ-Yk0d6yE3tc743MH1Fz2pOg1TGHLmhp8dPp9UdY/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="522d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0a095c56c530658b9b29b0043c23afbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept of counterfactual thinking what if man thinking what if written on chalkboard" />
How do upward and downward counterfactual thinking impact your life?
Photo by Brasil Creativo on Shutterstock<p>While many people don't see the point in "what if" scenarios, various studies have found that downward counterfactual thinking can be more associated with psychological health compared with upward counterfactual thinking. Not only that, but research has also shown upward counterfactual thinking can be linked with current and future depression.</p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with psychological health </strong></p><p>According to a <a href="http://journal.sjdm.org/jdm06136.pdf" target="_blank">2000 study</a>, downward counterfactual thinking can be linked with better psychological health compared to upward counterfactual thinking. More importantly, in cases where downward counterfactual thinking did lead to negative feelings, those feelings acted as something of a motivator for people to take productive actions to better their current situation. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with depression </strong></p><p><a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735816301714#:~:text=An%20upward%20counterfactual%20(as%20opposed,Markman%20and%20McMullen%2C%202003)." target="_blank">According to a 2017 study</a> that pooled a sample of over 13,000 respondents, thoughts about "better outcomes" and regret (upward counterfactual thinking) were associated with current and future depression. </p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking can actually improve your relationships and is more often engaged in by women than men.</strong></p><p>In a <a href="https://dspace.sunyconnect.suny.edu/bitstream/handle/1951/67589/Studer_Thesis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank">2016 research paper submitted</a> to the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, downward counterfactual thinking in regards to romantic relationships was associated with relatively positive relationship outcomes. Interestingly, women were more likely than men to engage in downward counterfactual thinking about their romantic life. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking can have some benefits in certain scenarios. </strong></p><p>When we look back after a failed test and think "I wish I would have studied more" - this motivates us to study harder the next time a test comes up. In this way, upward counterfactual thinking (or the negative version of "what if") can actually benefit us. </p> <p><strong>This can be difficult, though, because much of the time upward counterfactual thinking is more associated with a pessimistic outlook that can be unmotivating. </strong></p> <p>Thinking in the past tense can be motivational (and even healthy) at times, but the best thing to do is look forward. </p><p>While counterfactual thinking as a whole can be used to motivate us to make better choices or appreciate where we are in life, <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/201809/the-psychology-what-if" target="_blank">this Psychology Today</a> article suggests that we should come up with ways to move on and focus on the present and the future instead of the past. Using counterfactual thinking as a motivational tool can be very helpful if we don't get stuck in the "what if" mindset that tends to pull us out of the present and back into the past, where things will always remain the same. </p>
Despite fact check campaigns, anti-vax influence is growing.
- Despite announcing plans to combat disinformation, anti-vax groups continue to gain influence on Facebook.
- An analysis of over 1,300 Facebook pages with 100 million followers shows that anti-vax agendas are having a profound impact.
- Only 50 percent of Americans are certain they'll receive an approved COVID-19 vaccine.
Facebook announces plan to 'tackle vaccine misinformation'<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="997c512b8b8afcd4db98fdb7ece75680"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZTZ3Lq67yiY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This trend is having real-world consequences. Only <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/just-50-americans-plan-get-covid-19-vaccine-here-s-how-win-over-rest" target="_blank">half of Americans</a> are willing to get a coronavirus vaccine, with a quarter wavering and a quarter against. While we should be confident of efficacy—gossip about a <a href="https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20200511/covid-19_vaccine_by_fall_possible_but_at_what_cost" target="_blank">vaccine arriving in the Fall</a> is ambitious and potentially unsafe—the idea that a quarter of the country will refuse any vaccine is a potential public health disaster (as if we're not experiencing one now).</p><p>Making matter worse, we can't fight disinformation with data. No matter how many articles <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/the-plandemic" target="_self">debunk Plandemic</a>, Mikki Willis gains momentum. Do <a href="https://www.facebook.com/mikki.willis/posts/2875973472513592" target="_blank">27,000 doctors</a> really support his efforts to "reform our corrupt global healthcare systems?" There's no way to tell, but that's the thing about Facebook: it doesn't have to be true. Willis's claim, which he made in conjunction with a fundraising effort for the film, has been shared 4.4k times. Convincing his fanbase that perhaps tens of thousands of doctors aren't on board will be a Herculean task. </p><p>Media Matters notes the official-sounding National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), which, though sounding governmental, opposes every effort to vaccinate children. Beginning in February, the organization's website started publishing a "<a href="https://www.nvic.org/vaccines-and-diseases/Reports/covid-19.aspx" target="_blank">special report</a>" on COVID-19, laying the groundwork for vaccination disinformation. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The first three installments of the 'special report' adopt right-wing themes unrelated to vaccines, such as the claim that public health orders that promote social distancing result in a 'loss of civil liberties' and subject Americans to 'quarantine shaming.' The fourth installment, published on March 29, includes the first attacks on vaccine development in the series … The fifth installment of the 'special report,' published on April 1, frames the vaccine development efforts of pharmaceutical companies and other entities as a cash grab."</p>
A truck with writing "JESUS IS MY VACCINE" drives by demonstrators rallying outside the Pennsylvania Capitol Building to protest the continued closure of businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic on May 15, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images<p>The irony is that NVIC's Facebook page is listed as an "Educational Research Center." Just today the organization posted about the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831678/" target="_blank">long-disproven link between the measles vaccine and autism</a> (via Robert F. Kennedy's anti-vax organization, Children's Health Defense), <a href="https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/wxevj5/the-coronavirus-truthers-dont-believe-in-public-health" target="_blank">opportunist Joseph Mercola</a>'s questioning whether the COVID-19 surge in Texas has anything to do with the novel coronavirus, and conspiracy theory-rich GreenMedInfo, whose founder traffics in ridiculous ideas, such as <a href="https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1720256541450732" target="_blank">germ theory being false</a>. </p><p>And so here we are: instead of reporting on pressing global issues, Reuters has to <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-factcheck-metal-strip-medical-masks-5/fact-check-metal-strip-in-medical-masks-is-not-a-5g-antenna-idUSKBN24A2O1?fbclid=IwAR2nqo5OaXP3unV7v3jOhtdGY5JjivJgyBSqrKcW0pcEJfhdGWieDb1K5C8" target="_blank">fact check</a> whether the metal strip in face masks is really a 5G antenna or if Wayfair is <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-factcheck-wayfair-human-trafficking/fact-check-no-evidence-linking-wayfair-to-human-trafficking-operation-idUSKCN24E2M2" target="_blank">involved in human trafficking</a>. (The woman that posted the "medical doctor" video above is convinced Amazon is involved as well.) No matter how ridiculous these sound—and they should, to any functioning adult—common sense is losing ground: an <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/vaccine-opponents-are-gaining-facebook-battle-hearts-and-minds-new-map-shows" target="_blank">analysis</a> of over 1,300 Facebook pages with 100 million followers shows that anti-vax agendas are becoming more influential.</p><p>When the printing press was first invented, <a href="https://apple.news/Agz3WmeyWTEKLg-9yHo2BMA" target="_blank">anyone could hire a printer</a>. The idea of objective news took some time to work out, and it is questionable that it ever did get worked out. But we're in a truly disturbing place when one of the most effective therapeutics ever discovered—the <a href="https://www.tmrjournals.com/tmr/EN/abstract/abstract321.shtml" target="_blank">millennia-old idea</a> of allowing the body to build up immunity by introducing a small dose of an offending agent—is being used as, what? A political tool? An ideological battering ram? An apocalyptic battle song sung by the woke as they laugh at all the silly sheeple? </p><p>It's impossible to tell what the end game is. Being contrarian is now its own currency. Whether or not your agenda accomplishes anything is secondary to just being on the team—a participation trophy for simply showing up. Putting in the intellectual and emotional effort demanded by the complex and nuanced realm of science is proving too much for America to tolerate. When a nation descends into such intolerance, anything becomes possible. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
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