Is criticism of mismanagement and misconduct taken as snitching? How academia maintains the status quo

Recently, I became interested (again) in the way our upbringing affects our values. Considering how groups, especially in academia, often manage to suppress criticism of misconduct, I began to wonder which values we associate with criticism more generally. First, I noticed a strange ambivalence. Just think about the ambivalent portrayal of whistle blowers like Edward Snowden! The ambivalence is captured in values like loyalty that mostly pertain to a group and are not taken to be universal. Then, it hit me. Yes, truth telling is nice. But in-groups ostracise you as a snitch, a rat or a tattletale! Denouncing “virtue signalling” or “cancel culture” seems to be on a par with this verdict. So while criticism of mismanagement or misconduct is often invited as an opportunity for improvement, it is mostly received as a cause of reputational damage.

Now I wrote up a small piece for Zoon Politikon.* In this blog post, I just want to share what I take to be the main idea.

The ambivalence of criticism in academia seems to be rooted in an on-going tension between academic and managerial hierarchies. While they are intertwined, they are founded on very different lines of justification. If I happen to be your department chair, this authority weighs nothing in the setting of, say, an academic conference. Such hierarchies might be justifiable in principle. But while the goals of academic work and thus hierarchies are to some degree in the control of the actual agents involved, managerial hierarchies cannot be justified in the same way. A helpful illustration is the way qualitative and quantitative assessment of our work come apart: A single paper might take years of research and end up being a game-changer in the field of specialisation, but if it happens to be the only paper published in the course of three years, it won’t count as sufficient output. So while my senior colleague might have great respect for my work as an academic, she might find herself confronted with incentives to admonish and perhaps even fire me.

What does this mean for the status of criticism? The twofold nature of hierarchies leaves us with two entirely disparate justifications of criticism. But these disparate lines of justification are themselves a constant reason for criticism. The fact that a field-changing paper and a mediocre report both make one single line in a CV bears testimony to this. But here’s the thing: we seemingly delegitimise such criticism by tolerating and ultimately accepting the imperfect status quo. Of course, most academics are aware of a tension: The quantification of our work is an almost constant reason for shared grievance. But as employees we find ourselves often enough buying into it as a “necessary evil”. Now, if we accept it as a necessary evil, we seem to give up on our right to criticise it. Or don’t we? Of course not, and the situation is a lot more dynamic than I can capture here. To understand how “buying into” an imperfect situation (a necessary evil) might seemingly delegitimise criticism, it is crucial to pause and briefly zoom in on the shared grievance I just mentioned.

Let me begin by summarising the main idea: The shared grievance constitutes our status quo and, in turn, provides social cohesion among academics. Criticism will turn out to be a disturbance of that social cohesion. Thus, critics of the status quo will likely be ostracised as “telling on” us.

One might portray the fact that we live with an academic and a managerial hierarchy simply as unjust. One hierarchy is justified, the other isn’t (isn’t really, that is). Perhaps, in a perfect world, the two hierarchies would coincide. But in fact we accept that, with academia being part of the capitalist world at large, they will never coincide. This means that both hierarchies can be justified: one as rooted in academic acclaim; the other as a necessary evil of organising work. If this is correct and if we accept that the world is never perfect, we will find ourselves in an on-going oscillation and vacillation. We oscillate between the two hierarchies. And we vacillate between criticising and accepting the imperfection of this situation. This vacillation is, I submit, what makes criticism truly ambivalent. On the one hand, we can see our work-relations from the different perspectives; on the other hand, we have no clear means to decide which side is truly justified. The result of this vacillation is thus not some sort of solution but a shared grievance. A grievance acknowledging both the injustices and the persisting imperfection. There are two crucial factors in this: The fact that we accept the imperfect situation to some degree; and the fact that this acceptance is a collective status, it is our status quo. Now, I alone could not accept on-going injustices in that status quo, if my colleagues were to continuously rebel against it. Thus, one might assume that, in sharing such an acceptance, we share a form of grievance about the remaining vacillation.

It is of course difficult to pin down such a phenomenon, as it obtains mostly tacitly. But we might notice it in our daily interactions when we mutually accept that we see a tension, for instance, between the qualitative and quantitative assessment of our work. This shared acceptance, then, gives us some social cohesion. We form a group that is tied together neither by purely academic nor by purely managerial hierarchies and relations. There might be a growing sense of complicity in dynamic structures that are and aren’t justified but continue to obtain. So what forms social cohesion between academics are not merely factors of formal appraisal or informal friendship. Rather, a further crucial factor is the shared acceptance of the imperfection of the status quo. The acceptance is crucial in that it acknowledges the vacillation and informs what one might call the “morale” of the group.

If this is correct, academics do indeed form a kind of group through acceptance of commonly perceived imperfections. Now if we form such a group, it means that criticism will be seen as both justified but also as threatening the shared acceptance. We know that a critic of quantitative work measures is justified. But we also feel that we gave in and accepted this imperfection a while ago. The critic seemingly breaks with this tacit consent and will be seen like someone snitching or “telling on us”. As I see it, it is this departure from an in-group consensus that makes criticism appear as snitching. And while revealing a truth about the group might count as virtuous, it makes the critic seemingly depart from the in-group. Of course, companies and universities enjoy also some legal protection. Even if you find out about something blameworthy, you might be bound by rules about confidentiality. This is why whistle blowers do indeed have an ambivalent reputation, too. But I guess that the legal component alone does not account for the force of the in-group mentality at work in suppressing criticism.

This mode of suppressing criticism has pernicious effects. The intertwined academic and managerial hierarchies often come with inverse perceptions of criticism: your professorial colleague might be happy to learn from your objections, while your department chair might shun your criticism and even retaliate against you. Yet, they might be the same person. Considering the ubiquitous histories of suppressing critics of sexism, racism and other kinds of misconduct, we do not need to look far to find evidence for ostracism or retaliation against critics. I think that it’s hard to explain this level of complicity with wrongdoers merely by referring to bad intentions, on the one hand, or formal agreements such as confidentiality, on the other. Rather, I think, it is worthwhile to consider the deep-rooted in-group consensus that renders criticism as snitching. One reason is that snitching counts, at least in a good number of cultures, as a bad action. But while this might be explained with concerns about social cohesion, it certainly remains a morally dubious verdict, given that snitching is truth-conducive and should thus be aligned with values such as transparency. Going by personal anecdotes, however, I witnessed that snitching was often condemned even by school teachers, who often seemed to worry about social cohesion no less than about truthfulness. In other words, we don’t seem to like that the truth be told when it threatens our status quo.

In sum, we see that the ambivalent status of criticism is rooted in a twofold hierarchy that, in turn, comes with disparate sets of values. Shared acceptance of these disparate sets as an unavoidable imperfection binds together an in-group that will sanction explicit criticism of this imperfection as a deviation from the consensus. The current charges against so-called “virtue signalling”, a “call out culture” or “cancel culture” on social media strike me as instances of such sanctions. If we ask what makes the inclinations to sanction in-group norm violations so strong, it seems helpful to consider the deep-rooted code against snitching. While the moral status of sanctioning snitching is certainly questionable, it can shed light on the pervasive motivation and strikingly ready acceptance of such behaviour.


* Following a discussion of a blog post on silence in academia, Izabela Wagner kindly invited me to contribute to a special issue in Zoon Politikon. I am enormously grateful to her for the exchanges and for providing this opportunity. Moreover, I have benefitted greatly from advice by Lisa Herzog, Pietro Ingallina, Mariya Ivancheva, Christopher Quinatana, Rineke Verbrugge, and Justin Weinberg.