Read more about virtual mobbing:
More by Kenneth Westhues on Herbert Richardson and Mellen Press:
Virtual Mobbing and Mellen PressKenneth Westhues, May 2014
More ominous are virtual crowds that swarm or pile on a target by means of hostile messages, disgracing the target utterly. This is sometimes called flaming. Collective fury typically centers on some small, indisputable, repugnant bit of news – captured in audio, video or print. The news is oversimplified, taken out of context, blown out of proportion, imputed to nefarious motives, interpreted with least possible generosity, repeated over and over, and smeared on the target as an indelible stigma. Such public humiliation may inflict severe unwarranted harm on the target: loss of reputation, social standing, positions, even livelihood or life itself.
In his insightful new book, Persona Non Grata (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), political scientist Tom Flanagan analyzes the tsunami of invective that swept over him last year, after a video clip of comments he made about child pornography laws went viral. Flanagan described what happened to him as “virtual mobbing.” It means a large number of angry people ganging up by email, blog, tweet, and other electronic means, to denormalize, demonize, and ultimately destroy the one deemed a public enemy. Here are five disparate targets of virtual mobbing (among many others) over the past year:
What defines a virtual mobbing is not the target’s innocence or guilt of an offense. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn correctly observed that, "Everyone is guilty of something...." What defines virtual mobbing is instead the process of social contagion, via electronic media, by which a guilty verdict is quickly returned, punishment applied, and the target positioned outside collective good graces, one person after another feeling morally obliged to sign on publicly to the eliminative campaign.
The same point applies to lynching. Probably most of those strung up in the Old South or on the American frontier were guilty of serious crime, but that does not negate the fact that they were lynched. Indeed, in our digital age the term “virtual lynching” is a synonym for “virtual mobbing,” and has been used to describe crusades against people as varied as Dr. Laura, George Zimmerman, Herman Cain, and Jeremiah Wright.
My main purpose here is to encourage careful empirical study of virtual-mobbing episodes, the kind of analysis Flanagan has done of his own case. There exists by now a sizable literature on mobbing in workplaces. Many insights from that literature can be adapted mutatis mutandis to public mobbing in cyberspace. Brian Martin and Florencia Peña make important strides in that direction in their recent essay. In the paragraphs below, I try to serve the same purpose with some tentative observations on the virtual mobbing last year of Mellen Press.
Cyber-uproar over Mellen Press, 2013
Leiter Reports, a blog for academic philosophers by Chicago professor Brian Leiter, published on 5 February 2013 its reputational ranking of 34 philosophy publishers, based on a survey of its readers. The Edwin Mellen Press scored last in the survey. On 6 February, Leiter highlighted a comment by Leslie Green, giving news that Mellen Press was suing McMaster University and one of its librarians, Dale Askey, for libel. Askey’s “offense,” in Green’s summary of the case, was to have described Mellen Press in a 2010 blog post as “a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books.” Leiter called the lawsuits a “shocking attack on academic freedom” and he urged journalists to investigate.
Also on 6 February, on his blog from Princeton, Academic Librarian, Wayne Bivens-Tatum reported on the lawsuit, quoting Green’s account and adding that in 1993, “Mellen Press sued the greatest magazine of academic intellectual life that ever existed, Lingua Franca, over an article that referred to the Edwin Mellen Press as ‘a quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.’” Bivens-Tatum reported that Mellen lost that earlier lawsuit, also that Mellen chief Herbert Richardson was dismissed at that time for gross misconduct from the faculty of the University of Toronto.
The news that a disreputable publisher was trying to silence and punish a librarian for telling the truth about it inflamed academics, especially librarians, across the English-speaking world. Media like insidehighered and The Chronicle of Higher Education took Leiter's advice and ran with the story. A torrent of reproach engulfed Mellen Press. Many dozens of librarians’ associations condemned it, the one at York University going so far as to pledge not to acquire titles published by Mellen until it dropped the lawsuit. Bloggers piled on.
The story caught on mainly in academe. Nonacademic observers seemed more bemused than outraged. The CBC's coverage was factual and low-key. Gawker headlined its entry, “Publisher Sues College Librarian for Saying Publisher Sucks,” adding that, “Ironically, no college librarian's blog post disparaging an academic publisher has ever been read by a human being.”
By 21 February 2013, just two weeks after the initial posts, Bivens-Tatum could accurately refer to the “now viral campaign to free Dale Askey.” A petition urging the press to back off garnered 3,693 signatures, almost entirely from academic readers and purchasers of books, people on whom a publisher depends to stay in business.
Defamation lawsuits are often part of mobbing episodes. The case may be against the mobbing target, to reinforce his or her exclusion from respectable company; Joanne St. Lewis's case against Denis Rancourt in Ottawa, ongoing in 2014, can be understood to exemplify this type. Contrariwise, a defamation lawsuit can be a (usually unsuccessful) way for a mobbing target to strike back and regain respectability; Oscar Wilde's case against the Marquess of Queensberry in 1895, and David Irving's case against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt in the 1990s, are famous examples. Richardson's case against Askey and McMaster is of the latter type, but the virtual mobbing occurred even before the case came before a judge. Comments flooded the internet almost instantly after Green mentioned it on Leiter's blog, and to this story, there were not two sides. Commentators who said anything mildly positive about Mellen Press were denounced as sock puppets. The press's adversaries spoke passionately with one voice – a hallmark of mobbing, whether virtual or actual.
Among thousands of boilerplate anathemas on Mellen Press for threatening academic freedom, a handful of critical, reflective commentaries appeared. Bivens-Tatum’s piece, “Signs taken for Wonders,” was among the first and best. Laura Crossett penned a poignant testimonial to her late father, a Mellen author, in the form of an open letter to the press. Jake New’s long and appropriately complex “Herbert Richardson v. the World,” published on 15 April 2013, after the tidal wave of hostility had begun to subside, helped win him the Chronicle’s Miller Award for Young Journalists.
Thus far, however, the virtual mobbing that befell the press has not been subjected to an analysis anywhere near as penetrating as Flanagan’s book on his own case. Now that the dust has settled, the time is right for multiple scholars to take up such a project. Most of the data for it are now easily accessible online in the freedaleaskey archive, thanks to the Toronto chapter of the Progressive Librarians Guild.
Whoever undertakes such a project will want to study carefully the methods and raw data (available online) of the survey that got the ball rolling in the first place. That Mellen ranked at the bottom was key to the story. If it had ranked high, its renown would have undermined Askey’s credibility. What ensured sympathy for him was that, as Geoffrey Pullum put it in The Chronicle, “when 500 readers of the Leiter Reports philosophy blog voted to rank philosophy publishers for quality, Mellen came dead last.” Bivens-Tatum spelled out what “dead last” means: “Oxford is the first by a wide margin. In the full survey, Edwin Mellen Press is last by a similarly wide margin.” Thus, the survey seemed to have unmasked Mellen as a categorically inferior operation. This made Askey’s aspersions credible and the lawsuit outrageous. The gist of the story was that a junk publisher was suing a professional for calling it junk. On such an issue, taking a stand is not very hard.
However one looks at the raw data, Mellen indeed came last. Yet the survey in no way warrants a conclusion of categorical inferiority. There are chinks in the survey's armor. Numerous philosophy publishers were not even on the list: re.press, Texas, Wilfrid Laurier, Fordham, Georgetown, Notre Dame. In Leiter’s initial post inviting readers to take the survey, he acknowledged that Brill and Open Court should probably have been included, and maybe California, too. Plainly, Leiter designed the survey with a certain lightheartedness. He urged respondents to “have fun.” His clear purpose (congruent with the Condorcet method of scoring) was to pick winners, not to shame losers. He said “we'll focus on the top 20 in the final results.” Only afterwards did his focus shift from top to bottom, in light of Leslie Green’s news on Mellen Press.
Mellen was not voted on by 500 readers of Leiter’s blog, and it did not finish last “by a wide margin” even among the 34 publishers on the list. The data do not permit such conclusions. Leiter correctly anticipated what most respondents would be tempted to do, and tried to prevent it in his initial post by boldfacing a request: “Please try and rank order as many as possible, rather than just voting for your 2 or 3 favorites.” This advice fell on deaf ears, as the raw data show. Some of the 544 respondents checked “no opinion” for some publishers (71 respondents, or 13 percent, in the case of Mellen). The overwhelming majority of respondents did something different: they ranked the small number of publishers they knew and admired, and left it at that. The average respondent ranked only 17 publishers, half of those on the list, and left the remainder unranked.
When a respondent indicated nothing for a publisher, this might have been coded “no opinion” or “left blank.” Instead, so far as I can tell, it was coded “34,” the same code used when a respondent actually ranked the publisher last.
As a result of this coding procedure, huge numbers of last-place votes (“34”) were recorded for most publishers on the list, far more last-place votes than the respondents intended. Mellen got 387 last-place votes (82 percent of its total, excluding no opinion). This seems like a lot until one notes that Peter Lang got 366 (76 percent), Temple 359 (74 percent), Toronto 324 (66 percent), and Yale 250 (47 percent). These high percentages are not because so many respondents ranked these publishers last. It is because so many didn’t rank them at all. A publisher’s rank in the survey was primarily a function of how many respondents ranked it. For Oxford, the winner, only 64 (13 percent) votes of “34” were recorded, and for second-place Cambridge only 68 (also 13 percent).
My intent here is not to dispute Leiter’s survey, much less to defend Mellen’s lawsuits. It is to encourage anyone trying to make sense of last year’s firestorm to inspect the raw data from the survey, check my figures, and see what more can be learned. Overstatement of the target’s worthlessness is a hallmark of mobbing, virtual or otherwise. I believe this happened in the present case, in how much was made of Mellen’s last-place finish in Leiter’s survey. The raw data show that fewer than 100 respondents ranked Mellen at all. They were not a random sample of any population, just self-selected readers of one blog in one discipline, registering opinions about which publishing companies release the best philosophy books – and sixteen of these learned respondents did rank Mellen in the top twenty such companries.
Further, does this matter much? Just how useful is it to try to rank publishing companies by the overall quality of their books? Why judge a book by its cover? Bivens-Tatum, in his intelligent blog post, said simply that this is how the world works. Books are judged by the reputations of their publishers. To think “that each book should be judged on its own merits” is naive. The “unpleasant truth” is otherwise.
Bivens-Tatum is right, but he overstates – at least according to Leiter's survey. That Leiter has a penchant for ranking things is well-known. It is a fair guess that philosophers who read his blog disproportionately share this penchant, and all the more the 544 readers who chose to respond to this survey. Yet even in a sample biased in favour of ranking, and after being urged by Leiter to “rank order as many as possible,” the average respondent left half the publishers unranked. Still more interestingly, fully 33 of the 544 respondents (6 percent) submitted the survey without ranking any of the publishers at all. What gives, do you think, with these respondents? Are they naive? Or might they be leading their scholarly lives in light of truths different from the one Leiter and Bivens-Tatum emphasize?
My well-documented personal experience speaks to the issue here. In 1998, having finished writing my first book on workplace mobbing, I offered it to three publishers. None wanted it. No surprise. The term itself was scarcely known at that time in the English-speaking world. In addition, my reputation was under serious siege, administrators in my university having been denouncing me already for four years on the internet. Then by happenstance, I met Herbert Richardson, the founder of Mellen Press and its main driving force. Mellen helped me improve the manuscript and then published it promptly to generally favourable review. I went on to write or edit half a dozen more books for Mellen in this area over the next ten years. In 2010, Oxford University Press received a proposal for a book about workplace mobbing. An editor there asked me to write a prepublication review, and then an introduction to the published work. I was pleased and proud to oblige.
I recount this story not to argue against the relative standing of Mellen and Oxford in Leiter’s survey. Had Oxford wanted my first book on mobbing in 1998, I would likely have gone with it instead of Mellen. What the story shows is just that the world of academic publishing is more open, less rigidly ranked, than the summary table from Leiter’s survey makes it seem. Not everybody judges all books by their covers all the time.
Further, one can admit with Bivens-Tatum that everybody takes signs for wonders, that “it’s how everything works,” but still refrain from making this “unpleasant truth” a straightjacket for one’s career and life. In 1974, I undertook a quality ranking of Canadian sociology departments, using the then newly available Social Sciences Citation Index. When I saw my resultant article in print, with its neatly ordered table of departments much like Leiter’s table of publishers, a sick feeling came over me. The outcome of my laborious effort repulsed me. A few months later, a kindly administrator let me read the anonymous external assessments from my successful case for tenure at the University of Western Ontario. One of the assessors had written that if I continued my current rate of productivity, I would end up in one of the top twenty sociology departments in North America, possibly one of the top ten. That sentence repulsed and scared me even more than my ranking of Canadian departments. Call it an existential moment. Among the 544 respondents to Leiter’s survey, the ones with whom I most identify are the 33 who declined to rank any publishers at all.
In contemporary public discourse, there are strong social pressures against ranking races by quality, despite clear evidence that in aggregate, Asians have higher IQ scores than blacks, blacks excel whites in many sports, and so on. On account of huge variation within each race, stereotyping is generally discouraged in favour of responding to each person — Asian, black, white or whatever — as an individual. This is an unattainable but worthy ideal. There is much to be said for adopting the same approach to professors and to books, resisting stereotypes on the basis of department or publisher and responding to each one as an individual. I say this as a professor in what Maclean's magazine, in its annual reputational ranking of universities, has often deemed the "overall best university in Canada." I would rather be known and judged for who I am, with my own unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses, than for belonging to even a high-ranked aggregate. Wouldn't anyone?
Toward a science of virtual mobbing
Given my long and generally satisfying association with Mellen Press, you can imagine how horrifying it was, during February and March of 2013, to google its name day after day and find an ever-longer list of groups and individuals heaping scorn and derision on it. That I found the lawsuits indefensible only deepened my despair. An instance of the Streisand effect was unfolding before my eyes. It was plain to me that Mellen was using the lawsuits of its own free will as a firearm with which to shoot itself in the foot.
Still, so I fantasized, the public attention to Mellen Press, however calamitous, might have one saving grace, namely to increase interest in my 2004 book, The Envy of Excellence, which introduces readers to scholarship on mobbing through detailed analysis of what happened to Richardson at Toronto in the early 1990s, including the university administration’s concerted effort at that time to discredit Mellen Press. If participants in the virtual mobbing of the press in 2013 had a look at my book, they would gain insight into why the press launched its quixotic lawsuits against Lingua Franca in 1993, and against McMaster and Dale Askey twenty years later. They would better understand how mobbing works, the effects it has on the target, and how easily the latter often ends up digging himself or herself into a deeper hole.
No such luck. So far as I can tell from material on the web, only a handful of academics who piled on Mellen Press in 2013, took time to search out my book and use it to gain perspective on the momentous social process they were participating in. A great many of them seemed baffled by the press’s apparently self-destructive behaviour. Leiter published his summary view in a post on 31 March: “The people who run Edwin Mellen Press are pretty clearly nuts.” He went on to predict that the press would “be out of business within the next few years. Good riddance, given this disgraceful pattern of harassment.”
I should not have been surprised at the narrow focus of most of the commentaries on Richardson, Mellen, and the lawsuits over the past year. Generally, people caught up in a mobbing, even academics who are paid to be more reflective than ordinary citizens, show scant interest in reading or thinking about any larger context. Their attention is on the here and now, and on a felt need to take urgent action. Tennessee librarian Lane Wilkinson reflected a common attitude when he wrote that he would not buy Mellen books not on account of the lawsuit but because Mellen is “the lowest ranked publisher in philosophy according to Brian Leiter’s survey....” Wilkinson noted that Mellen “has a rather interesting history prior to 2010, but prior events aren’t germane to the current round of legal maneuvering.”
But that was then. Now, more than a year after the virtual mobbing of Mellen Press (in most respects a revival of the mobbing at Toronto two decades earlier), is a good time to begin more sober, critical, contextualized, thoughtful analyses of what transpired, why, how, and with what effects. I hope that whoever undertakes such a project might read my scholarship on mobbing, but if Mellen's bad rep scarces them off, alternatives exist. In books and articles of their own, many other authors present essentially the same ideas as I do. What matters – my basic goal in these paragraphs – is that the science of mobbing be allowed to shed its light on events that otherwise seem bizarre, incomprehensible, or in Leiter’s words, “pretty clearly nuts.”