The Impact of the ‘Mob Mentality’ on Student and Faculty Rights

campus building exterior

The Chronicle of Higher Education just ran a full-length article on accusations against the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor Junot Diaz. His story serves as a good (if very high profile) example of what we at Allen Harris call “mobbing” campaigns on campus.

Mobbing is when, based on one accusation, be it of “racism,” “sexual misconduct,” “transphobia,” or other hot button issues on campus, one accusation leads many others to come forward to condemn the accused. Claiming to be victims, the accusers proceed to destroy the reputation, and sometimes the education or career, of the person they attack.

Obviously, there are instances (see: Harvey Weinstein) when one individual coming forward with accusations legitimately empowers other victims to come forward as well. This is both important and necessary. There are other instances, however, where a mob mentality takes hold, and a flurry of unsupported allegations take on a life of their own.

In Diaz’s case, he survived his mobbing, not least because he had powerful allies who did not desert him. The accusations against him, in time, proved to be mostly false and exaggerated, or they were later retracted. For the most part, the accusations lacked support in concrete evidence. But this didn’t stop them from being taken as true when they were first made. Mobs feed off the presumption that “where there is smoke, there must be fire,” or the intellectually lazy assumption that accusations must be taken as true without critical inquiry.

Diaz’s example therefore offers five takeaways for anyone who targeted by a mobbing campaign:

  • Beware of losing your own moral compass;
  • Do not apologize for false accusations;
  • To the mob, the personal is a grand political cause;
  • Facts don’t matter to the mob; and
  • You need legal help so that facts and due process can still save you.

The Background on the Mob that Came for Diaz

In 2018, at a writers’ conference in Australia, Junot Diaz took to the podium as an MIT professor and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. He had reached the pinnacle of academic achievement. At the conference, however, a graduate student accused him publicly of having cornered and forcibly kissed her years earlier. If true, this would be sexual misconduct – but eyewitnesses later confirmed that this supposedly forceable kiss was only a peck on the cheek, as is common in Diaz’s Dominican culture. But the graduate student proclaimed she was “far from the only one he’s done this to.” It sounded like Diaz had abused his power and authority to get away with sexually harassing younger women.

While Diaz was later exonerated, the accusation was serious and the alleged behavior, it must be admitted, is all too common.

Because Diaz is a nationally recognized author and held a prominent position at one of the world’s leading universities, the story got national press, including BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, NPR, VOX, and CNN. This attention sparked a new round of accusations. Individuals whose work Diaz had criticized over the years began to complain that his criticism was not motivated by deficiencies in their work, but instead by discrimination. Although not sexual assault, this seemed to paint a pattern of sexual harassment and abuse of authority.

MIT began (what else?) an investigation. It turned up nothing.

But this took time. Amplified by social media, the effect of the accusations was to recruit other accusers. No sooner did facts debunk old accusations than new ones emerged. An important side effect was that the social media maelstrom also targeted anyone who dared support Diaz, including a journal on which he served as editor which refused to fire him. If you stand up to the mob, you too are likely to face their wrath, even if you are not the original target.

Two other women soon followed with much less concrete accusations. One young writer accused Diaz of going on a “20-minute rant.” Again, the evidence showed otherwise. An audio recording revealed their exchange was respectful. Diaz was critical, but never raised his voice. By contrast, the young writer accused him of a “blast of misogynist rage and public humiliation.”

Another accuser complained that Diaz’s books were “misogynist trash.” She accused Diaz of “talk[ing] over her,” and yelling “rape” in her face, which she counted as “verbal sexual assault.” If true, this would be impolite and impolitic, to say the least, but yelling, publishing books that are unpopular with some readers, or talking over people is hardly illegal or uncommon. Moreover, it is usually protected by university academic freedom policies, not to mention — at public universities — by the First Amendment.

Yet another woman, who claimed she had been Diaz’s lover in the 1990s while she was a reporter for The Boston Globe, came forward to claim that he had not told her he had a girlfriend, asked her to clean his kitchen, and insulted her by telling her that female students in his class liked her (the reporter’s) books. It is hard to imagine why the last allegation even counted as insulting. But that did not matter to the mob, whose premise seemed to be that if someone subjectively believed Diaz offended them, no more inquiry was needed.

Importantly, none of the allegations against Diaz involved intimate sexual violence. The peck on the cheek was the closest any of the allegations came to actual sexual impropriety. Yet for all of this, the mob wanted Diaz ruined.

On college campuses, this pattern repeats itself in many different scenarios, and not just over accusations of sexual misconduct. Once an accusation is made, however frivolous, faculty and students are vulnerable to follow-on accusations as well as attempts to humiliate and intimidate those who come to the defense of the accused.

What Happens When You Get Mobbed, and What Can You Do?

1) Expect Moral Disorientation

First, the mob will shake your sense of reality to the core. This is especially because mobs usually attack people who formerly trusted them. The mob will be made up of people you once considered close friends, colleagues, students, mentees, and sometimes even former lovers. The shock, betrayal, and isolation is extreme. The world turns upside down. You may second-guess yourself as people try and paint your words or behavior in an unrecognizable light. This is what happened to Diaz: a customary peck on the check became a forcible, lurid sexual kiss. One reason why mobbing works is that it destroys the target’s moral compass.

2) Don’t Apologize

Second, apologizing makes it worse. Because mobbing destroys the target’s moral compass, the temptation to apologize, even when you can’t figure out what you did wrong, is extreme. People of even modest compassion apologize reflexively to heal the rift between them and those who claim to be offended, regardless of whether they understand the nature of the offense. But mobs are not motivated to achieve understanding, and they are certainly not motivated by compassion. Rather, mobs are driven by a sense of grand political purpose and moral self-righteousness. The second you “admit” to false accusations, this just lends the mob that much more credibility. It affirms the self-righteous, grand cause that the mob genuinely believes itself to be fighting for.

3) To the Mob, the Personal is the Political

Third, the 1970s cliché, “the personal is the political” is the watchword of the contemporary moral indignation industry. It is the heart and soul of the mob. Was there a petty grievance between you and your former lover? That’s not a matter of private life; it’s suddenly a political issue of world historical importance. Thus, Diaz allegedly asked his lover in the 1990s to clean his kitchen. Perhaps this reflected some deep-seated stereotype about a woman’s role; or perhaps this woman simply left a mess in his kitchen. Usually, that is a matter of private, personal relationships. But to the mob, there was only one conclusion, invariably the worst possible conclusion: Diaz was a misogynist. The underlying principle is that if some utterance or some personal interaction can be invested with a political meaning, that must be taken as the true meaning, no matter how implausible. As a corollary, if there are two or more possible interpretations, the true one must be the one that casts the target of the mob in the worst possible light.

4) Facts Don’t Matter to the Mob

Fourth, especially in the early going, you will realize that facts do not matter to your accusers. Every hard fact will be met by an explanation either attacking its source or arguing that facts are irrelevant in the first place. What matters to the mob is moral outrage, not facts. When Diaz’s supporters protested that the evidence didn’t support the accusations, one detractor responded: “. . . we live in a society where there are ever-present conditions that predispose us to disbelieve women. . . . what did matter was sending a message to women . . . that it was safe to come forward.” In other words, a larger, more important “cause” demanded a sort of blood sacrifice, and that blood sacrifice wasn’t only Diaz; the sacrifice is invariably the truth.

5) You Need to Get Help

Fifth, you need help. This is why it is important to look for experienced higher education attorneys who can help you defend yourself legally – including, if necessary, by suing. But the sooner you get experienced counsel involved, the more likely it is that you won’t need to sue. The mob wants you expelled, fired, permanently ruined. But the mob cannot take away your entitlement to legal protections. It is essential to hold on as long as you can so that, if available, institutional process has time to expose the facts and protect you with facts. In Diaz’s case, MIT conducted an investigation and found the accusations to be without merit. His employer at a prestigious journal did the same. He was not fired. This doesn’t mean you don’t have cause to feel paranoid. The mob is, in fact, out to get you. Many institutions jump on the bandwagon and join the mob, especially where administrators think of themselves as social activists. This has happened at Yale Law School, Oberlin, Princeton, and many other universities, large and small. An attorney can help document the institution’s breach of its own rules. An attorney can also help identify witnesses and evidence. If you are wrongly accused, some of the few and only weapons you have are due process and evidence. Mobs are engaged in a revolt against reason; but a rational pursuit of the truth can defeat them.