There are three forms of social aggression that can infect an academic department or college and be hard to root out.1 I have been mulling these for a while and have only half-formed thoughts; it’s probably best to think of the following as a tentative classification. I hope to have time to discuss possible responses over the weekend.
Gossip because they’re only thinking of the institution: I haven’t been an observant Jew for several decades, but for those of us who are secular, there are some basic principles you’re raised with that carry over into adult life. I’ve got a real fondness this year for the prohibition on lashon hora, which translates imperfectly as gossip about others’ shortcomings. This is different from slander or libel: lashon hora is gossip that could be 100% true but is nonetheless inappropriate. It’s pernicious in academics because of the status competition that can ramp up so easily, and because our work is so often on public display. In a department or college, it’s especially destructive because you know that the colleague who is trying to gossip about a third party is likely to turn around in a different context and gossip about you. Thanks, buddy: you think I can’t keep track of that? It also has all the hallmarks of sidestream bullying: it’s hard to respond without that response becoming reinforcement for the behavior, and the nature of the gossiping can make most captive listeners feel as if they want a shower.
Casual insults freely given: Julian Vasquez Heilig reminded me of this in his recent discussion of microaggression, prompted by a correspondent who called him an “intellectually unrigorous pseudo-scholar.”2 Vasquez Heilig puts that insult in the context of social-psychology research on microinteractions and power dynamics, the half-sleights that you don’t know how to interpret, and when power differences or social stereotypes are at play, you have to suspect could be rooted in racism or sexism. Heilig points out that while the venom flung at him was on the upper end of the scale, subtler forms constantly float in the environment, the casual half-insults that some faculty face much more frequently than others. You want to know what white male privilege is in academics? It’s not walking around wondering when the next verbal shuriken will fly.
Equal-opportunity bullying. The existence of microaggression doesn’t mean that horrific environments cannot exist for everyone, a sort of hell without discrimination. Assholes can be nondiscriminatory victimizers. In academics, this can take the form of Boltonic bullying, unconscientious objections, victim-bullying, academic mobbing, and more.
Faculty, students, and staff are humans — we all make mistakes, including on occasion being a gossip or uttering insensitive remarks. Most of us are willing to admit those mistakes and apologize for them when called on it. What tips the balance for a department into a dysfunctional environment is when there is either a core group of individuals who are persistently inappropriate or there is a critical mass of destructive behavior on the part of the whole, licensed by whatever has been happening in the recent (or vivid if distant) past. If you cannot trust that you can go a day without cringing either on behalf of a colleague or because of a comment directed at you (and not at your actions), that sounds like a hostile work environment.
As I wrote above, I think of the literature on microaggression and bullying as rough modeling, an attempt to get an analytical hold on a troubling and messy phenomenon. On the one hand, that leaves plenty of room for active research. On the other hand, it does not necessarily provide a good guide on how to respond to gossip, casual insults, and outright assholism. More thoughts on that over the weekend.