Contrasting modern and post-modern discourse

Always, the question is why. An instance of workplace mobbing presents itself. Collective hostility, ganging up, offensive and defensive maneuvers, draining of time and energy, damage to names and careers, working lives robbed of joy — all these are plain to see. The challenge is to know why. Without sound explanation for why the mobbing has occurred, the odds of effective intervention are slim. Correction, remedy, prevention, making things somehow better, depend on knowing why.

Any idea helpful toward this end is a gift. My books, articles and website on academic mobbing include many such gifts: distinctions and hypotheses offered by varied authors past and present, collected, packaged, and passed on from me to you.

In December of 2012, as the Christmas season was unfolding, I received an especially useful gift, a distinction that helps answer the question of why for roughly half of the academic mobbing cases I have studied these past twenty years. The giver was American conservative pundit Steve Sailer, whose blog is a year-round Santa’s sleigh. Sailer, however, was on this occasion just regifting a distinction he had picked up from British Christian blogger Alastair Roberts. I resolved to pass the distinction on to fellow students of workplace mobbing, regifting it here for Christmas. It was well into 2013 before I got the distinction packaged up and posted, so it has turned out to be a new year’s gift. No matter. I hope you find it worth keeping and passing on.

The distinction is between two modes of discourse. Here is Sailer’s summary, with key excerpts from Roberts’s blog, and here is Roberts’s original post, written to make sense of a dispute among Evangelicals. Both Sailer’s and Roberts’s posts are worth reading, in addition to my summary and reworking here. Neither of them labels the conflicting modes of discourse, and both present them in reverse order to my preference. I call the temporally earlier mode of discourse modern, since it reflects rules of intellectual procedure associated with the Enlightenment, to which most of humanity’s transformations, good and bad, these past few hundred years can be attributed, but traceable farther back (as Sailer points out) to the ancient Greeks. I call the second, temporally more recent mode of discourse postmodern, meaning the relativist, constructivist, anti-scientific mentality, the wholesale inversion of Enlightenment values, that has arisen since the 1960s, similar in some ways to traditional, premodern mentalities.

Drawing and quoting freely from Roberts and Sailer, the paragraphs below profile first the modern mentality and then the postmodern one, and show how this difference helps answer the question of why certain conflicts occur. Then I describe some cases from my own research that illustrate the point. Essentially, what I argue is that in many mobbing cases, a professor cultivating modern discourse in the classroom and other scholarly venues is charged, punished, humiliated, and sometimes eliminated by students, colleagues, and/or administrators of a postmodern bent.

Modern discourse

Following are ten key characteristics of modern discourse, what many professors and students even now consider the normal or standard way to think, study and argue in the academy:

  • “personal detachment from the issues under discussion,” the separation of participants’ personal identities from subjects of inquiry and topics of debate;
  • values on “confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort”;
  • suited to a heterotopic space like a university class, scholarly journal, or session of a learned society conference, a place apart much like a playing field for sports events, where competitors engage in ritual combat before returning with a handshake to the realm of friendly, personal interaction;
  • illustrated by debate in the British House of Commons;
  • epitomized by the debates a century ago between socialist G. B. Shaw and distributist G. K. Chesterton;
  • playfulness is legitimate: one can play devil’s advocate, speak tongue in cheek, overstate and use hyperbole, the object being not to capture the truth in a single, balanced monologue, but to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions;
  • “scathing satire and sharp criticism” are also legitimate;
  • the best ideas are thought to emerge from mutual, merciless probing and attacking of arguments, with resultant exposure of blindspots in vision, cracks in theories, inconsistencies in logic;
  • participants are forced again and again to return to the drawing board and produce better arguments;
  • the truth is understood not to be located in any single voice, but to emerge from the conversation as a whole.

Postmodern discourse

Over the past half century, a competing mode of discourse, the one I call postmodern, has become steadily more entrenched in academe. Following are ten of its hallmarks, as Roberts and Sailer describe on their blogs:

  • “persons and positions are ordinarily closely related,” with little insistence on keeping personal identity separate from the questions or issues under discussion;
  • “sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values”;
  • priority on “cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus”;
  • “seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge,” in the eyes of proponents of modern discourse;
  • tends to perceive the satire and criticism of modern discourse as “vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus”;
  • is oriented to ” the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum”;
  • lacking “means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation,” it will “typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition”;
  • “will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.”;
  • has a more feminine flavor, as opposed to the more masculine flavor of modern discourse;
  • results in “stale monologues” and contexts that “seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers.”

When competing discourses collide

Roberts’s original post describes the competing modes of discourse in rich detail and shows how differences between them play out in today’s culture wars, as “offense-takers” and “offense trolls” use “human shields” and accusations of “hate speech” to silence opponents. That entire post, long as it is, merits close reading. For present purposes I highlight just one of Roberts’s hypotheses: “Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect.

Dissenting voices can be scapegoated or excluded and opponents will be sharply attacked.” This is but another way of saying that proponents of the postmodern mode of discourse have a tendency to engage in workplace mobbing, that is, to gang up on opponents and run them out of their jobs. Scapegoating and mobbing, so I have argued elsewhere, are pretty much the same thing. Roberts’s use of the former term probably derives in part from his reading of René Girard, the world’s foremost student of scapegoating, a wise scholar from whom I myself have learned a lot.

Michael Mason’s elimination from Queen’s

I first learned of Roberts’s distinction and hypothesis in early December of 2012. It was an especially opportune time. I had just returned home from lecturing at Queen’s University in Kingston, and was puzzling over a strange and much publicized case of professorial elimination at that university (click here for the lucid report about it by the Canadian Association of University Teachers). A senior historian named Michael Mason, retired from a career at Concordia University in Montreal, was living in Kingston and teaching part-time at Queen’s, where students generally rated him an excellent teacher. He was giving a fall-term course on “Asia, Africa, and Latin America since 1945.”

Barely two weeks into the term, a small number of students in the class complained that he had made “borderline racist comments.” In addition, Mason’s teaching assistants accused him of using “racist and sexist language.” The department chair and other administrators sprang into action. Mason was summoned to meetings, threatened with suspension, informed that the chair might henceforth be sitting in on his class from time to time, and told that the grading scheme would need to be changed. The administrators judged that Mason had “failed to create a safe space” for students and thereby violated the university’s “Educational Equity Policy.” On his doctor’s advice, Mason went on medical leave. In effect, he was forced out as instructor for the course, and that ended his teaching career at Queen’s.

As I understand Mason’s ouster, “academic mobbing” is too fancy a term to place on it. Margaret Wente called it a “mugging” in her column in the Globe & Mail. The most fascinating thing about the attack on him is that, so far as I can tell, he was not teaching anything especially contentious or provocative, just acquainting students with the historical record. He positioned himself, moreover, as opposed to racism, and eager to alert students to American racism in the postwar period. Mason’s “offense,” such as it was, was reading aloud in a lecture a passage from a book that quoted an American admiral calling the Japanese “little yellow sons of bitches.”

Similarly, quoting from an article in the Atlantic Monthly, Mason informed the students that a U.S. Senator had called the South Carolina Governor, a woman of Punjabi origin, a “fucking raghead.” Mason did not himself indulge in any name-calling, instead just documented that certain American officials had done so. For this he was himself accused of making “borderline racist comments.”

The charges of sexism against Mason were similarly tenuous. It was claimed that he had said female students should be mistresses. What he had said was that he wanted his students to become “masters and mistresses” of the course material. He had told the TAs that in his organization of the course, he would not actually have much work to assign them, joking that maybe he would have to ask them to wash his car. This was taken to be demeaning of women.

For explaining why the incursion on Mason’s reputation and job occurred, some observers may chalk it up to moral or intellectual deficiencies of his accusers and detractors. Maybe they were mendacious and mean, or perhaps so ill-educated they did not know the multiple meanings of the word mistress, nor the difference between using racial slurs and criticizing other people for using them. Other observers, less sympathetic to CAUT’s version of what happened, may suspect that there is more to the story, that by his tone of voice and classroom manner, Mason probably did display bias against women and nonwhites, and that the administrators were in fact responding to a real violation of university policy and human rights.

To either of these quick-and-dirty explanations, Roberts’s distinction between modes of discourse offers a more adequate and satisfying alternative. Mason, like most history professors of mature years, saw his course as an arena of modern discourse. He was leftist enough to include American racism as a topic, but his priority was on communicating historical facts about that topic, not on the personal feelings or identities of his students. In the back of his mind he probably knew that if there were any students of Japanese origin in his class, they might wince at hearing the American admiral’s term, “little yellow sons of bitches,” but Mason assumed their skin would be thick enough to shrug off any feeling of discomfort.

The name of the game, as he saw it, was to learn history. Like generations of modern professors before him, Mason considered mastery of the subject the prime objective of his course. One can imagine his impish smile when, bending over backwards not to offend female students by sex-specific language, he uttered that phrase, “masters and mistresses.” As for the joke about asking his TAs to wash his car, well, a joke is a joke. If Mason had seriously ordered them to take buckets of water to the parking lot after class and wash his car, they might legitimately object. How could they possibly object to a droll way of letting them know his demands on their time would be relatively few? Such is the modern mode of discourse Mason appeared to be practicing.

His accusers, by contrast, were engaged in the postmodern mode of discourse. They were not lying, nor were they displaying ignorance. They were living in a somewhat different world. They did not separate, as Mason did, the personal from the pedagogical. Their priority was higher than his on making sure all students in the class were comfortable all the time. Their key values (I’m quoting Roberts) were “sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness.” Maybe one or another of the students was an “offense troll” on the lookout for hidden racism and sexism, eager to expose these vices as proof of personal righteousness.

In a letter defending Mason, one of his former students, Helen Mo, wrote that “Like most excellent teachers, Professor Mason used quotations, irony, and other rhetorical devices in his Socratic-style lectures.” This is typical of the modern mode of discourse, wherein questions are always more important than answers. Postmodern discourse, by contrast, tends to be more lliteral, even leaden, and there is rarely much room for humour or whimsy. It is answers that count, even if they turn out to be “stale monologues” and “echo chambers.” I would guess that the impishness in Mason’s reference to “masters and mistresses” or to the washing of his car went right by the students who later complained. They expected him to conform to a “closely defined curriculum.” He failed the test. They therefore, as Roberts could have predicted, came together in a menacing little herd and made an “antagonistic, demonizing, and personal” attack on Mason that ended his job at Queen’s.

Three more examples

I said in my lecture there that I felt in a time warp as I read the accounts of Michael Mason’s ouster. Dozens of academic mobbing cases over the past quarter-century show the same clash of modes of discourse that Roberts has perceptively described. In each of them, a professor teaching in a standard modern way was attacked by students or colleagues playing by a different set of rules, living in a different mental universe. Here are just three examples:
• At the University of Western Ontario in 1991, psychologist Heinz Klatt made the mistake of injecting humour into his class on child psychology (click here for his brief account). He called a student named Lucretia “Lucky Lucy.” She found the epithet charming but four other students found it demeaning of women, and therefore charged Klatt with sexual harassment and creating a “negative psychological environment.” Klatt spent the next two years in what he called “Kafkaland.”
• At the University of Michigan in 1992 (click here for discussion and links), statistician David Goldberg distributed in class a cartoon that poked fun at statisticians like him. Other handouts he distributed illustrated statistical techniques by applying them to actual data, and a few of these showed differences by race and sex. The upshot was that he was accused of racial and sexual harassment!
• At a conference at Harvard University in 2005, president Lawrence Summers offered some tentative, carefully reasoned, empirically supported hypotheses about why women are underrepresented on science and engineering faculties (click here for information and links). “Personal detachment from the issues under discussion” appeared to be impossible for one member of the audience, MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who spearheaded the campaign to hound Summers out of his position on grounds of sexism. Summers backtracked and grovelled, but the campaign won out.

Can you see why I considered Sailer’s and Roberts’s blog entries gifts so valuable as to be worth passing on? It is because the ideas they offer go a long way toward explaining why odd academic autos da fé like these occur.

One more example: Philippe Rushton (1943-2012)

Philippe Rushton was yet another mobbing target on my mind in December of 2012, when I came across Roberts’s distinction between modes of discourse. Rushton had died two months earlier. He and I were about the same age. Both of us were immigrants to Canada. For three years in the 1970s, we had been faculty colleagues at the same university, Western Ontario, where he spent the remainder of his career. We had corresponded a few times, exchanged papers.

He had written a generous review of one of my books. I believe Roberts’s distinction helps illuminate the attack on Rushton that began in 1989 (here is his account), and continued off and on for the rest of his life, even on the occasion of his death.

Rushton embodied (what I call) modern discourse. Virtually all of the key characteristics listed above for this mode of discourse applied to him, the main exception being literary devices like satire and humour. I suspect he knew better than to make jokes. Even if his priority had been like mine, on social science, that is, on the empirical explanation of life in terms of cultural and historical factors, he might have gotten himself in trouble with the postmodern left. But he made himself still more vulnerable, by making natural science his priority, and seeking explanation through biological and genetic factors, among them race and sex.

He really was a racist, in the sense of treating race as an important independent variable for explaining all kinds of things — though I can hardly imagine a professor less likely than Rushton to discriminate against students or colleagues of a racial origin different from his own.

Rushton was unfailingly even-tempered, soft spoken, and polite, always willing to listen to opponents’ arguments and respond cooly and rationally, citing evidence. It was as if he took Kipling’s famous poem as a script for his own scholarly life: “If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too….”

Rushton was among the most cited psychologists in the world. In a front-page article in the Ottawa Citizen in 2005, Andrew Duffy described him as the most famous university professor in Canada (he might have said infamous). Apart from all else, Rushton’s prominence justifies the most rigorous effort to explain why the fierce campaign against him arose, why the mass protests, police investigation, demands that he be fired, restrictions on his teaching and research, incessant denunciations in the press, and collegial shunning. Of any adequate explanation, the distinction between modes of discourse that Roberts and Sailer have set forth could properly form an important part.

In conclusion, three qualifiers

I conclude with suggestions of how the gift this little paper passes on is best used. Difference in mode of discourse is an important variable for explaining some mobbing episodes, not all, and even in the cases where it is relevant, its explanatory power depends on other conditions being present, too.

No university is neatly divided into practitioners of modern discourse on one side, proponents of postmodern discourse on the other. Every academic weaves the fabric of his or her own pedagogy and epistemology in a distinctive way. No professor is entirely modern or postmodern, and every professor shifts from one mode of discourse to the other, depending on topic, setting, mood, and many other factors. The proper unit of analysis in the study of mobbing is the social process, not the individuals involved. I would imagine, for instance, that biologist Nancy Hopkins at MIT generally practices rigorous, empirical, dispassionate, truly modern discourse in her classes. She is an accomplished scientist, a specialist in the genetics of zebrafish.

Yet on the occasion of Lawrence Summers’s now famous remarks, Hopkins appeared to lose her dispassion and to respond in a postmodern way; she seized it as an occasion to testify and demonize rather than debate. Or consider Alan Dershowitz’s leadership of the campaign to prevent Norman Finkelstein from getting tenure at DePaul University in 2007. Dershowitz’s reputation as a brilliant modern legal scholar is sterling, but Finkelstein’s criticisms of the Holocaust industry were more than Dershowitz could stomach. All academics have soft spots and blind spots. Everybody’s vision is blinkered in some way. The goal in research on mobbing is to explain the specific episode or case. Typecasting the participants detracts from this goal.

A second caveat is that how a mobbing episode plays out depends not just on the modes of discourse of target and mobbers, but on which mode of discourse is more firmly institutionalized in university policies and relevant legislation. What John Furedy called “velvet totalitarianism” in a 1997 article depends not just on numerous academics subscribing to the postmodern mode of discourse, but on the enforcement of its values and priorities by administrative authority, acting on the basis of written rules.

In Mason’s case at Queen’s, it mattered that the university had an “Educational Equity Policy” that seemed to support the postmodern priority on sensitivity and inoffensiveness. When the faculty handbook includes provisions that put the comfort of students ahead of intellectual rigour and freedom of speech, administrators need not themselves be caught up in a campaign to oust a targeted professor; all they have to do is behave like faithful bureaucrats and follow the faculty handbook.

That is why the organization called FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has pursued a long succession of court cases aimed at forcing colleges and universities to abandon speech codes and anti-harassment policies that infringe on freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. FIRE’s objective is to protect modern discourse in higher education by ensuring that it has institutional support.

Finally, a point made at the start of this paper bears repeating. It is in roughly half of the academic mobbing cases I have studied these past twenty years that the distinction between modern and postmodern discourse seems to have explanatory power. In the other half, it doesn’t.

Mobbing is a distinct, singular, momentous social process that can be triggered by any of numerous factors — whistleblowing, racial or religious prejudice, discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation, the arousal of envy on any number of grounds, even for being good-looking or multilingual. The distinction that Alastair Roberts described on his blog, that Steve Sailer summarized on his, and that I regifted for visitors to my website, is hugely important for making sense of many mobbing cases, but beside the point in many others.

To everyone, regardless of discipline or specialty, whether in academe or outside it, male or female, young or old, white, black, or purple, who is puzzled by the organizational pathology called mobbing and eager to deepen our understanding of it, I give thanks and best wishes for much success in 2013.


Editor’s Note: the preceding article is re-published with the kind permission of Professor Kenneth Westhues, and was originally titled “A USEFUL DISTINCTION REGIFTED” FOR CHRISTMAS 2012″.

The explanatory power of comparing modernist and postmodernist discourse is something with which, in the opinion of AVFM’s editorial board, all members of this human rights movement should acquaint themselves.


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