The controversy over the Harvard anthropologist John Comaroff, accused of a longstanding pattern of sexual harassment, can be be analyzed from one point of view as a war of open letters. First, 38 famous Harvard names signed a letter protesting what they asserted was Comaroff’s unfair treatment at the hands of the administration. A much larger group of faculty members from across the world signed a similar letter, published by The Chronicle. Next, 73 Harvard faculty members signed a counter-letter, rebuking the initial 38 and declaring their support for victimized students.

Thirty-five of the original 38 eventually retracted their signatures, which would tend to confirm the suspicion that the initial effort reflected not so much a principled stance as mindless bandwagoning. (Harvard Law’s Randall Kennedy was an important exception — he knew why he was signing, and he didn’t change his mind. As he told our Nell Gluckman, “If complete knowledge was a prerequisite for voicing concern, there might well be no suitable occasion for doing so. No new information about which I am aware erases the worries that prompted me to sign the letter in the first place.”) But for the most part, the group of signatories ended up looking confused, impulsive, and spineless — blowing with the wind.

Then a third act! As The Harvard Crimson reports, 15 members of Comaroff’s department have signed an open letter demanding that their colleague resign. Comaroff’s lawyers — including Janet Halley, a Harvard law professor — called the letter “a moral panic.” It’s certainly not the normal avenue for a workplace complaint.

Are all of these open letters a symptom of what Irina Dumitrescu, in a recent Review essay, calls “academe’s inclination toward groupthink”? I spoke with Dumitrescu about the Harvard situation, dogmatism, moralism, Twitter, and bar talk.

You were inspired to write this because of the letter of support for Comaroff. But clearly the subject had troubled you for a long time — this was a sort of tipping point.

What I’ve noticed in the past few years — and to some extent this is a function of the amount of time academics spend performing their positions, their brands, on social media — is that there is a strong desire, at least in North American academe, to seem good.

Morally good.

Morally good, yes. Which, by the way, is culturally specific. In other places in academia, there’s very little desire to be perceived as morally good. People behave ethically or not, and they let others draw their own conclusions about what kind of a person they are. But in North America, there’s a very strong compulsion to be seen as doing the right thing at all times. This is why we get so many public pronouncements from academics about how they treat their students, or their colleagues, how they carry out peer review. Sometimes this desire to seem good to others means that people are bold enough to act on issues that are important, and that there was a lot of silence around for a long time. That is a positive development.

But I’ve also seen situations where an open letter or a petition goes around and people who don’t really know anything about the situation feel compelled to sign it. When I say, “feel compelled,” I mean that in the back channels people will say, “I don’t really want to sign this, but I feel I ought to.” You hear people actually talking about their fear that they will be criticized if they don’t sign a public statement that they fundamentally do not understand. To me, that’s a standard example of people not thinking through the issue but reacting to group compulsion, on the desire to act in a way that’s acceptable to their peers.

You got your Ph.D. in 2009. Has the tendency toward this sort of thing intensified over those years?

I think the social-media aspect of it has gotten more intense, but I’m not sure that the groupthink tendency necessarily has. I think it used to play out in different ways — around bar tables, at conferences, in face to face contexts. Maybe you could say that there was an advantage to the old way because the spread of information wasn’t as fast. But I certainly think that people fell into line 20 years ago, which meant that they wound up supporting extremely abusive, manipulative individuals. And in that case, they did not even do it to seem good, but to maintain their own connections and influence.

But the social-media aspect brings in a new quality to it.

One thing I find confusing about academic behavior on Twitter is that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether scholars think they’re speaking in a public capacity or whether they’re shit-talking in a bar. The kind of utterance appropriate to one of those contexts is quite different than the kind appropriate to another. I’ve seen academics on Twitter, usually when they feel authorized by a position of moral superiority, go so far as to make fun of the appearance of scholars who publish essays that they don’t like. Which in a bar might be in poor taste but is the sort of thing bars are for. As a public utterance, though, it seems beyond the pale. Something’s gotten scrambled between what were previously distinct zones of speech, public versus private.

On the one hand, yes, social media allows people to do more damage faster. You can defame someone in very little time on social media, especially if you have an organized clique which retweets your attacks on other people.

But there’s a positive side to social media too. Everybody sees these statements, whereas the terrible things that used to be said about people around the bar table could easily be denied.

It was very hard for people who experienced unprofessional or abusive things in private to prove it later. There was no evidence. When someone behaves badly on social media, there’s a record of it, and eventually people start paying attention.

My theory is that toxic people are toxic no matter what politics they go under, or whether they’re traditionalists or revolutionaries. It’s exactly the same personality types: narcissists and sociopaths putting on different masks as it suits them.

There’s a great essay from the 1950s by a psychologist named Milton Rokeach called “The Nature and Meaning of Dogmatism.” He suggests that scholars or intellectuals can be especially dogmatic. He’s talking about the dogmatic commitment to this or that scholarly method or set of assumptions — dogmatic Freudianism, say, or dogmatic free-market economics. Do you see a connection between dogmatism in matters of scholarship and the sort of herd-behavior you’re diagnosing?

I’m not sure if scholars are more dogmatic than other people. I would suggest they’re just as dogmatic as other people. But I don’t think it’s fair to say more.

It’s all a little bit skewed because in any given situation the people who hold extreme positions will tend to be the loudest. There are many decent people in academe who are fundamentally flexible in their thinking, who do know how to question given truths, who might work with one methodology and then adopt something new when it comes along, who have a fundamental curiosity about the world and their own work. I suspect they are the majority. But they are not necessarily the ones leading public discussions, especially in the fast-paced, contextless world of social media. “Moderate” has been a bad word on both the American left and right wings for a while now, and good arguments have been presented that one should not be a moderate on certain vital political issues. But I do think in intellectual work, an ability to consider a question from multiple angles is a strength. So is the humility to understand what you don’t know, and the patience to wait for more information when you need it.

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Write to me at len.gutkin@chronicle.com.

Yours,

Len Gutkin