How academics get away with bullying

Something struck me the other day about the nature of academic ethics in New Zealand and some of the people who flourish by exploiting the conceits of that subculture. Check out these two stories – both are true.

Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!
Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!

1. A few months ago a gang member arrived in a Blenheim KFC where he saw a kid of about fifteen, wearing a school sports uniform. The uniform had the same colours as the ones used by a rival gang to assert themselves and their territory. So what does this drunken thug do? He gets angry, harangues the poor kid, punches him to the ground, breaks his nose and teeth, and tells him he deserved it. The kid had done nothing. The outcome? The gang member got a year in jail, and too right. It was an ugly crime.

2. My experience of the local intellectual/academic world has come through writing books on my own merits and enterprise, where the sole return is from commercial sales. Some of my books intrude into territories owned by various local intellectual-academic in crowds. So what do some of these academics do? They get instantly angry, harangue me in book reviews, and assault my repute via the media, all without once introducing themselves or approaching me in civil manner. The outcome? I get told it’s my fault for writing in their field, they insist I have no right to defend myself because of their status, although they have no compunction about publishing flat-out lies about my alleged personal and professional conduct, or asserting flat statements about what ‘I think’ – even when I have never made such statements and am on record as stating the opposite. I have, in my files, multiple examples published by NZBooks, our only academic review magazine.  I use myself as an example here, but I am far from the only one to receive such treatment. And if I object to this sort of behaviour, that’s used as an excuse to abuse me too. Or they just cower behind intellectualised waffle.

I pay for all these behaviours through my taxes – variously the cost of the prison sentence meted out to the gang member, or salaries paid to the academics who lack the integrity to approach me directly and who cower behind asserted status or the fiction of ‘review’ in order to avoid the consequences of their conduct.

To me there’s no moral distinction between physically attacking strangers, or doing so through the intellectual pretensions of the academy – it’s all indicative of a moral void, and it’s ape behaviour. Chimps do the same thing. It speaks volumes about how the people doing it validate themselves. Whether it’s done through fists or via the artifice of intellectual structure makes no difference to the intent. And yet there is a fundamental practical difference: the guy who uses his fists is duly caught and sentenced. The ones who do it through intellectual constructs get away with it scot-free.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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22 thoughts on “How academics get away with bullying

  1. You can’t expect anything else from hairless apes, Matthew – Aggressive, noisy reaction to express disapproval, annoyance or fear, is the default setting in our DNA – hence my belief that Homo Sapiens actively destroyed all the other male human species, then enslaved and satisfied their base desires on the females – hence the bits of Neanderthal, Devonian, etc, DNA mixed in with ours 😡

    1. The behaviour is definitely fundamental to the human condition. Possibly it was a survival mechanism in the hunter-gatherer era where bands of us were around 150. As a species we innately favoured ‘our’ group over ‘theirs’ and had ways of mentally dehumanising ‘them’. We still do it, but it’s been translated into our complex and large society where it doesn’t work. Damn. I suspect the other human species did much the same within themselves – though if they’d survived I doubt the world would be much different, because of the way the ‘us vs them’ psychology is translated so easily into ANY distinction between groups, even down to interest in subject matter.

      A few weeks back I actually had one of these academics on about something he’d alleged about me in print – a flat statement about that ‘I think’ which was the actual reverse of what I’m on record as stating. What I got back was a long tract of intellectualised waffle basically insisting he was right despite the facts, denied that I could possibly be offended by his judgement of me (in ignorance of me as a person) and then told me he wouldn’t answer anything more. It was pretty gutless – I mean, if he’d said ‘sorry mate, I got it wrong – and I apologise’, I’d have happily accepted it. But noooo, he had to save his intellectual face – as far as he was concerned – by invalidating my right to object to his intellectualised fantasies about me, didn’t he. It did nothing to earn my respect of his integrity as a person. I suspect it would be churlish to publish the correspondence, but honestly…

      1. He sounds like a Politician to me, Matthew – Got his thoughts stuck in a particular rut and can’t find any way out, so repeats what is blatantly wrong or inane (our UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is an iconic example) 😳

        1. Have to say we’ve been following the UK elections from over here with interest – our own is coming up in three months and the gap between what polls show, and what actually comes out, has been pretty evident both in the US and in the UK. Makes life interesting.

          In the case of the academic I tussled with, what got me was that he had no apparent concept that there was anything other than his over-intellectualised judgement – which was actually a reflection of a specific academic philosophy. I got the impression he validated himself and filtered everything through that intellectualised lens, a deeply ivory-tower view that academics get, all quite disconnected from the practical everyday world. But of course he was one of the ‘…and poet’ academics – you know, the kind who define themselves by adding pretentious literary tags as descriptors after their names. I know this goes down well in certain in-crowds and literary circles, but I never did think much of this sort of intellectualised onanism. It’s why I never went for an academic career after finishing my thesis – I got a proper job in the real world instead – and why I don’t tag myself with anything. I just write stuff…

  2. Well said, Matthew! I have dealt with both groups on a regular basis, Thugs and Academics. The only difference being that the thugs are out there in the real world, not the protected ivory castles of Academia. Long may you continue to write!

  3. Oh, Matthew. I am sorry you are once again dealing with this. Your body of work is impressive, read by many, and ultimately does (and will continue) to refute this man’s lack of integrity as well as his faulty scholarship. That said, it hurts and frustrates in the meantime. It may be “churlish to publish the correspondence” or these days, maybe it isn’t. Honestly, I don’t know anymore. The world seems upside down and this sort of thing is shockingly prevalent. Always, my best to you.

    1. Hi Karen, thanks for your kind thoughts. These things happen. Usually I ignore them, but something came up that suggested I should follow this one up – his allegations are still live and downloadable (as are many others published about me by the local academic community). I got basically blown off by him – which to me underscores the ethics I’m dealing with – but as far as I’m concerned that’s his problem, and it doesn’t speak much for his calibre as a person, or the general integrity of the sub-culture he floats in. I expect it’s the same in the US, though the issue here is that any given field is so miniscule it’s too easy to trip over its self-appointed leaders and gate guards, or be targeted by people who assuage their insecurities by drawing on the cloak of academic pretension and then cowering behind it when challenged. Engaging with them is very much a hiding to nothing – they are very skilled at invalidation – and to my mind such conduct merely underscores the ethical emptiness of their conduct.

      But maybe they have different values. If you have a look at what a local critic wrote a while back, sponsored by Wellington’s largest independent bookshop, it’s apparently necessary for reviewers to be malicious assholes – only by being nasty can they show how strong they are as people – and if I stick my head up and reasonably object to being factually misrepresented by such people, well, I’m the one who’s weak (he actually named me!): https://thespinoff.co.nz/featured/23-03-2016/why-are-so-many-new-zealand-book-reviewers-so-gutless/ Of course this is pure bully culture, plain and simple.

      The review Sharp invokes is here – the book I wrote, ‘Old South’, was in process of being turned into a multi-part TV series when the funding fell over, and another review openly compared my purpose to that of Tolstoy. Of course, NZBooks did give it to the last person to write on the same subject in order to get a judgement. I slightly know the editor of NZBooks – he’s an English professor and an old friend of my family – but I have never met the reviewer, Eldred-Grigg (a university academic) and have no idea why I drew his malice. Curiously, a review I wrote of one of Eldred-Grigg’s books was effusive and later used as promotional material for his benefit. Here’s what Eldred-Grigg said about me in return: https://nzbooks.org.nz/2010/non-fiction/drawing-room-stories-stevan-eldred-grigg/ – to Sharp, this is apparently ‘dutiful’. To me it looks like a childish tantrum, particularly the name-calling at the end.

      I reasonably object to being the whipping boy for insecure academics, or targeted by assholes who seem to think being bastards is the only way to show strength. I haven’t approached Sharp to see whether he’s got the guts to repeat his words about me to my face. Why validate people who apparently take pride in being assholes? And for my part, I’m going to keep writing anyway!

      1. Why validate them, indeed. 😉 Thank you for the links. How incredibly revealing they are. Oh, how I do not miss the academic world! And you are correct in that the US in not any different just bigger but still rather easy to “threaten” a gatekeeper–or at least that was my experience. My, your skin must be thick. 🙂

        1. I don’t miss the academy either – the issue in NZ is that there are a lot of people with pretensions to the same mind-set who aren’t university employees, nor have they particularly contributed to academic literature; but they hang on the fringes, writing reviews and sharing the conceits and race for intellectual status. I can usually ignore the rubbish churned out at me – it doesn’t relate to the facts about my work, and the people who reduce their commentaries to ad hominem abuse are clearly so lacking in personal integrity that they have to cower behind the artifice of ‘review’ and ‘commentary’ in order to personally abuse me. Why should I engage that particular void, or give it any credence?

          But it gets a bit wearing after a while, and their narrative of abusive put-down risks gaining an undue credence with the reading public if it’s repeated often enough. Outside the world of reviewing it’s called ‘defamation’, and it irks me that book reviewers can apparently make up any lies they like about the character and motives of author, and get away with it because it’s ‘literary criticism’. The piece I wrote in NZBooks is here: https://nzbooks.org.nz/2015/comment/reviewing-the-reviewers/

          I was warned after this appeared that somebody would probably wreak revenge on me for calling out the bully culture, incidentally – perhaps long after – and probably in the form of an abusive worth-denial tirade purporting to be a ‘review’ of some book I’ve written. Apparently my writing gives these people license to construct abusive lies about my personal motives, supposed character, and professional competence. If I reasonably object to being targeted by the malice of these strangers they regard me as weak ; and if I defend myself then it’s a provocation that must be avenged. All of which sums up the nastiness of their subculture – and I’d challenge any of them to repeat their words to my face. They won’t, of course.

          Sharp’s article that dissed me also drew attention nationally – he appeared later on our national radio network where he was asked to clarify whether he really meant that reviewers should by nature be nasty to authors. And it also drew this response: https://nzbooks.org.nz/2016/comment/the-sharp-end-of-the-stick-catherine-robertson/

  4. Not all academics think this way about your writing Matthew!
    I lecture in Maori Studies and New Zealand History at Lincoln University. Nearly all of your books are on my recommended reading list and some chapters are on the required reading list. I use your books in my first-year Treaty course and extensively in my second-year NZ History course.
    Do I always agree with your interpretation? No. But I disagree with at least two conclusions of my own PhD thesis too. And two of my assertions are (now proven, with more information) actually wrong. Reflection on and interpretation of history evolves and changes with new archives, new writing and new collaborations. Disagreement should NOT turn into sneers (and never will from me). One academic you quote, writing in a sneering, derisive way about you, is STILL used as an exemplar of unnecessary interpolation, reinterpretation of data and distortion of material disclosed in interviews, in honours courses of the History Departments of Three NZ universities. And I await any writing worth reading by the smart-alec Iain Sharp. Taking pride in being a nasty person is evidence of someone who needs to get out more.
    There are doctrinaire academics in History who sneer about ‘populist’ writing. Apparently the best histories are convoluted, impenetrable and rarely read outside of a small circle of the truly righteous historiography exponents (like them!). Your sin is writing well-researched history that is readable by both academics and the general populace.
    I will continue to recommend your books, if you will continue to write them.
    By the way, I am a Maori academic who dares to write about the gold rushes of New Zealand, California, Canada and Australia. “Why is a Maori academic writing about the gold rush? Shouldn’t you write about deprivation and colonialism?” (Um, no, I like writing about the gold rush) “Your PhD was in English, not History; how can you call yourself a Historian?” (Firstly, it is ‘an’ Historian and secondly, I had an academic assert that my proposed area of study was ‘too arcadian’ for the History Dept., whereas the English folk let me do what I wanted; thirdly, it was a History PhD in English: deal with it!).
    Don’t let the bullies win, most especially so-called academics.

    1. Thank you for your kind thoughts – and I am flattered and humbled by your use of my books! Yes, this issue is not universal. The problem is that the academics who rage and rant at ‘rival’ authors seem to be the noisy ones. I can usually ignore them, but it’s been persistent in my case and after a while their relentless worth-denial circus performances and derogatory fantasies about my alleged character risk doing practical damage to the public view of my professional conduct and work, affecting my income from writing. It may be that this is how these people behave in university staff rooms, but once that’s aired out in public it becomes a very different matter. The entwining of academia with the main review culture here doesn’t help.

      I agree on your thoughts about the snobbery that goes on in the field too. It’s odd – you need a lot more brain-power to deconstruct an interpretative concept and express it in ways that a general audience can understand, than if you simply use the jargon and convoluted phrasing that buys the illusion of ‘sophistication’ for the academic subculture. Expressing something simply doesn’t mean being unsophisticated or stupid – as Hemingway pointed out, you know the ‘ten dollar’ words, but there are better ways of expressing things.

      To me, disagreeing on interpretation is essential! It’s something that can become a strength, if it’s used constructively and in an abstract and informed way – if debate is collaborative, friendly and everybody accepts that there is a higher end goal of teasing out new understandings from the subject. After all, it’s all abstract stuff – nothing personal, and constructive discussion of the ways of understanding the past can lead to new thoughts that neither party may have thought of. As I see it, that is to the benefit of all. I question my own understanding all the time – analysis never stops – I’m constantly looking to develop what I think, often dislodging earlier ideas.

      I actually have trouble understanding why some academics often DON’T do this. I can think of at least one very prominent NZ historian who I was at Vic with, and who has been basically trading off the peculiar interpretation he invented for his 1983 PhD thesis ever since. He even had the book that followed republished 30 years later without any revisions despite having his assertions factually refuted, repeatedly, by everybody working professionally in the military-historical field (including me). It must be ten years since I urged his publisher to solicit a new edition and a re-think from this historian who must, surely, have had some further thoughts on the subject and would surely welcome the opportunity to show he can do more than get angry and swear at me on national radio for disputing him. It’s never happened. Sigh.

      I should add – I’m working on a new book about the Treaty. Probably I’ll get a hiding to nothing for doing it from the usual suspects in the intellectual community. But I have some thoughts I’d like to share with the general readership – and with your students! 🙂 If you want, drop me a private note via the contact page on my website http://www.matthewwright.net – there may be a way I can add value for your students for this and my other books.

    1. I know nothing about him other than his abusive and ignorant allegation about me, which I reasonably regard as damaging to my good character as well as misrepresenting the material I wrote, which he refers to.

  5. I have myself, often wondered…..what these people are taught, how they are taught and why they are taught the way the are. Academic…..Abysmal, Cowardly, Arrogance, Demoralising, Envious, Miniscule, Ignorant, Calculated.

      1. so, so right. Outwith the examples you mention, approaching any situation in a human, civil, none judge mental, none superior manner can defuse, quickly resolve, so many things. Yes, there may be arguments, yes, people may get offended but that is part of life, is it not? You discuss, you get over it. Too many people are now hiding behind (1) specific ‘terms’, one’s they think or are told they shouldn’t mention, (2) specific ‘terminology’ they may have been taught to use (3) PC correctness (4) easily offended (5) ‘academia’ (6) ‘technology’, to list a few. It doesn’t make me angry to see this, more frustrated, sad and disappointed, feel these people that do this are missing out on opportunities to naturally expand their minds, rather than being tunnel visioned.

  6. Yes I’ve noticed how closed the academic sphere can be to “outsiders”. Honestly, the fact that they are this petty really doesn’t surprise me. This is such a broad issue that I don’t know how I can summarise it succinctly, but I really do feel that there is very much an ivory tower aspect to a lot of institutions, with the professors completely out of touch and unwilling to engage in anything outside of their sphere of influence. That may be a very negative view and I’m trying to be fair and balanced about it… But they just don’t brook dissent and sneer at the “opposition”. It’s not exactly what I call healthy debate or the road to intellectual stimulation, but there you go, it does make for a very exclusive club. (I should probably add the addendum #notall 😉 )

    1. A very exclusive club indeed! 🙂 And yet as you say, not all the academy is like this (I am thinking of Tolkien and the Inklings, particularly :-)) The issue here in NZ is actually intellectual snobbery, which spans not just aspects of the academy but also their hangers-on, a wide associated social group of elitist wannabe literati, scarf-wearing poets (pronounced ‘pewets’) and so forth. They fight over status within their field and seem to presume that anybody whose work enters their territories must share the same conceits. The world of book reviewing is closely tied into this community, and it concerns me when some of them start advocating being actively nasty, by way of showing their strength. By my standards, whenever that conduct has been directed at me, it’s always come across as gutless and insecure.

      1. Oh gosh yes, definitely. And you’re right- that is very, very true. I have seen these issues arising in the book reviewing spheres as well, so you are not wrong about this being an issue that goes beyond academia. And in my opinion, whenever anyone becomes snobbishly attached to their views, they generally come across as a bit of a fool (and yes a bit insecure)

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