Stereotype and Character Assassination – by Julia Wai-Yin So

Having worked in the US for the last 40 some years, I was once a target of character assassination (CA). That experience prompted me to write this article to raise awareness that being a member of a minoritized group can put us at an additional risk of being targeted. This article explores the association between stereotype and character assassination.

Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice defines stereotype as an exaggerated belief associated with a category (i.e. a social group). Whether positive or negative, it is when one applies the group characteristics to a member of the group while ignoring the uniqueness of the specific member.  This article focuses on the use of negative stereotype of a social group to attack the character of a member of the same group. Many times, this baseless accusation can have serious negative consequences on the victim, especially when it is turned into an act of CA. 

According to The International Society for the Study of Character Assassination (ISSCA), CA is the malicious and deliberate damage of an individual’s reputation, credibility, character, social status, good standing, or achievements of a person through character attacks. The term was first introduced by Jerome Davis, a victim of CA, in his 1950 publication Character Assassination. In general, character assassins typically are insecure individuals who are jealous of or threatened by the targeted victim’s accomplishment, particularly when the victim possesses certain traits or ability that the assassins do not have. Many assassins have low self-esteem, but are also power hungry. To achieve and ensure their position of power and control, they would use triangulation, tribalism, and feign victimization to dupe others into colluding and becoming their enablers. Other tactics involve gossiping, manipulating facts, and spreading rumors to present a mischaracterization of the targeted victim. By attacking an individual’s personal life or character, the assassins attempt “to hurt the victim politically, morally, socially, or psychologically and thus, depending on circumstances, remove him or her from a contest, sway public opinion, or achieve some other goals.” Through the process, they put the victim down to feel good about themselves. Historically, the well-known targets of CA are mostly political figures or celebrities. Sadly, CA is also common within the family, in schools or workplace to one’s family members, classmates, or coworkers. 

In 2016 George Mason University, in cooperation with ISSCA, University of Baltimore and University of Amsterdam, established the Research Lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP). The Lab focuses on the academic study of CA including its impacts and prevention, as well as teaching the public about CA and its risk assessment.

This article argues that CA in the workplace specifically hurts members of the minoritized groups especially when they outperform their colleagues, thus triggering jealousy or a sense of threat on the alleged assassin. The outstanding performance of a minoritized individual sets a stage for the assassin to weaponize a negative stereotype of that specific group and turns the workplace into a war zone of tribalism. For example, an assassin uses the stereotype of anti-social Asians or Asian Americans in the U.S. and complains about a colleague of Asian heritage of being aloof or even unable to work with others. Such comment inevitably insults the reputation of the colleague of Asian heritage. Consequently, the Asian colleague is marginalized. Similarly, the negative stereotype of aggressive African Americans can be easily turned into a rumor about an angry black colleague who is unable to manage his temper. As a result, coworkers begin to distance themselves from the African American.

Equally toxic, the stereotype of secretive Native Americans can be manipulated and turned against a colleague of Native American heritage of being dishonest. As for members of the LGBTQ community, an assassin would spread a rumor about a female supervisor who is openly gay of being a man-hater. Similarly damaging is using the stereotype of machismo Hispanic males to spread the malicious hearsay about a Hispanic colleague of being dominating and sexist towards female coworkers. 

Framing people with disabilities as a flaw or abnormality is a common strategy used by a character assassin. In situation where a colleague with disability has outperformed everyone in their workgroup, the assassin might even openly question the disability of the colleague.

These are examples of baseless accusation that damage the reputation of a targeted victim of a minoritized group. As you see, stereotyping others is not simply poking fun at or jokingly teasing others, but in fact can be unethical to the point of calling the targeted victim’s morals and character into questions. 

You may ask how we can negate stereotype. One way is stop being a bystander upon hearing someone making negative comments about those of the minoritized groups or attacking their characters, particularly those that have demonstrated excellent performance in their work group. Similar to situations of microaggression, we have to be an ally to the targeted victim of CA. We can turn to the assassin and say, “I heard you say such and such about person A, can you clarify what you meant?” or “I heard you say such and such about person A, do you have any evidence supporting what you just said?” Holding the assassin accountable for what they say publicly is another way to be an ally. CA, if left unchecked, can result in the internal trauma experienced by the victim, not to mention creating a toxic work environment. Lastly, let’s remind ourselves what Suzy Kassem said in Rise up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem: Never judge someone’s character based on the words of another. Instead, study the motives behind the words of the person casting the bad judgment.” 

If you are currently a targeted victim of CA, you probably have felt isolated, misunderstood, or unfairly judged. Your instinct is to fight back. Don’t! The best defense is to stay away from the drama, maintain your integrity and take pride in whatever you have been doing. Wayne W. Dyer once said, “Your reputation is in the hands of others. That’s what the reputation is. You can’t control that. The only thing you can control is your character.” If you feel the CA is affecting your mental health, try journaling or consider taking advantage of your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to seek out mental health assistance. If your company does not have an EAP, call your local mental health hotline for resources or referrals. Speaking with a mental health professional might help you see the experience through a different lens. You may also find this 2019 CARP publication helpful: Character Assassination and Reputation Management: Theory and Applications by Eric B. Shiraev, Jennifer Keohane, Martijn Icks, & Sergei A. Samoilenko. Fundamentally, CA is not about you–the victim, but is about the assassin who, with an inferior complex, is envious of your professional achievement or social status. As for the assassin’s enablers, yes, it is disappointing that they did not question the motive behind the assassin’s behavior. If they were wise, they would see through the assassin and stay away from the drama. As for others, you have to decide whether you want to keep their contacts in your phone. Last but not least, there is always an option of leaving the company.

Editor’s note: Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So is associate professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico—Valencia Campus. As a consultant on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, she is currently collecting data on stereotype and character assassination pertaining to members of minoritized groups. If you were or are a victim of CA and would like to share your experience under the ethics of confidentiality and anonymity in social sciences, please leave your name and contact information in the Comments box so that she can get in touch with you. (The information will not be published or made public.) Thank you!


Photo by little plant on Unsplash

Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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