Mainpage: Academic Mobbing

K. Westhues Homepage



For basic conceptualizaton of public mobbing, and a case study from the debate over vaccination in Australia, see Brian Martin and Florencia Peña, "Public Mobbing: a Phenomenon and Its Features".


For Brian Martin's assessment of Tom Flanagan's book from the point of view of scholarship on public mobbing, see his blogpost, "Tom Flanagan Was Mobbed Online".


For analysis of a different — and more complicated — example of virtual mobbing, as Tom Flanagan uses this term, see my "Virtual Mobbing and Mellen Press".




Looking over this commentary on Flanagan's book, now that I have finished it, I worry that it is too flattering. Readers may think that in this instance I have taken leave of my critical abilities. In fact I quibble with parts of Flanagan's analysis. I find his distinction too sharp between academic and political modes of discourse. The distinction is real. Truth has and deserves to have higher priority in universities than in partisan politics. Even so, a value on empirical truth — the requirement that ideas square with evidence and reason — is fundamental to all aspects of Western civilization: to law, the courts, the press, advertising, science and engineering, health care, public administration, business, and yes, even politics. The mobbing of Tom Flanagan might not have been quite so outrageous if he had been giving a political speech in Lethbridge instead of an academic lecture, but it would still have been wrong, above all because it was founded on untruth. My other quibbles with Persona Non Grata are not worth mentioning. This is a very good book.



Tom Flanagan's Finest Hour

Kenneth Westhues

Web publication, August 2014 

What defines an individual's or group's finest hour is the courage and skill to turn back a seemingly invincible hostile force. It is defying aggression against all odds, and not being trounced.

In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany seemed unstoppable. Its conquests by then included Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Their neighbor across the channel was plainly next in line. The blitz would soon begin. Such was the context for Churchill's famous speech, urging Britons to brace themselves to their duties and defeat the attacker, so that even a thousand years ahead it would be said, "This was their finest hour."

Use of the phrase in studies of mobbing

Churchill's phrase has a place in scholarship on mobbing because by definition, this social process implies the coalescence of many into a hostile force targeted on one. There is strength in numbers. In the workplace, school, or public sphere, the mob is a force of overwhelming, crushing power. Its message to the target is, "You're toast." The target who does not crumble or cave in, but manages somehow to blunt the attack or even make it backfire or boomerang — such a target earns the phrase "finest hour" on the micro level, even as the British earned it on the world stage from 1940 to 1945.

The phrase first occurred to me in this derivative sense while reading press reports of the criminal prosecution (or maybe better, state persecution) of media magnate Conrad Black. It began with his indictment for fraud in 2005, continued with his trial and conviction in 2007, and culminated in his three-year imprisonment. He got out of jail in 2012.

Understand: I never thought well of Black. I couldn't help but compare him to myself, since we were both born in the summer of 1944. History was generous to us both. From my start as an impecunious farmboy, I had been able to study, earn a Ph.D., and then enjoy a high income, much freedom, and the many satisfactions of teaching and writing in universities. For his part, Black started out rich and got stupendously richer as a successful financier. But I was mindful of my privilege, humbled by it, and grateful for it, while for Black's greater privilege he showed scant appreciation, just lust for more. I devoted a chapter of a 1982 book to tracing Black's rise to prominence, describing him as an unsurprising role-player in the capitalist economy, trapped in wealth the way other people are trapped in poverty. In my review of a 1997 broadside against Black, I complained that there was less to this man than the authors claimed:

Barlow and Winter say his views are shocking. I find them predictable. He defends the capitalist system that has allowed him to inherit wealth and multiply it to the point that he is our homegrown Citizen Kane. He despises unions. He loathes governmental intrusion on the markets he hogs. He glories in his power and denies it. No surprise. He has scored big in the Great Game, and trained his mind to think narrowly in terms of it.

No fondness for Black was required, only an ability to recognize skulduggery, to see that the criminal case against him in 2005-2012 was collective revenge by people who had borne the brunt of his brash pursuit of lucre. Out of common cause to bring the big man down, fuzzy charges were laid in Chicago for dodgy business conduct that could and should have been adjudicated in civil court. On appeal, most of the charges were thrown out. This was beside the point. What mattered was that Black be convicted of something, put in jail, and identified over and over in the press as a criminal (without fear of his suing for libel). He had to be made to pay for his vanity, swagger, ruthlessness, and success. And so he was. Thereby the gods of schadenfreude were, for the nonce, appeased.

The ordeal Black underwent from 2005 to 2012 might well have broken him. He might have committed suicide, lapsed into chronic depression, gone off the beam, or (if broken in a different way) reduced to sniveling repentance and pleas for mercy. Instead (as Martha Stewart had done a few years earlier, much to her credit), Black used his time in jail to form friendly, constructive ties with fellow inmates. For me at least, this was a surprise, but there was more. Black applied his formidable intelligence to analysis of the U.S. criminal justice system, and wrote blistering, factual critiques of it in the National Post, the newspaper he had founded in 1998, when he was riding high. Black's writings from jail and afterwards showed far more insight, balance, good sense, and breadth of perspective than things he had written earlier. They showed him to be much more of a man than I thought he was. He served his time with such grace, dignity, and productivity, while steadfastly maintaining his innocence of crime, that his attackers looked steadily more like Lilliputians, and he like Gulliver. That is why it can be said that this period was Black's finest hour.

The phrase is apt for many other mobbing targets in my research who rose above humiliation and climbed out of pits of disgrace. One was CAO of a large municipality. The mayor and some councillors unfairly ganged up on and sacked him. He turned round and got himself elected to council, where he outshone most of his erstwhile mobbers for many years — a time that has been his finest hour. I think also of the dozens of mobbing targets who have written and published illuminating analyses of the intrigues that brought them down, exposing untruth by the power of evidence and reason, contributing to public awareness and understanding of mobbing as a social phenomenon, and thereby wiping away much of the stain on their personal identities.

An avalanche of animosity on Tom Flanagan

A stellar case in point is Tom Flanagan, political science professor at the University of Calgary since 1968, theoretician of Canadian conservativism, collaborator with Stephen Harper in the 1990s, then manager of his leadership campaigns and chief of staff after Harper became prime minister. By 2013, Flanagan and Harper had parted ways. Flanagan was back teaching at Calgary, contributing prolifically to academic and public media on current issues, in particular his specialty, the legal status of aboriginal peoples in Canada.

As an aggressive player of hardball federal politics, Flanagan had braved many bashings over the years by opponents of all stripes. No shrinking violet, he gave as good as he got. Attacks in his past, however, paled by comparison to the sudden avalanche of animosity that swept over him following an invited lecture he gave on the evening of 27 February 2013 at the University of Lethbridge. It was entitled, "Is it time to reconsider the Indian Act?"

Two activists from the Idle No More movement set Flanagan up in the Q&A after the talk. One asked an incoherent, off-topic, seemingly jocular question about whether Flanagan was the father of the IKEA monkey then in the news, and about views Flanagan had earlier expressed on child pornography. The other videotaped Flanagan's good-natured, off-the-cuff answer. Flanagan said yes, he was indeed the monkey's father, adding that he had no sympathy for child molesters but did have doubts about jailing people for "their taste in pictures." Flanagan's adversaries quickly posted the three-minute clip to youtube with the tagline, "Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography."

The tagline was false. It did not square with what Flanagan said. To "be okay with" something means you approve of it, find it agreeable or acceptable. Flanagan had said nothing of the sort. He had expressed the unremarkable sentiment that imprisoning people for simple possession of child pornography may do more harm than good. Many legal scholars take similar positions. To cite just one example: in her article, "The Perverse Law of Child Pornography" (Columbia Law Review 2001), New York University law professor Amy Adler argues that current US legislation on child pornography may actually encourage rather than reduce the sexual victimization of children.

A small event can trigger an avalanche. In this case, it was a six-word untruth. The youtube clip attracted immediate attention in Canadian political and governmental circles. It did not quite go viral. In pure forms of internet contagion, information is passed from friend to friend in a snowballing process unaided by established institutions. A flash-mob performance of Handel's Messiah in Welland, Ontario, in 2010, for example, quickly garnered 30 million views on youtube, despite attracting scant notice in mainstream media. That was viral. The Flanagan clip, by contrast, has only 84,000 views even now, 18 months after its posting and after broad discussion of Flanagan's book about his mobbing. Canadians did not, one after another, listen to what Flanagan said in Lethbridge and then, one after another, take issue with him.

What happened in this case is that on Thursday, 28 February, the day after Flanagan's speech, a handful of journalistic, governmental, and academic authorities, opinion leaders, issued public statements condemning him for his comments in Lethbridge. These were chiefly the CBC (which announced it was firing Flanagan as a commentator), the Prime Minister's Office (which tweeted that Flanagan's comments were "repugnant, ignorant, and appalling"), Alberta premier Alison Redford (who said his comments turned her stomach), Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith (who averred there is "no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan's comments," and decreed that he would have no role in her organization), and University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon (whose statement implied that Flanagan no longer belonged to the university).

The effect of these hasty official condemnations was that the story that broke in newspapers across the country on Friday, 1 March, was not that a prominent Canadian pundit had said something controversial, but that the established authorities had disowned him for what he said. The news, as most Canadians first heard or read it, was of a fait accompli, that Flanagan's voice, deservedly, would no longer be heard in Canadian political discourse. The headlines had an obituarial quality: "Spectacular flame-out ends a distinguished career...." (Calgary Herald), and "Flanagan ends career on sour note..." (Globe and Mail).

From then on, participants in the public mobbing of Tom Flanagan had an easy time of it. They did not have to demand the man's banishment or make arguments toward that end, much less watch the youtube clip. The target was already banished, down and out. All they had to do was pile on and echo what officialdom had already said. By and large, this is what the public did — in comments on newspaper websites, blogs, and social media. To describe Flanagan as buried by an avalanche of animosity does not overstate.

Digging out from under

Persona Non Grata is Flanagan's account of the collective attack and of his and others' resistance. The month of March brought withdrawal of most of the speaking and writing invitations Flanagan had earlier accepted. On the other hand, it also brought Jonathan Kay's column in the National Post, "The mobbing of Tom Flanagan is unwarranted and cruel." The Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Society for Academic Freedom & Scholarship protested the Calgary president's violation of academic norms, and Flanagan lodged a grievance against her public statement. Journalist Steve Paikin, whose book The Dark Side (2004) is an incisive account of mobbing in Canadian politics, invited Flanagan onto his talk show, The Agenda, on TVO. A sadder but wiser Conrad Black publicly defended Flanagan in a major speech in Calgary in May. Perhaps best of all, Douglas Pepper, president of McLelland & Stewart, invited Flanagan to write a book about his ordeal.

If Persona Non Grata were merely a factual description of key events in Flanagan's mobbing, I would call it a modest addition to the long list of the author's books. I use instead the superlative, finest hour, because he does more in these pages than describe what happened. He explains it in calm, concise, readable prose, applying to this case all manner of insights drawn from historical and social scientific literature. Chapter 4, "The Mechanics of Mobbing," highlights moral panic as a common precipitant and traces its sometimes horrific consequences for targeted individuals. Chapter 5, "The End of Privacy," shows how new communications technologies facilitate herd behaviour and accelerate human stampedes. Chapter 6, "Academic Freedom and Teaching," beautifully sets forth Flanagan's philosophy of higher education, wherein Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit are two sides of the same precious coin. Chapter 7, "Child Pornography," brings historical perspective to the issue that landed Flanagan in the soup.

US sociologist Harold Garfinkel published a brilliant, now classic article in 1956, "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies," a summary of techniques by which to rob a person of legitimate identity. Once you know what these conditions are, Garfinkel argues in his concluding sentence, once you understand the mechanisms for successfully denouncing somebody, you also know "how to render denunciation useless." That is what Flanagan does in Persona Non Grata, and what makes the book so good. By offering reasoned, disarming explanations for why the coordinated attacks on him occurred, he neutralizes them, takes the wind from their sails. This book is not just a chronicle of how Flanagan fought back against unwarranted collective hostility. On account of its compelling analytic power, this book itself embodies fighting back, and doing so effectively. That is why I call it Flanagan's finest hour.

Critical reception

You don't have to take my word for what a triumph this book is. Little more than a year after headlines said Flanagan's career was over, Persona Non Grata was on Canadian bestseller lists from coast to coast. No major newspaper felt able to ignore the book. The vast majority gave it a positive review. In the Toronto Star, Canada's largest-circulation daily, reviewer Robert Collison wrote that "Flanagan abhors child pornography but he also abhors the 'moral panic' that this vexing issue elicits. Flanagan rightly feels he starred in the 21st century version of the Salem Witch Hunt, and if he wasn't burned at the stake he was certainly singed badly. Still being a Hayekian conservative he's no advocate for censorship of new media, or any media, even if mistakes, like his mobbing, are made." "Rightly feels" and "mistakes"! How about that from a newspaper heartily opposed to Flanagan's politics?

A great many of the reviews not only praised the book but also went off in varied directions of sober, thoughtful, critical reflection on social and political affairs in this age of electronic media. If one measure of a book's worth is that it generates and provokes fresh thinking, Flanagan's book scores high. It appears to have awakened many readers to the horrific reality of public mobbing in our time and cautioned them to think twice about jumping on bandwagons of demonization. Here are four examples of especially serious, full-bodied discussions: Suanne Kelman in the Literary Review of Canada, Daniel Baird in The Walrus, Paul Bunner in C2C Journal, and Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail.

Still, shedding the status of pariah is a long, hard slog. In Quill & Quire, Steven W. Beattie called the book a "sustained screed" and said its good points "are drowned in a sea of self-serving, pugilistic rhetoric." In the Globe and Mail, Simon Lewsen was a little less harsh, saying he found Persona Non Grata "compelling, even terrifying," but "too self-involved" in its critique of internet culture. Lewsen called the book a "settling of scores, a polemic." To me, it is remarkable that a reviewer could find self-serving vengefulness in a book that shows as much humility as this one, that so readily confesses its author's mistakes, and that tries so hard to move beyond zero-sum politics.

Research and scholarship on mobbing

At the top of my scholarly agenda these past twenty years has been to lodge the word mobbing in the common vocabulary of the English-speaking world, and with it awareness of this horrific, destructive, categorically distinct kind of conflict, alertness to it, revulsion against it, and resolve not to join in when a mobbing episode is underway. By its precise and careful use of the word mobbing and of the social scientific research so far done on this phenomenon, this book furthers what I believe is an important, very worthy agenda. Flanagan deserves respect and thanks for this contribution to the research literature, especially for introducing the term virtual mobbing as a way to get a handle on the process when electronic media are the main means of carrying it out.

If Flanagan's book succeeds in its larger public purpose, more Canadians will respond to ferocious collective denunciations the way he himself has responded to the onslaught of condemnation of the now ex-Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, in the summer of 2014, for alleged misuse of government aircraft when she was in office. This is the same Redford who had readily joined in mobbing Flanagan a year and a half earlier. On the principle of turnabout being fair play, Flanagan might well have grinned at the attacks on Redford, maybe even joined in. Instead he published — in the Globe and Mail, no less — a call for Redford's adversaries to back off and wait for the official report of the evidence on the matter. Flanagan's article was entitled, "Redford witch hunt demeans Alberta."

Clearly, Tom Flanagan has learned from his painful experience in the winter of 2013. Now we can learn from it, too, thanks to Flanagan's book.