Struggling to exercise upward toxicity? Try toxic hypocrisy

A willingness to lie and manipulate beyond what most people can imagine can do wonders for a career, notes Irina Dumitrescu

September 16, 2020
Painting of Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito with a blue bird in hand
Source: Getty

Last year I wrote a handy guide for scholars wishing to reach the heights of academe through upward toxicity. I showed aspiring leaders of their fields how to forge powerful alliances, abuse their underlings mercilessly and weaken their rivals. The emails I received – from their victims – confirmed for me that toxic scholars the world over are finding success by riding roughshod over human decency and workplace ethics.

But times are tough. Due to the brutal competition in the academic job market, many capable, unscrupulous young scholars never have the opportunity to exercise upward toxicity. A résumé stuffed with publications, grants, teaching awards and outreach activities just won’t cut it any more. However, as a number of enterprising academics have recently shown, a willingness to lie and manipulate beyond what most people can imagine can do wonders for a career. Enter toxic hypocrisy.

Jessica Krug made it to associate professor at George Washington University before her fake identity as a black woman from the Bronx was exposed. BethAnn McLaughlin created a sock-puppet Twitter account purportedly belonging to a bisexual Hopi anthropologist and used it to bolster her public image and beg for cash. And they are probably not the only such examples.

For some academic reprobates, causing their rivals misery is reward enough. Think of “J.”, the anonymous miscreant who used a fake email account to level accusations of sexual harassment against the wife of a woman shortlisted for the same job, tying her up in a Title IX investigation for months.

And these are just the cases we know about. Yes, there are dangers to full-on Machiavellianism: some people get caught. Still, we should not underestimate the advantages they enjoy in the meantime. And, surely, there are other, cannier toxic scholars who are sticking even more carefully to these 10 easy rules and still reaping the rewards of their deviousness.

  1. Steal work. Cut corners in your research. Mine Wikipedia for information and cite books you haven't read. Regularly accuse more productive scholars of stealing your work or of not being thorough in their citations in order to keep anyone from noticing your shoddy scholarship.
  2. Latch on to ethical stances popular in your group and become the most aggressively righteous person you know. Claim that you want to build a better, fairer academe. Tell people what they want to hear often enough and they will swallow everything you say.
  3. When someone criticises your actions, frame it as a political disagreement. If anyone differs from you in a tiny detail of policy or belief, brand them as a dangerous extremist.
  4. Use the whisper network to target your competition. Make wild claims about them, using fabricated details, trusting that no one will dare ask you for evidence. Insist that you have “receipts”, but that you cannot show them at present.
  5. Present yourself as a mentor and supportive friend to other junior scholars, but demand absolute loyalty from them in return. Press them to gather information on your targets and use them to carry out attacks for you when your own motivation would be obvious, or when you have to maintain a working relationship with the target. Drop them wordlessly if they stop being useful to you.
  6. Pretend to be a member of an oppressed minority. If you already are one, take on an identity that is even more oppressed. Act like a caricature of this group: the more outrageous your performance, the less people will dare to question it. Intimidate any member of the group who seems sceptical about who you claim to be.
  7. Take advantage of programmes meant to protect and support vulnerable people. Tailor your family history to become eligible for equal-opportunity initiatives. If necessary, invent elaborate harassment claims.
  8. Cultivate a perpetual victim narrative. Recast any criticism whatsoever as a personal attack. Make well-meaning people feel good about helping you because of all you’ve endured.
  9. Use social media creatively. Start a profile under a fake name and cultivate a following who will unquestioningly share your spurious claims. Attack your enemies by presenting their words out of context or in doctored images. Misrepresent freely – by the time people figure out the truth, the damage will have been done.
  10. If your actions happen to be exposed, immediately claim mental illness and a history of trauma. (Don’t worry about the damage this will do to people who really have mental illness or a history of trauma.)

Admittedly, these steps are not for the faint of heart. As you manoeuvre yourself into a job, you will leave a trail of devastation behind you. Your actions will hurt the most vulnerable: members of marginalised groups, victims of abuse, junior scholars with no network to support them. Your colleagues will stop trusting teach other, and your field will suffer.

Never fear. With a bit of luck, you will be ensconced in a cosy faculty position and too comfortable to care. And in the unlikely event that you are exposed, you can still enjoy the charlatan’s consolation prize: a book deal.

Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.

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