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Workplace Mobbing
November 11, 2008 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes, especially in winter, Kenneth Westhues can hear a flock of crows tormenting a great horned owl outside his study in Waterloo, Ontario. It is a fitting soundtrack for his work. Mr. Westhues has made a career out of the study of mobbing. Since the late 1990s, he has written or edited five volumes on the topic. However, the mobbers that most captivate him are not sparrows, fieldfares, or jackdaws. They are modern-day college professors.

Mobbing can be understood as the stressor to beat all stressors. It is an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker. Initiated most often by a person in a position of power or influence, mobbing is a desperate urge to crush and eliminate the target. The urge travels through the workplace like a virus, infecting one person after another. The target comes to be viewed as absolutely abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities, outside the circle of acceptance and respectability, deserving only of contempt. As the campaign proceeds, a steadily larger range of hostile ploys and communications comes to be seen as legitimate.

Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace
Mobbing and the Virginia Tech Massacre
Thirty-two academic mobbing cases since 2005.
See also the transcript of the chat that went along with that Chronicle article.
"Third and probably most important, stand with mobbing targets. In most healthy, productive, well-functioning departments and faculties, one can identify individuals who do not let colleagues get mobbed. Such individuals have the guts to say at crucial moments, 'Cut it out.' They are what researchers call 'guardians' of prospective targets. They are willing to be seen with a mobbing target and to speak up for him or her when that is a risky, unpopular thing to do."
And, in case you were wondering: Westhues has indeed been mobbed himself.
posted by parudox (58 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was a really fascinating read, parudox - excellent post!
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:29 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Yup. One of my favorite English professors was driven out by this very phenomenon, although this is the first time I've seen it analyzed or named. The mobbing in that case was spearheaded, or at least encouraged, by the president of the college, and ended with the professor's dismissal. Last I heard, though, he'd gotten a new professorship at a different college and was very happy there.

To this day, when the college calls me to beg for donations, I always ask "Is that bastard [President] still there?" When I get an answer in the affirmative, I say that they're not getting a cent out of me and hang up.
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:08 PM on November 11, 2008


Holy shit, the piece on the Va Tech shootings really puts a different spin on it.
posted by orthogonality at 2:09 PM on November 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


I think Henrik Ibsen knew something about this phenomenon.
posted by Alison at 2:09 PM on November 11, 2008


From the article, it sounds like this is a fairly well known phenomenon in academic circles.

Hopefully naming the problem will help stamp it out.

A business professor told me that a student called him and said that he was close to being fired. The claimed reason was that he didn't come to the office enough--but the truth was that he had won the sales department award only 6 months out of school, upstaging all the old timers.

Jealousy has its own logic.
posted by wires at 2:15 PM on November 11, 2008


It looks like Mr. Westhues counts the case of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers in with his list of academic mobbings. I've been waiting to hear this incident come up in the news, as Mr. Summers is a possible candidate for Treasury Secretary.
posted by Alison at 2:22 PM on November 11, 2008


Just to be the devil's advocate here, but on occasion this phenomenon of scapegoating and purging actually does force out somebody who is in fact disruptive, hostile, antagonistic, hateful, or just generally mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Social systems have these processes for a reason, though they're a weird mixture of the irrational and the rational. It can be a kind of contagious hysteria. But it's certainly not just a characteristic of academia; it happens everywhere, from high school to your local government office to your housing co-op to your workplace. It's a human thing, to purge the anxieties of the group.
posted by jokeefe at 2:27 PM on November 11, 2008 [6 favorites]


On preview, the Lawrence Summers case is one where there was, imo, reason for his leadership to be called into question.
posted by jokeefe at 2:28 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Huh. Sexism, much?
Most commentators were so focused on issues of sexual equality and brain chemistry that they overlooked what appears to the mobbing researcher as the basic reality: that the president of America's premier university was turfed by a fanatic, impassioned crowd, after he expressed his honest views politely, reasonably, on the basis of evidence, and with openness to further research.
A "fanatic, impassioned crowd"-- a hysterical mob of mostly women, I'm guessing he means? His remarks were hardly "politely, reasonably, [and] on the basis of evidence".
posted by jokeefe at 2:34 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


^^^

"hardly made"
posted by jokeefe at 2:35 PM on November 11, 2008


It seems to me that mobbing in the biological sense is a bunch of small animals ganging up on a predator, whereas this work-related sense of "mobbing" is more to do with a group of equals singling one of their number out for ostracism. For that reason alone I'd put Larry Summers in another category.
posted by uosuaq at 2:37 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


This happened to me in an art class where the teacher used it as a teaching technique. He encouraged the class to dislike and hate me. They would vandalize my sculptures and avoided me. What was so remarkable was how easy it was for him to do it. (I have forgotten what he did, but it was very subtle.) I responded by pouring my emotions in the next project, which was film. Thats what he wanted and the whole situation reversed itself and I became respected in the class and became his friend. I was incredibly mouthy and manic during this period and I think he knew I would respond creatively.
posted by JohnR at 2:41 PM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


a hysterical mob of mostly women, I'm guessing he means

Actually, you're not guessing, but rather setting up a fairly transparent strawman.
posted by signal at 2:51 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Every once in a while a post comes along on Metafilter that forces me to reanalyze my perception on a whole range of experiences, personal or otherwise. It does so because it empowers me with tools and knowledge to define something that was once nebulous and peripheral. This is one of those posts.

I have experienced mobbing, and I have seen it done to others. Most recently, to members of Metafilter who have been (arguably) unfairly ostracized for their beliefs, manner, etc. It makes me sick, yet at the same time, I now have a better understanding of how and why it happens, and in some cases that includes why it can't or shouldn't be helped.

I hope the post serves as an informative reminder that we're all just trying to be better people in the world. And if there are those of us who aren't, maybe we should spend a little extra energy helping them onto that path.

Also, mobbing reminds me of another alienation tactic called gaslighting.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:52 PM on November 11, 2008 [7 favorites]


Quite interesting reading here!

One could probably make an academic study of the effect of mobbing on the deletion of Metafilter posts.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:58 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


The article on Cho is fascinating.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:06 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


jokeefe writes "on occasion this phenomenon of scapegoating and purging actually does force out somebody who is in fact disruptive, hostile, antagonistic, hateful, or just generally mad, bad, and dangerous to know"

Like witches!

(Just snarking, you make an important point: the mechanism wouldnt likely have survived did it not serve a purpose, such as brining a group together. That said, group solidarity can be achieved by purging a truly bad element or just scapegoating a convenient innocent.)
posted by orthogonality at 3:06 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can think of some assholes who deserve a good mobbing.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:14 PM on November 11, 2008


JohnR writes "This happened to me in an art class where the teacher used it as a teaching technique. He encouraged the class to dislike and hate me. They would vandalize my sculptures and avoided me.... Thats what he wanted and the whole situation reversed itself and I became respected in the class and became his friend. I was incredibly mouthy and manic during this period and I think he knew I would respond creatively."

That's pretty fucking irresponsibly dangerous on his part. Situation could have escalated into violence way too easily, whether triggered by you or your tormentors. That sort of god-playing arrogant bastard shouldn't be teaching.

And now you're friends with a jerk who manipulated his (and your fellow) students into vandalizing your work? What happens the next time this guy decides rather than reasoning with you, he should manipulate you, or set others against you, to get the result he wants?

Guy sounds like a narcissistic megalomaniac. Get far away.
posted by orthogonality at 3:16 PM on November 11, 2008 [8 favorites]


I second the article on Cho. It brings up some very interesting points I did not know about.
posted by concreteforest at 3:17 PM on November 11, 2008


Not for nothing, but this post (linked in the original article on Cho's "mobbing" at VT) by a guy who claims he was marginalized in the same manner Cho was at Virginia Tech makes the author sound like, well, someone who would give me the creeps too.
posted by availablelight at 3:20 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


link here
posted by availablelight at 3:20 PM on November 11, 2008


I second the article on Cho. It brings up some very interesting points I did not know about.

I guess, but its premise is kind of a bullshitty one, frankly. I mean:

It was only after Cho committed his murders that observers discerned in him a murderous personal identity. This is like calling a substance dynamite after it explodes. If it could not be recognized as dynamite earlier, it may well have been something else, maybe a benign substance like garden fertilizer, sawdust, or ripening fruit, that detonated under an unusual combination of specific conditions.

So either Cho was subjected to psychological torture and humiliation so extreme that anyone in his situation would have suddenly decided to kill thirty-two people on a college campus -- which, as we all know, happens all the time -- or what he was subjected to wasn't necessarily any more or less grievous than what might be experienced by others, but he was so unusual in his ostensibly benign personal makeup that it resulted in him becoming a mass murderer. The first possibility seems unlikely, given the facts as presented. The second possibility, I'm sorry, just moves him over from the "character defect" column to the "special snowflake" column -- he was so sensitive that he just had to kill thirty-two people.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:33 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Huh, I never would have thought to use the term 'mobbing' to describe that behavior in people, but it makes great sense.

Off topic, but a couple of years ago I saw a couple of hundred crows mobbing a hawk or falcon that had stolen a chick. It was nothing short of astonishing to see and hear that many birds acting in concert. People were coming out of their houses to see what was making that much noise, and we all just stood, kind of dumbfounded, staring up at this giant black mass darting from one yard to the next.

So in short: Birds mobbing = neat. People mobbing = suck.
posted by quin at 3:37 PM on November 11, 2008


The Cho article is beyond belief, actually-- by which I mean that I have a very hard time seeing that the following could be taken seriously as any kind of academic analysis. In sum: if a girl had just been nicer to him, it might not have been the final straw that led him to kill a bunch of people over a year later:
To make matters worse, he got a severe putdown in his student residence in late 2005, in the midst of his humiliation in the English Department. In what was presumably a clumsy romantic overture, Cho sent anonymous electronic messages to a fellow resident, a girl he had met through his suitemates. [...] Suspecting who had written them, the girl wrote back, asking if the sender was Cho. He answered, "I do not know who I am." Then, in early December, he left on the whiteboard outside this girl's room the poignant words of Shakespeare's Romeo. [...] The quote must have captured better than any others Cho had come across in his literary studies his feeling of desolation and unworthiness of the girl's affections. He knew she knew who he was, but he was too scared to say so. Still, like Romeo, he dared to hope she would reciprocate his interest in her. Otherwise he would not have left her Shakespeare's words. He was making himself vulnerable, taking the risk of human connection — the only thing that keeps anyone from going mad.

The young woman was frightened. She consulted her father, who consulted a friend of his, a small-town chief of police. The latter advised contacting the Virginia Tech campus police. The upshot was that a campus police officer met with Cho on December 13, 2005, and forbade him to have further contact with the young woman.

Later that same day, Cho text-messaged a suitemate saying he might as well kill himself. The suitemate contacted campus police, who took Cho in for questioning that evening, had him assessed by a social worker, then had him committed involuntarily to a psychiatric bed in nearby Christiansburg. He was held there overnight.

Early the next morning, December 14, Cho was assessed first by a clinical psychologist, then by a psychiatrist, then brought before a special justice of the county circuit court, who ruled that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness." [...] Cho had nothing further to do with police or mental-health authorities, not even when he committed his crimes fifteen months later; Cho killed himself as police moved in.

There is no evidence that Cho’s overtures toward the girl in residence were unfriendly or threatening. They were odd, but so are many romantic overtures by young people. If his and the girl’s attraction had been mutual, their relationship might have offset Cho’s humiliation in the English Department, and eased his depression. Even if the girl had declined his advances gently and personally, her rejection might not have cut so deeply.
posted by jokeefe at 3:57 PM on November 11, 2008 [6 favorites]


Admittedly, my well has been poisoned on this particular topic given that I recently read a half page, tiny type batshit advertisement on the subject of "mobbing" in the local alt-weekly (I can't find it online) so maybe that's why this guy sounds like a crank to me. That said - the Cho article is ridiculous. People found him frightening and wanted to avoid him - but their instincts weren't vindicated when he committed mass murder - no, it's their *fault*. Cho was mentally ill and had been diagnosed as such since middle school. Let's not blame the college poetry teacher or the girl who got freaked out when they guy who had previously stabbed the floor of her dorm room with a knife (see the official report cited by the essay) progressed from anonymous IMs to writing on her whiteboard.
posted by moxiedoll at 3:57 PM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


Orthogonality...... This was the sixties and he was a genius Jewish artist from Brooklyn. In the sixties chance taking was viewed very differently than today. It was an age where nothing was too risky. You are right that this would be unacceptable now.
posted by JohnR at 4:09 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I just read a relevant article by a fellow linguistics graduate student. The paper was about Scott Dyleski, the man accused and convicted of murdering Pamela Vitale (it was a high-profile case; Vitale was the wife of famous defense attorney Daniel Horowitz). What was so interesting about this article was that it showed six mechanisms by which the media demonized goth culture. Dyleski was guilty before he was even tried. In effect, he was mobbed. And the mischaracterization of goth culture provided justification for his 'evil and dark' behavior. What is doubly interesting about this case is the synecdoche here. There is a crossover between the people who represent the groups they belong to and vice versa. While individual people mobbed Dysleski, institutions such as the media essentially mobbed an entire social group, namely, goths. And sadly, this type of thing happens all the the time.

This whole post has sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts about how people and groups use language to marginalize and mob others. I've noticed it often in reading Metafilter...even the simple use of pronous (we, us vs. them, her and she, it) or the shifting of blame and agency through language is quite revealing. One thing that isn't mentioned so much in the articles above is how mobbing behavior is a mechanism for establishing distance and solidarity. The human need to belong has strange effects on people, and definitely influences behavior and language. It's pretty fascinating, especially the subtler and more indirect manifestations, which could probably be teased apart at the most micro and dare I say, meta, levels. I bet Mefi, like any group of people engaged in activity, shows 'mob-like' patterns in flagging, favoriting, thread trends, you name it. It's part of how we build social hierarchy, which is something we silly humans incessantly index over and over.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:13 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


So either Cho was subjected to psychological torture and humiliation so extreme that anyone in his situation would have suddenly decided to kill thirty-two people on a college campus -- which, as we all know, happens all the time -- or what he was subjected to wasn't necessarily any more or less grievous than what might be experienced by others, but he was so unusual in his ostensibly benign personal makeup that it resulted in him becoming a mass murderer. The first possibility seems unlikely, given the facts as presented. The second possibility, I'm sorry, just moves him over from the "character defect" column to the "special snowflake" column -- he was so sensitive that he just had to kill thirty-two people.

Remember an explanation is not an excuse but it may lead to a cure or at least a vaccine. Shouting evil over and over just makes you a baptist.
posted by srboisvert at 4:13 PM on November 11, 2008 [6 favorites]


I just came across a blog about this very topic, with someone's personal experiences on the matter.
posted by evilshell at 4:31 PM on November 11, 2008


This happened to me in an art class where the teacher used it as a teaching technique.

Apparantly Gordon Lish used it on everyone as a teaching technique.

But I'm guessing that it was not generosity of spirit and a love of other people's art that that got him and your teacher practice this form of jackasshood. Probably just jackasses. Surprised no one got him fired - or was it old man tenure again?
posted by IndigoJones at 4:50 PM on November 11, 2008


There is no evidence that Cho’s overtures toward the girl in residence were unfriendly or threatening. They were odd, but so are many romantic overtures by young people. If his and the girl’s attraction had been mutual, their relationship might have offset Cho’s humiliation in the English Department, and eased his depression. Even if the girl had declined his advances gently and personally, her rejection might not have cut so deeply.

I have to highlight how wrong this is. The man killed 32 people, and she's the one to blame for listening to her instincts and not saving him with Teh Power of Love? Jesus Christ. The Gift of Fear puts it well; if you feel something is "off" about someone, listen to that feeling.

I'm not sure "mobbing" is a precise enough definition to use for humans, instead of birds. Human motivations for group rejection of another person can be complex. They can also cruel and misguided or an attempt to prevent harm from a perceived threat.

I think what's interesting in the analysis is that it seems to happen in job situations with little worker mobility--where it's hard to transfer out of the bad situation, which means it escalates. As in schools, where you're stuck there, for the most part.

I wonder if it's not related to the instincts that makes, say, pigs and chickens injure each other when they're too confined, or a reaction to a feeling of helplessness to change the situation, exacerbated by a feeling that to give in and leave is to let the bastard(s) win.

Is mobbing different from shunning, for example? I have been in workplaces where a hated coworker was shunned because, for whatever reason, the boss wouldn't fire them. But not to the point of violence or destructive actions.
posted by emjaybee at 5:14 PM on November 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


I guess my point about the article on Cho was more that I had not been aware of "elective mutism" or some of other details that were brought up in the essay. I see your point on it kind of shoehorning Cho's mental state to fit the author's thesis on mobbing.

Basically it made me feel sympathetic about Cho's circumstances. To be clear: I am not saying that the victims or anyone else except Cho was responsible for what he did, but it provided some context on what kinds of pressures may have caused him to break.

It could be all still be bullshit though. We'll never really know. Maybe it's appealing to me because I can identify with being the odd man out in social situations (I think we all are at one point or another). I'll have to read a bit more about VT to be balanced as I do not know many of the details.
posted by concreteforest at 5:38 PM on November 11, 2008


Remember an explanation is not an excuse but it may lead to a cure or at least a vaccine. Shouting evil over and over just makes you a baptist.

What you said makes no sense as a response to the actual passage you quoted. Please try and use someone else as a strawman for your argument, whatever it is.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:43 PM on November 11, 2008


(Yes, I know I just mangled the term "strawman" out of shape. You guys: I'M A REBEL)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:50 PM on November 11, 2008


You guys: I'M A REBEL

Don't you mean I'M A MAVERICK? Or is that passé?
posted by signal at 6:04 PM on November 11, 2008


jokeefe, I don't think the issue is as clear-cut as you suppose. In particular, I think you're drawing a pretty strong dichotomy between "evil sociopath" and "helpless victim of circumstance" in the case of the Virginia Tech guy. Many people who endure provocations that are nearly universally condemned — I'm thinking, for example, of people in abusive relationships — don't resort to murder, but I don't think that makes those who do congenital killers whose inherent mental defects would have manifested in violence regardless of circumstance. People have different breaking points. The Book of Job is a fairy tale — there's a continuum of provocation and a continuum of sensitivity to and tolerance for provocation, and while it makes us feel better to think "he's nothing like me," I think that's true more in degree than in kind. We draw lines based on how much we ourselves can take before we snap, but these are necessarily approximations.

None of which, incidentally, is intended to condemn the girl who was scared by Cho's creepy and obsessive behavior. That particular episode seems to me (going by the link here, as I didn't follow the incident much when it happened) to be a series of reasonable and understandable actions by third parties resulting in an outcome that Cho saw (also understandably) as entirely unreasonable and disproportionate.

if you feel something is "off" about someone, listen to that feeling.

A whole shitload of wars have been fought based on that philosophy. Examine, then listen to, that feeling.
posted by enn at 6:14 PM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


But perhaps the most common single trait of mobbing targets, he says, is that they excel.

I too, got mobbed... for being a genius! And now I invented a doomsday machine!
Ah, who am I kidding about the doomsday machine. They won. /rolls joint
posted by yoHighness at 7:35 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Excellent post! wow. I've been looking for this information for years. Tears of thanks came to my eyes looking through this site. Thank you, thank you parudox!

This topic is of intense interest to me as it relates to mobbing triggered by a pathological narcissist, the serial bully who gathers an abuse-support-network, which then scapegoats a target or targets.

Now that to use the word conspiracy means a person loses all credibility, and pathetically becomes the target of ridicule, it's a relief there is a socially accepted relatively fresh term, so far free of the stigma of conspiracy.

I look forward to offering this wonderful resource to my online recovery group for Adult Children of Narcissists. This is because mobbing routinely occurs in a family system with a pathological narcissist or sociopath at the head, in which It's Us or Them (the Enemy) is a routine emotional game employed as a matter of course in the simplest of situations.

I love that Kenneth Westhues, the creator of this site and author of a good part of the content, offers a list of movies and novels which depict mobbing. He also offers a treasure trove of additional links in his Insightful External Sites.

Prior to this post, the best article I'd found on the web in 8 years of looking for answers for the dynamics of what I now, thanks to your post, can call mobbing was this one:

The Roots of Violence: Converging Psychoanalytic Explanatory Models for Power Struggles and Violence in Schools by Stuart Twemlow

What is insightful and practically informative, imo, is his study of "the role-dependent
way in which the bully interacts with the victim, influenced by the socially and personally defined roles of others in the surrounding environment"

The triad of bully-victim-bystander

Twemlow has written other stuff that I would love to read but only the abstracts are avaialble: The Role of the Bystander in the Social Architecture of Bullying and Violence in Schools and Communities

Just came across this substantial article, glad to see more on the net than was a couple of years ago: Social network predictors of bullying and victimization

Mobbing is very pertinent to the Rovian bullying imposed on the hundreds of millions of US citizens in the last 8 years and the global financial collapse just now. Related essay:
The Impact of Narcissism on Leadership and Sustainability.

Have to hit the hay but would like to thank you once again for this great post.
posted by nickyskye at 8:15 PM on November 11, 2008 [7 favorites]


If you excuse this additional anecdote.
During my exchange year, way back in Bristol, UK, I was staying in this house with 7 other students. Despite being the "odd one out", there was one other person in the house who acted a LOT weirder than me. Apparently she'd been in one of the school shootings (I think in Columbine), and her trauma / resulting neurosis caused her some NASTY behaviour towards people in the house. Or maybe she was just a twat; probably both. Anyway, things came to a head one night and the house members had a clandestine meeting to decide what to do with her. I - oddly, for once, IN the group - was expecting the torches to come out any second... instead, the other housemates made plans towards defusing the situation and have peace for everybody in the house for the rest of the term. They worked. I'd never expected this to go like it did.

Some people in this thread make it sound like there is a "natural" side to mobbing, which comes across as "inevitable" (to me). I don't like this, or the narrowing on the specifics of the VTech massacre in this thread. There's millions of people (google some statistics) being mobbed in the workplace all over the world. Not just mavericks who show people their own mediocrity, making them hurt and eventually gang up (as the Chronicle article says), or oddballs who happen to get guns after being socially tortured. I bet a bunch of you have anecdotes from any of the involved angles (Target, Instigator, Follower, Bystander, "Guardian Angel" etc).
posted by yoHighness at 8:32 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Can't go to sleep unless I respond to a few comments in this thread.

Mobbing includes the meaning of a group dynamic. But there are lots of groups dynamic. There is nothing inherently wrong with groups or group dynamics. Not just humans but almost all living creatures form groups for survival, community, for fun, play, for building, creating families, from ant to artist colonies groups are great, needed and a way to learn, to evolve together. There is group appraisal, approval and disapproval. Like minded people gather together and invite their own kind to join, rejecting others. All this is part of a routine and basically healthy group dynamic. It's no fun to be rejected but it's not inherently life threatening unless the rejecting is a form of scapegoating.

And then there is mobbing, which is a specific type of ganging up, with destructive, corrupt, aggressive, sadistic, abusive strategies, undermining the existence of the one being scapegoated. all humans are able to one degree or another to experience projection, projecting our own feelings onto others so if another has a cut on their hand we feel the pain. Mirror neurons in the brain are there just for that purpose, empathy and connection. But for various reasons people can go into a group state where split off feelings of hate, shame, rage, are projected onto a scapegoat. And the scapegoat is punished for being perceived as an embodiment of those split off feelings.

I do not think there is anything healthy or good about ganging up as a concept that something can be purged by eliminating, crushing, killing a scapegoat. Scapegoating may be an ancient shamanic or tribal custom but so is cannibalism or human sacrifice. Just because it's old doesn't mean it's good, sane or effective.

jokeefe, I totally agree with you about the Cho article. Cho was a mass murderer. Some girl placating him for a few weeks or months, instead of following her intuition (which was totally correct!) that he was a danger and scary would not, imo, have prevented anything and that article is SCAPEGOATING her! In effect blaming her for the mass murder! the article implies that if only she had been this sweet, soft, pliable soothing mother figure, forsaking her safety, pleasure and interest and just placated this unhinged, enraged ill person, nothing would have happened, she could have magically saved this deranged man, when psychiatrists could not. She was wrong wrong wrong to think of her own safety! How dare she say no to Cho!

That article is infuriating!

if you feel something is "off" about someone, listen to that feeling.

A whole shitload of wars have been fought based on that philosophy. Examine, then listen to, that feeling.


enn, observing one's gut feelings that a person is 'off', being aware and awake to one's intuition is an extremely important survival need. It is not about prejudice, about judging intellectually. Wars are not ever, as far as I know, fought because a person had an intuition about anybody.

Wars are fought for very different reasons. Generally "War is an international relations dispute, characterized by organized violence between national military units." not fought because a person intuited that Stalin was a psychopath who would slaughter 40 million people and stay away.

As a matter of fact, if people were more in tune with the personality disorders of politicians or military leaders, more cautious, I think it's highly likely there would be less war, not more, because a war cannot be instigated without an army being convinced to wage it and taxpayers convinced to pay for it. War is a death cult of sorts in which the enemy is temporarily scapegoated, dehumanized and killed, usually at the instigation of a political or military sociopath, sanitized as necessary for national security.

People can have breaking points, be exasperated, freak out but not commit MASS MURDER. People who commit mass murder are not just freaking out. It's beyond that. Cho had a knife, stabbed the floor of this girl BEFORE she said no. He had a history of illness. Who was to blame were the authorities who let him out after he had stalked this girl and intimidated her, even depicting his hollow core with that poem. Those are classic Borderline Personality Disorder traits any trained professional in a mental facility should know, like the one he was in before they let him go to wreak havoc.

Anyway, I've got to get to sleep, am cross-eyed by now but so excited these topics are being examined on the blue.

parudox, I see from your profile that you're a psych student. Is this mobbing thing a field of interest to you? And did I say thank you for this great post? Thank you! :)
posted by nickyskye at 8:38 PM on November 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


A flock of crows? Shame to waste such a great collective noun.

Interesting topic. Have to read more.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:06 PM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


On getting back out of bed again in order to write "On preview, what nickskye said": What nickskye said in both posts. I am especially grateful for your split: group disapproval != scapegoating, and your treasure trove of links!
posted by yoHighness at 9:16 PM on November 11, 2008


nickyskye: I'm glad you found the post useful. Actually, I'm only starting to learn about mobbing (this isn't my field or anything). A couple of years ago, when I started university, I read about different influential people who are or have been associated with my school. I came across the fact that a particular well-known mathematician had been a prof at this school. In trying to figure out why that was a "had been", I found that he had been forced out under strange circumstances. That's how I came across Westhues' work. (The post itself was prompted by a recent lecture on the subject.)
posted by parudox at 9:18 PM on November 11, 2008


Regarding the Cho discussion, this is how I see it:

Behaviour is an interaction between the person and the situation. And psychopathological variables are generally better described as dimensions rather than categories. I suspect most people who are high on the likeliness-to-go-postal dimension do not actually do it. So I think it is rather important to understand the situational influences on someone high on this dimension. (Presumably there are cases at the extreme end of the dimension, and the situational influence there isn't as important. Similarly the situational influence isn't as important for those low on the dimension.)

Precisely because we know now he was capable of it, we should pay attention to what exactly set him off.
posted by parudox at 10:12 PM on November 11, 2008


The VT issue is really tangential here, though.
posted by parudox at 10:24 PM on November 11, 2008


What you said makes no sense as a response to the actual passage you quoted. Please try and use someone else as a strawman for your argument, whatever it is.

You create a false dichotomy in order to pass moral judgements and then accuse me of creating a strawman? You're richer than a hedge fund with shorts on volkswagon complaining about ethics violations.
posted by srboisvert at 11:51 PM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


The term "mobbing," applied to people, is new to me. I've always thought of it as a form of bullying, with a small number of active attackers and a majority of people standing by and allowing it to happen. But anyone who has spent time in academia can easily tick off examples of this -- sometimes it is a way of getting rid of a scary weirdo, but mostly it is just an unpleasant exercise of power.

The Cho piece, though, is outstandingly stupid. There are some interesting details that were new to me, but blaming the girl for asking for help when she felt threatened? Labeling the mental health intervention as mobbing?

I've had students before come in with letters from the disabilities services office saying "this student cannot be expected to take part in oral participation," and they simply do their participation via email, paper writing, or some other way of demonstrating engagement with the class discussion. It's not a big deal, and there is a structure to deal with it. It may well be that the university failed Cho by not connecting him with the kinds of support he needed, but he also failed himself, and demonstrated such sustained inability to make things work at the school that I wonder if he should have been asked to leave much earlier. Higher education is a nice thing, but it's not the right place for every single person at every moment.

My sense is that this author has found his hammer, and now everything looks like a nail. But mobbing is not a one-size-fits-all problem; some of the cases he picks don't really apply to his model; and there is a social function of mobbing that is positive in addition to the negative impacts he describes.
posted by Forktine at 2:00 AM on November 12, 2008


It looks like this author needs to clarify his definitions and as Forktine says, stop using it is a hammer for everything. We have this relatively clear natural phenomenon of a group of animals ganging up on a predator (a murder of crows v the hawk). The obvious analogy is that a group of humans gang up on a dominant (predatory) individual, i.e. a bully. So it's very important to distinguish mobbing from bullying, whether the bullying is done collectively or not, because it could be precisely the opposite sort of thing. For instance, a good movie to demonstrate mobbing is not Carrie (who was completely harmless to start with) but It's a Wonderful Life!

So it looks like the application of the concept to Cho is valid, if he was a predatory individual and people then ostracized him. Also, if a 'high achiever' can be interpreted as threatening to others in the group, then perhaps we can extend the concept to a situation where people gang up on the high achiever. But you would need clear signs that the group feels a threat from this individual. Meanwhile cases of collective bullying or scapegoating are just a different sort of group dynamic, though they may be related.

Good post btw.
posted by leibniz at 2:59 AM on November 12, 2008


You create a false dichotomy in order to pass moral judgements and then accuse me of creating a strawman? You're richer than a hedge fund with shorts on volkswagon complaining about ethics violations.

Uh, I don't know if you're drunk-posting over here or, like, what, but I think I'm done talking to you now.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:47 AM on November 12, 2008


I've seen mobbing in academic circles, it is one of the reasons I chose not to pursue my PhD, because I couldn't envision spending 40 years in an environment that closed and clique-y. That said; I've also seen a "reverse mob", whereby someone really needs to be removed from having interaction with the student body, but was absolutely protected by the mob, to the detriment of the students.

As to the Cho case, it certainly sounds like the professors who humiliated a shy student should be forced out of academia and into the real world. See how well you fair out there, Ms. Loudmouth.

But, outside of academia, I've seen similar things happen in real life, and indeed on the Blue. Some of our more brilliant dissenting voices have been driven away, some of our average joe dissenters have also been driven away.

I hereby claim responsibility for my part when it comes to Konolia. She and I have disagreed on many, many things in the last 6+ years. I think she's wrong, she thinks I'm wrong. There is nothing that can convince me that her perspective on some topics is anything but deliberate blinders, and I cannot speak for her, but I'm sure she sees my defense of things she considers indefensible to be bewildering and morally and ethically incomprehensible.

All that said; we didn't have the right to drive her away from a community where she's been a member for most of the 21st century. I offer my apologies for things that were said during the run up to the election; both things I may have said, and things I implicitly allowed to be said without objection. It was wrong, it was inexcusable, and I apologize.
posted by dejah420 at 8:14 AM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


A central feature of mobbing in the animal kingdom is that the animal participants are acting in concert. It's not one crow diving in, then another crow flapping along some time later and deciding to peck away at the same animal. That is simply not what a mob is.

In Cho's case, the young woman who was rightfully frightened by his psychotic behavior was not acting in concert with his instructors. Was she even aware that Cho's professors did not favor him? She was responding to an individual with a history of violence who was at first sending her anonymous emails. She asked Cho directly if he were the one writing her, and he refused to admit it. He escalated to writing on her door. And her fears were scarcely unfounded; the man was a psychopath.

"He was making himself vulnerable, taking the risk of human connection — the only thing that keeps anyone from going mad." Oh, for crying out loud. Sending a woman anonymous letters and anonymously writing on the door of her residence does not make you vulnerable, although it sure makes your addressee feel so.

Stalking is not a "clumsy romantic overture." It's stalking. The intimation that if only the target had addressed her besotted stalker "gently and personally," his victims might still be among the living... I can't even finish this sentence. It's terrible that this degree of victim-blaming appeared in an academic publication. Grossly irresponsible given the imputed advice to current and future stalking victims.
posted by cirocco at 9:03 AM on November 12, 2008 [9 favorites]


omg, this is soo not fair! I have to go to work now and there is so much on this thread I want to talk about.

parudox, interesting story how you came to post this. Thanks for sharing that. A dear friend of mine in Wales was scapegoated out of teaching, almost destroyed her life. She was the victim of mobbing.

Now mobbing is not the same as a hunting party. In hunting people work as a team, with an open, mutually agreed on agenda to kill an animal for food, it's part of survival, hunting parties. Or as soldiers to kill the enemy.

Mobbing is not a group defense against an attacker either, like a group of animals attacking a predator.

There can be mobs who act or react like a bunch of fish, herd instinct, driven by panic, celebration, fear, sudden rage.

Mobbing is an act of bullying. It's a type of oppression/aggression by a bully, a group which acts as a mass bully, almost always with a covert agenda for why the oppression is taking place. The victim of the bullying is usually the opposite of a threat. They are usually perceived as WEAK, as DEFENSELESS and blamed as despicable for being that. but somehow this weakness is blown up by the bully-mob as an outrage.

And you are right in saying there is an opposite of bullying, in which a malicious, toxic person gathers around them a defense mob to prevent being ejected from a group, which suffers from having this toxic person. Usually this person, in my experience, is a pathological narcissist. Once inside the group, they work to create massive mischief, divisiveness, wedging, secrecy, games of all kinds, smear campaigns.

*looking desperately at the clock. damn, have to go! DRAT!

dejah420, you just blew my mind with your beautiful and awesome apology. Please may I forward it to konolia? Or would you? You probably know I stood up for konolia in MetaChat. I didn't like what I perceived as the mobbing she was receiving. And I think it was mobbing. There and here. MetaTalk is a better place to discuss this most likely but since this thread is about mobbing, this is also a good place.

Thank you for having the balls, the guts and the spine for saying what you did. I really respect you for that. And feel love for you for it.

Gotta leave for work. Dang, this offline life really is inconvenient at times.
posted by nickyskye at 10:53 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


PS this is why Obama "reaching across the aisle" is not merely some kind of trite thing. It's a significant deal. It defuses mobbing.
posted by nickyskye at 10:55 AM on November 12, 2008


"The Gift of Fear puts it well; if you feel something is "off" about someone, listen to that feeling. "

Along with this advice, my takeaway from the book was that things like restraining orders, and siccing the authorities on someone preemptively are more likely to escalate the problem.

"One could probably make an academic study of the effect of mobbing on the deletion of Metafilter posts."

The "piling-on" that occurs in many metatalk threads, esp. when the poster is challenging the mods sometimes seems like mobbing in miniature. The instinct for this behavior might be behind something I've noticed for a while: the use of favorites to "down-mod". Even though metafilter has only enabled "warm fuzzies" in the form of favorites and best answers, the human need to dish out "cold pricklies" is so strong that a good deal of favorited replies are relatively content-free insults to prior posters.
posted by Manjusri at 9:15 AM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


By the way, I contacted Prof. Westhues mentioning this post, and he replied saying he found the discussion in this thread thoughtful and stimulating - I hope he won't mind if I pass this on! Go Metafilter!
posted by yoHighness at 9:04 AM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


yoHighness (love your username), how cool you contacted Westhues.

Tim Field, who died a about two years ago of cancer, created a phenomenal website, named BullyOnline. A superb resource that has had a global, political, administrative impact in the few short years it has been online. After his death the website went down and was only readable via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. I lost hope the site would return and stopped looking there for updates after a year of its demise.

I looked for the url just now and hey presto, it's up again! It did a Lazarus. YAY!

So here it is: BullyOnline. Now there is a definition of mobbing as well. that is fascinating reading. I wonder what Westhues thinks of that definition?

There is a page of international links in numerous languages regarding mobbing on that site as well with an online support group for people who have experienced/are experiencing mobbing.

Really interesting reading about the elements that go into mobbing with the Wannabe types, puppet mastered by a behind the scenes bully. Dang if that doesn't remind me of BushCo, rove, Cheney and what we've all endured the last 8 years.

Thanks for looking up Westhues, yoHighness.

Kenneth Westhues, if you're reading this, bravo for creating and pioneering a very necessary site. I did not agree with you at all about the young woman's role in Cho's mass murder but I really appreciate the work you are doing and think it will be of great support to many people. Why not plonk down 5 bucks and come and hang out/play with us on MetaFilter? I think you'd like it.
posted by nickyskye at 3:36 PM on November 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


For a number of years I've been aesthetically interested in the movement of birds and fish moving in synch.

Now I've just learned there are terms for this: flocking and schooling, which has led me on a learning exploration. Some of the elements are: Swarming l The Mind of the Swarm l the mechanosensory organ in trout skin connected with schooling movement l patterns of social networking l Self Organizing Social Structures and an odd tangent morphic resonance.

Assorted pieces of a mosaic in trying to get a handle on what happens in a mob, in mob-think how negative emotion spreads.
posted by nickyskye at 7:53 PM on November 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


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