A Sample Selection from Kenneth Westhues, The Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors, Lewiston: NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004, 2006.
SOCIAL ELIMINATION, pp. 24-29
Elimination in the Narrower, Stronger Sense
The word elimination does not apply equally to
all instances of a member of a group being punished, expelled, or humiliated.
Every day, restaurant clerks and customers are injured and killed during
armed robberies. Yet these tragedies are categorically distinct from the
robbery of a New York Wendy’s outlet by an angry ex-employee on
May 24, 2000, after which police found the manager and other employees
bound, gagged, and shot dead in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator:
It is this exceptional “reason” that distinguishes cases of elimination, properly so called. It means human beings going after somebody as an end in itself. Interaction turns into a game with no object but to make someone lose, a drama with no plot but to drop some actor from the cast.
For grasping the difference between elimination in its broader, weaker sense, and in the narrower, stronger sense intended here, the hugely popular first season of the CBS documentary, Survivor, aired in the summer of 2000, is worth recalling. Sixteen contestants were secluded on a tropical island, expected to satisfy collectively their subsistence needs and to compete in tests of survival skills. They were divided into two tribes. Each week, a tribe was called together to vote one of its members off the island. As the numbers dwindled, the two tribes were combined, and the weekly voting of one member out continued. The last survivor would win $1 million.
Here was a game, an elimination ritual, that tapped something deep inside the human psyche. Week after week, the show’s ratings soared. How would the group dynamic play out? Who would be voted off next? For the first few weeks, the contestants voted off seemed to be those with fewer survival skills, and those contributing least to group achievements and morale. Most contestants seemed to like and respect almost everybody else, and to be reluctant to get rid of anyone: “I’m sorry to have to vote against X, but the game requires me to make a choice.” This was elimination in the general, looser sense.
Halfway through the series, for its issue of July 8-14, 2000, TV Guide asked a panel of experts to rate the remaining contestants’ chances of surviving to the end and winning the $1 million. The panel ranked a woman named Gretchen as the one most likely to win. An opinion poll of the viewing audience would probably have agreed. Gretchen was competent, skilled, friendly, popular, the apparent leader of her tribe. By most of the relevant criteria, she deserved to win.
To the surprise of the television audience (and to TV Guide’s embarrassment), Gretchen was voted off the very next week, when the two tribes were combined. Members of the other tribe recognized her strengths, formed an alliance, and pooled their votes, consciously and deliberately, to get rid of her. Said one of them, “She had to be voted off because she is bright, and she is strong, and she was a threat” (quoted in Michael 2000).
To the extent this TV game can illustrate a serious point, Gretchen’s ouster was elimination in the stronger, narrower sense. It was not as if the group had coalesced around certain goals or values, reached a consensus about the meaning and purpose of their game, and decided that by these standards, Gretchen was the least valuable or most expendable player. The decision-making process played out in a wholly different way. Her expulsion represented the triumph of imagined collective interest over shared values of any kind. It was a case of Lilliputians bringing down Gulliver.
Is this what happened to Herbert Richardson at Toronto? If it was, it was less obvious than in Gretchen’s case. And if it was, this was no innocent game played for entertainment purposes but a dangerous game played for keeps, where one man’s whole career was on the line. The only way to answer the question is to study the evidence systematically and thoroughly, while keeping in mind what the question is, and what kind of logic and evidence might answer it.
The First, Basic Clue
In lectures on social elimination, I have sometimes said that in every human being are three appetites: for food, for sex, and for humiliating somebody else. The third craving is not ordinarily grouped with the first two. All agree that hunger and sexual desire have a physiological basis, that they drive human behavior in overt and hidden ways, and that they are at times so strong as to preoccupy a person completely, turning him or her into a raging beast, a creature we scarcely recognize as human.
Notwithstanding its less evident basis in biology, the eliminative impulse, the lust to wipe another person out, is categorically similar. It can consume a person to the point of obsession, spread like a virus through a group, and become the driving force behind collective energy. Yet unlike the appetites for food and sex, this one has come to be proscribed in the process of civilization. It is supposed to be held in check by a universal compassion, common allegiance to the “brotherhood of man.” The eliminative impulse, when it does seize control of human behavior, is therefore almost always denied, obscured by the pretense of serving some lofty goal. Girard posits a “persecutory unconscious” in those caught up in the snowballing process (2001, p. 126). It is, he says, what Jesus referred to in his prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34).
How then can one tell when elimination in its stronger, stricter, narrower sense is underway? Are there identifiable symptoms, empirical indicators that an exclusionary process has escaped the bounds of reason and civilization? Against every professor and teacher a protest has at some time been raised by a student who flunked a test: “You have it in for me.” Can the teacher prove otherwise? When an imposter was forced to resign from the faculty of the University of Regina in 2001, after the degrees on her resumé were shown to belong to somebody else, while she herself had no such degrees, her lawyer protested: “It’s a real old-boys club around here. She’s a foreign-looking person. She has her abrasive side, but she’s easy to gang up on” (Perreaux 2001). Was the eliminative impulse, as the lawyer implied, behind the move to get rid of her? If I, like most professors, would defend her ouster, how do I know I am not acting on my own “persecutory unconscious”? Are there reliable signs that elimination in its savage sense is underway?
The first, most basic clue is the eliminators’ focus on the targeted person, rather than on the allegedly offensive act. “The guilty person is so much a part of his offense that one is indistinguishable from the other. His offense seems to be a fantastic essence or ontological attribute” (Girard 1986, p. 36). Social order requires pointing out errors, infractions, and offenses, and imposing penalties on their account–including jail, in the case of criminal behavior that threatens public safety. Social order does not require spoiling a person’s entire identity, which is what elimination means. An explanation of the need for sanctions that includes personally derisive and humiliating statements about the person on whom the sanctions are to be placed, a statement that break this person’s bond with everybody else: this is the basic indication that the eliminative impulse has been unleashed.
Compare two responses parents can make to a child who has just been eliminated from a spelling bee or gymnastics competition. They can say, “This just wasn’t your day, we’re sorry you won’t be going on to the advanced level, better luck next time.” Or they can say (what most of us have overhead on some occasion, and winced), “You stupid little shit, what’s wrong with you, you’ve brought shame on your school, get out of my sight.” These are radically, categorically different social processes. In the first instance, the child’s person is acknowledged and affirmed even in the midst of inadequate performance. In the second instance, a mistake is enlarged to cover and smear the child’s whole identity. Only the second instance illustrates the process that is the focus of the present book.