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Name Calling and Shunning

I read a blog post today in which psychology professor Robert Sutton at Stanford University was quoted from his book as advocating shunning in an academic setting. The book “The Asshole Survival Guide”. For reasons I’ll elaborate on shortly, I can’t say I’m tempted to read it.

It did get me thinking about dog training discussions I read and sometimes participate in and what and how I write about dog behaviour. I’ve also been giving a lot of thought on the content and the approach to presenting the material I have in mind for the podcast I’m planning for specifically dog trainers.

I do not want to fall into the trap that Mr Sutton’s apparently thinks is academically acceptable. So I started writing down what I was thinking for two reasons. The first is that writing for me requires distillation and refinement of my thoughts. The second is in hopes it might help some other dog trainers when next they find themselves in disagreement with another about some aspect within the field of dog training. Ironically, I’ve seen that if emotions can be kept in check and people are on an intellectually reasonably level playing field there is in other areas more to agree with then disagree.

In a recent post of my own, I mused on the dangers for anyone but particularly those in the dog training world, of isolating oneself from perspectives other than our own. This recent post was inspired due to my being blocked on Facebook by someone that didn’t agree with being respectfully disagreed. You can read that post on my timeline from a couple of days ago.

I also learned a few months ago that ”All Positive/Force-Free” trainers distribute amongst themselves a shun list which lists dog trainers they collectively agree must be blocked, ignored, disparaged etc. Seriously, there is such a list and surprise, surprise, I’m on the list.

As to the legitimacy for being labelled an “asshole” or to be formally or informally shunned, I suppose it depends on what is required to achieve that status. It’s one thing if someone consistently behaves in a manner accepted to significantly anti-social behaviour. However, I didn’t get the impression that was the case Mr Sutton was referring.

Here’s the quotation:

“… just freeze them out. I’m in academia, which means there are lots of assholes we can’t fire, but we can absolutely freeze them out. We don’t have to invite them to events or gatherings. We can shun them politely and smile at them as necessary, but other than that we just ignore them. That’s how we deal with assholes.”

I found that very odd and disturbing coming from an academic.

So often the word in question seems to be reflexively thrown out to describe a person or a group that thinks dissimilarly as opposed to someone being obstinately anti-social.

Sometimes the label is applied even though the disagreement lies on only a singular or few areas. I’ve certainly been guilty in my younger years, and even now it’s an embarrassing temptation. I’ve learned (am learning) to recognize these moments as signals to instead examine my argument and behaviour.

The label and the attitude behind it are tossed about overly casually anymore and all too often not necessarily prompted by the weakness of the argument of the person labelled. I’ve found whether I’m following along the discussion merely as an observer or in the fray myself that the labelling pops up when the person doing the labelling has a significant deficit in their argument highlighted and hasn’t a response. It is at this point that they are then more likely to directly or behind the scenes refer to their intellectual opponent in this manner.

The deficiency isn’t always because there isn’t a response in existence. At one time I thought it was solely due to an intellectual shortfall. The person with the derogatory reference on their lips doesn’t know the answer or can’t think of an answer. However recently I realised that is as likely if not more likely to be triggered due to an inability to separate and distance negative emotions when arguing a point or when listening to another’s.

I’m not an academic but I was nonetheless surprised on the one hand and not so surprised on the other to read that someone that says, “I’m in academia” would suggest labelling other academics in this manner let alone shunning or “freeze them out”.

I’m surprised because included in the intellectual training (or at least it did at one time) to become an academic it was drilled in that when logical fallacies like ad hominem attacks come out to play it is a red flag that the academic is leaving or has left the building. Moreso, if things move past hurling derogatory labels and go so far as advocating shunning, then academia has left the academic.

It should be evident to an academic that this type of behaviour (I can’t call it thinking) opens the individual and the field up to a minefield of cognitive biases that inevitably will stunt progress.

Where I’m not surprised is because of what I’ve seen occurring on campuses across North America with regard to free speech suppression, the need for safe spaces (in universities of all places) etc. There seem to be a plethora of university graduates from specific disciplines that lack an intellect to support the credentials that I hesitate to say they earned. Some of them move on to teaching, and the intellectual gene pool becomes further diluted. I could be wrong but it is beginning to appear graduation occurs more so through the ability to pay and attend as opposed to bearing an intellectual gift in keeping with the level of degree.

As I say, it depends on how you’re defining the invective before it is applied and the purpose behind the shunning but if it is being lobbed because of intellectual disagreement as opposed anti-social behaviour, I’m sensing a touch of the pot calling the kettle black irony.

That is not how I hope an academic (or dog trainers) should think or behave. Name calling and advocating shunning is more what I remember of the angst-ridden hallways of the elementary school.

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