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."
A team of researchers have discovered the brain rhythmic activity that can split us from reality, causing a type of "out-of-body" phenomena known as dissociation.
- Researchers have identified the key rhythmic brain activity that triggers a bizarre experience called dissociation in which people can feel detached from their identity and environment.
- This phenomena is experienced by about 2% to 10% of the population, and nearly 3 out of 4 individuals who have experienced a traumatic event will slip into a dissociative state either during the event or sometime after.
- The findings implicate a specific protein in a certain set of cells as key to the feeling of dissociation, and it could lead to better-targeted therapies for conditions in which dissociation can occur.
What is dissociation?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bd2f1f29418bd4805bf1282001dca814"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/XF2zeOdE5GY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Dissociation is an experience commonly described as a feeling of sudden detachment from the individual's identity and environment, almost like an out-of-body experience. This mysterious phenomena is experienced by about 2% to 10% of the population.</p> <p>"This state often manifests as the perception of being on the outside looking in at the cockpit of the plane that's your body or mind — and what you're seeing you just don't consider to be yourself," explained Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, <a href="https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2020/09/researchers-pinpoint-brain-circuitry-underlying-dissociation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in a Stanford Medicine news release</a>. Deisseroth is a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.</p> <p>Nearly three-quarters of individuals who have experienced a traumatic event will slip into a dissociative state either during the event or in the hours or even weeks that follow according to Deisseroth. Most of the time, the dissociative experiences end on their own within a few weeks of the trauma. But the eerie experience can become chronic, such as in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, and extremely disruptive in daily life. The state of dissociation can also occur in epilepsy and be invoked by certain drugs. </p> <p>Until now, no one has known what exactly is going on inside the brain triggering and sustaining the feeling of dissociation — and so it has been a challenge to figure out how to stop it and develop effective treatments. </p>
New Research: The Molecular Underpinnings of Dissociation<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyNjk3My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNTQ3MTI1NX0._nJoxm1eDcTsHsy1Y27JxNl2uR5hlbEYDWYoQlO0EAU/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C121%2C0%2C121&height=700" id="26e86" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02f1c2a089af7e45c07a63a73ee1c610" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Mouse neurons | Neurons from a mouse spinal cord. Credit: NI… | FlickrMouse neurons | Neurons from a mouse spinal cord. Credit: NI… | Flickr<p>Last week, in a study published in <em><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2731-9" target="_blank">Nature</a></em><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2731-9">,</a> Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University uncovered a localized brain rhythm and molecule that underlies this state.</p> <p>"This study has identified brain circuitry that plays a role in a well-defined subjective experience," said Deisseroth, who was the study's senior author. "Beyond its potential medical implications, it gets at the question, 'What is the self?' That's a big one in law and literature, and important even for our own introspections."</p> <p>The authors' findings implicate a specific protein existing in a particular set of cells as key to the feeling of dissociation. </p> <p>The research team first used a technique called widefield calcium imaging to record brain-wide neuronal activity in lab mice. They observed and analyzed changes in those brain rhythms after the animals had been administered a range of drugs that are known to cause dissociative states: ketamine, phencyclidine (PCP) and dizocilpine (MK801). At a certain dosage of ketamine, the mice behaved in a way that suggested that they were likely experiencing dissociation. For example, when the animals were placed on an uncomfortably warm surface, they acted in a way that indicated that they were feeling the heat by reacting to it by flicking their paws. However, they signaled that they didn't care enough about the unpleasantness to do what they would typically do in such a situation, which is to lick their paws to cool them off. This suggested a dissociation from the surrounding environment.</p> <p>The drug produced oscillations in neuronal activity in a region of the mices' brain called the retrosplenial cortex, an area essential for various cognitive functions such as navigation and episodic memory (a unique memory of a specific event). The oscillations occurred at about 1-3 hertz (three cycles per second). The authors then examined the active cells in more detail by using two-photon imaging for higher resolution. This revealed that the oscillations were occurring only in layer 5 of the retrosplenial cortex. Next, the researchers recorded neuronal activity across other regions of the brain. </p> <p>"Normally, other parts of the cortex and subcortex are functionally connected to neuronal activity in the retrosplenial cortex," reported <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02505-z#ref-CR1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Nature</em></a>. "However, ketamine caused a disconnect, such that many of these brain regions no longer communicated with the retrosplenial cortex."</p> <p>The scientists then used optogenetics, a method of manipulating living tissue with light to control neural function, to stimulate neurons in the mice's retrosplenial cortex. When the scientists did this at a 2-hertz rhythm, they were able to cause dissociative behavior in the animals analogous to the behavior caused by ketamine without using drugs. The experiments conducted by the team displayed how a particular type of protein, an ion channel, was essential to the generation of the hertz signal that caused the dissociative behavior in mice. Scientists are hopeful that this protein could be a potential treatment target in the future. </p>
What about humans?<p>The researchers also recorded electrical activity from brain regions in an epilepsy patient who had reported experiencing dissociation immediately before each seizure. The sensations experienced right before a seizure is called an aura. This aura for the patient was described as being like "outside the pilot's chair, looking at, but not controlling, the gauges," Deisseroth said.</p> <p>The researchers recorded electric signals from the patient's cerebral cortex and stimulated it electrically aiming to identify the origin point of the seizures. While that was happening, the patient responded to questions about how it felt. The authors found that whenever the patient was about to have a seizure, it was preceded by the dissociative aura and a particular pattern of electrical activity localized within the patient's posteromedial cortex. That patterned activity was characterized by an oscillating signal sparked by nerve cells firing in coordination at 3 hertz. When this region of the brian was stimulated electrically, the patient experienced dissociation without having a seizure. </p> <p>This study will have far-reaching implications for neuroscience and could lead to better-targeted therapies for disorders in which dissociation can be triggered, such as PTSD, borderline personality, and epilepsy.</p>
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
If you want flexibility, transparency, and decent health policies, it seems like working in tech pays off.
- The website Glassdoor has released their rankings of the top CEOs and companies to work for during the pandemic.
- The rankings were based on a study of reviews placed on their website by employees which mentioned COVID or CEO performence.
- The study isn't quite definitive, but offers an insight into what employees want during times of crisis.
How to succeed in business when times are very trying:<p>The <a href="https://www.glassdoor.com/research/highest-rated-ceos-coronavirus/" target="_blank">survey</a> considered recently submitted reviews about working for large companies that also included assessments of their leadership. Only reviews left between March 1<sup>st</sup> and July 31<sup>st</sup>, 2020, were considered, with particular attention paid to high-quality reviews that focused on leadership's actions during the pandemic. Using these reviews, a scoring system was created to rank the companies and order them.</p> <p>A quick review of the top companies shows about a third of them are in <a href="https://www.techrepublic.com/article/glassdoor-the-top-8-tech-ceos-during-covid-19/" target="_blank">tech</a>, with representatives from the world of finance, health care, and insurance also making appearances. Among the top-scoring companies was Zoom Communications and its CEO Eric Yuan, the company behind the video calling application that many people have recently turned to. The highest scoring company was Mercury Systems, an aerospace and defense technology company, and its CEO <a href="https://finance.yahoo.com/news/glassdoor-names-mercury-ceo-mark-131500203.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mark Aslett</a>. </p><p>Few, if any, of the CEOs on the list are well known to the casual reader. The most famous is undoubtedly Mark Zuckerberg, who came in eighth on the list of UK employers. Only one woman made the list at all, perhaps reflecting the low percentage of large companies helmed by <a href="https://econlife.com/2020/02/fewer-female-ceos-2/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">women</a>. Likewise, only a handful of non-white men were to be found either, likely for similar <a href="https://247wallst.com/investing/2020/07/07/only-11-of-sp-500-companies-have-ceos-of-color-and-it-gets-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reasons</a>. </p><p>In an interview with <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2020-09-17/eight-tech-execs-one-woman-on-top-ceo-list-video" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bloomberg</a>, Glassdoor's Chief Economist Andrew Chamberlain explained that the reviews suggest that many of the top-rated companies shared "clear and transparent communication with employees about what is going on during a pandemic, second, providing flexibility, work from home, giving workers the tools they need to keep doing their jobs, and third polices that support (the) health and safety of employees first." <strong></strong></p><p>A glance at the reviews used to compile the study endorses this view, with many explicitly praising commitments to transparency and flexibility. </p>
And now, the grains of salt:<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/iMM3zxVoGZc" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>This survey considered only companies with more than 1000 employees at the end of the review period, leaving out any excellently run, but smaller, operations. Of these larger enterprises, only those with more than 50 upper management (25 for firms based in the UK) were analyzed. Reviews made by interns were not counted towards this minimum. Companies that performed well, but with employees who didn't feel the need to write reviews of their employer on the internet, were left out of the running.</p><p>Despite these limitations, the study does offer an insight into what employees wanted from corporate leadership during the pandemic and who could provide it. Companies hoping to do better during the next public health crisis would do well to consider the choices made by these executives. Those looking for greener pastures might also consider applying to work at these places. </p>
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