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Bootlickers Beware: UVA Professor's Book Takes Aim at Sycophants

Mar 12, 2018 |

If you want to be more polite about it, you may describe the annoying behavior of that co-worker who is less than subtle in their attempts to ingratiate themselves with the boss as “fawning,” or “obsequious.” Or, if you want to get straight to the point, as did Deborah Parker, a professor of Italian in the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, you title the book that you co-authored with your husband Mark Parker, a James Madison University professor of English, Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy.

Since their most recent book’s publication in October by University of Virginia Press, the Parkers have been popular interview subjects. More than 20 NPR and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation regional affiliates, as well as The Washington Post, Salon and other national outlets have sought their humorous, and scholarly, insight on the time-honored practice of insincere flattery that “bootlickers,” “brownnosers” and, well, “suck ups,” employ. Citing examples ranging from Dante and Dickens to “The Simpsons” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” the Parkers found a wealth of literary and pop culture examples to explore, as well as true-life examples from historical figures.

The Parkers will be discussing their book in Charlottesville next month at the Tom Tom Founders Festival, at an April 13 event at the Second Street Gallery. Before the beginning of the spring semester, Deborah Parker and Mark Parker talked with Arts & Sciences Communications about the book and their inspiration for writing it. (The following Q&A has been edited for length.)

Let’s start with the inspiration for this book. What prompted both of you two to delve into this topic?

Deborah Parker: We got the idea after a dinner with friends in which everyone was grumbling about one egregious ‘ingratiator’ we all knew and how her toadying was creating a toxic workplace. Later, Mark and I started thinking a little bit more about the discussion and decided to write about this phenomenon instead of complaining about it. We began by thinking about notable literary examples.

Mark Parker: When we were thinking over this idea, we were also struck by how the many words for ‘sycophancy,’ many of which are interesting in themselves. Words like ‘lickspittle’ or ‘bootlicker’ conjure up vivid images. And the anecdotes that people tell us about sycophancy are like little stories, so we saw that there was a way in which these literary techniques of naming and sort of turning something into a story were part and parcel of the whole response to sycophancy. It was a complex human behavior just on the face of it – just watching it or thinking about it. But there was also a complex response to it.

Without betraying any confidences with your friends, were there any particularly humorous or memorable examples of ‘sucking up’ from that dinner party?

DP: One example comes from a staff member in my department who told me about the behavior of people in her church, where some members of the congregation routinely line up to flatter the pastor after each service. Our hair stylist told us that another stylist in the same salon sucks up and lies to the clients, especially wealthy ones, in the hopes of getting invited to parties where he can ingratiate himself with guests. Another friend told us about somebody sucking up at a funeral service hoping to appeal to the executor. Pretty bad behavior.

So why is sucking up and sycophancy so bad? I’m assuming you didn’t treat this as a ‘How To” book for getting ahead.

MP: Almost any treatment of sycophancy can be turned into a ‘How To’ book. There’s a long history of people talking about it, and people reading anecdotes about sycophancy against the grain. I think that is one of the reasons it’s so bad – and this is something that not only the stories confirm, but also historical examples and scholarly research. Sucking up is effective. One of the reasons that it’s so pervasive is that for all of the things that one would want to say about the practice morally, it works.

It works for the individual, but it’s still a negative for society. Why is this an effective tool?

DP: One of the authors who ended up being very central to our thinking about sycophancy was Dante. Readers are always shocked to find that Dante places flatterers in a lower circle of Hell than murderers. There are nine circles to Dante’s Hell, and the flatterers are in the eighth circle. Murderers and the tyrants – people who have committed violent crimes – are in the seventh circle. The next circle down, the eighth circle is devoted to sins of fraud. which include hypocrisy, lying, and sowing discord. But there is a logic to this. Dante sees these transgressions as sins against the community. Dante sees flattery as a sin that undermines the social fabric. And the punishment is pretty disgusting: those who are full of crap in life are literally immersed in it in the afterlife.

In addition to Dante, who are some of the other literary or historical examples that you explore in the book?

MP: We looked at King Lear, because that play starts out with a kind of command performance of sycophancy in which the old king requires his daughters to praise him and tell him how much they loved him. From that moment, the cycle of banishments and the kind of preferments that destroys the kingdom begins.

DP: We wanted the book to appeal to a broad audience, so we decided to focus on well-known literary works--Othello, Hamlet, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. More recent works include Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Devil Wears Prada, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.

We also look at some historical figures – Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, and Benjamin Disraeli – and films.

There’s also a little section on psychology and the treatment of ingratiation in business journals.

This is a very common, human experience we all have in our family dynamics, in our professional dynamics. Looking at how the book has taken off in terms of the public imagination, do you think you’ve captured a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle moment in terms of where we are at this moment, in American society?

MP: When we started this book, we didn’t conceive of it as a political statement on Trump or any type of ‘sycophant-orama’ that he constructed. We didn’t think about the subject in those terms, but it’s something that the press asked us to include. The real of our book, however, is to remind people that literary texts have a way of getting at human behavior that is unusual and specific.

We wanted to show the kinds of things that literary texts do well. They develop our empathy: they are very good at letting people understand how it feels to be a sycophant and how it feels to have sycophancy directed toward you. It’s that empathy that these texts have, or the construction of these empathetic perspectives that allow you to really understand the behavior.

DP: That said, a lot of interviewers have asked us about what we think about sycophancy in the Trump era, if it’s different, so we have addressed that a number of times in interviews.

Recalling of that famous Cabinet meeting last year where the President Trump’s top advisors around the table gushed about the great privilege and honor of serving on his Cabinet, you must have been thinking, ‘Oh, this is perfect for our book.’

MP: We couldn’t believe it. I don’t think the people around Trump are anymore sycophantic than people around other administrations in the past, but I do think that in the past people were ashamed of it, and they hid it. And it came out like in the Watergate tapes, or the LBJ tapes about the Vietnam War. Now people really perform on cue, and they seem to have no compunction about it. Anthony Scaramucci [the former communications director] would look right in the camera and say, ‘I love the President.’ He’s speaking directly to Mr. Trump, so I think there’s a sense in which their view of sycophancy is not private. It’s now very public, and instead of being about the flatterer and the target of flattery, it’s about the audience.

What questions come up again and again in the interviews you’ve done promoting Sucking Up?

MP: Trump has filled the entire bandwidth, so we get a lot of questions on current politics. At a certain point, it seemed like every interview was starting there, and it was hard to get back to some of the other points of the book.

A lot of people also ask how they can defend themselves from it. That is a very difficult question, and there’s a lot to say about that, because there’s no easy answer for something like this.

College students, I imagine, are fairly clumsy in their efforts to suck up to their professors.

MP: For the most part, yes. Sometimes it’s very hard to tell, but usually it’s very easy. One of the things about modern flattery is people don’t consider it as something other than a transaction. They seem to think that they can just do it, get what they want and they’re washed clean of it. And I think this is where the old ideas about sycophancy, of associating it with excrement and as something that leaves a stain or residue are useful, as reminders of how bad it really is. The moral tradition that’s encoded in old ideas about sycophancy is helpful. It reminds you that you can’t wash yourself clean of this.

It’s not a transaction. It stains you.

DP: There’s something else I’d like to add that’s positive about the university world too. One of the editors at the Chronicle of Higher Education asked us to write about sycophancy in the academy last year. While we initially list different forms of the behavior in the university environment, we also note that tenured professors are in a fortunate situation because they have autonomy and some independence. You can teach what you want, when you want and work on what interests you. And that is not common in a lot of jobs.

We talked to someone who’s the head of a big PR firm in New York with some really famous clients. He was very open and revealed that at receptions for poohbahs of the retail world, attendees routinely line up to kiss the ring. The Devil Wears Prada captures this world well.

MP: It doesn’t have much of an analysis of it, but it really does describe from the outside the predicament of a world which is predicated on having to flatter constantly.

Today, in the era of social media, whenever someone has a new book, film or project come out, people seem to fall all over themselves to tweet or post, “So and so, I just read your new book. It was so AMAZING. Everyone needs to read this book!” So that seems to be more of a transaction where this commenter is hoping that when his next project comes out, that same author will tweet, “You have to go see this movie, this actor was amazing!”

MP: We never really quite got to the bottom of this. But I think that old-style flattery crossed with the world of marketing really is sort of a toxic mix. Marketing is flattery to some extent, because there’s often very little positive information. It’s all about making people feel good about themselves or amusing them.

Since completing this book, I suspect that your antennae are now highly attuned to insincere flattery or compliments. Are your colleagues and friends more apt to reach out to you to say, “Hey great job, that book sounds really interesting”? Or are they thinking, “I better not say anything, because they’ll just think I’m sucking up?

DP:  Many people have said, ‘Well, at the risk of sounding like I’m sucking up, I really liked your book,’ or something like that.

MP: A lot of people either exaggerate it or make a joke out of it because of the title.