One of the things that most bothers me about the modern “victimhood culture” of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces is how directly it flies in the face of the world’s greatest wisdom, which I reviewed in The Happiness Hypothesis. For example, chapter 7 is about the uses of adversity: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” as Nietszche put it. Mencius explained the idea more fully in the 3rd century BCE:
When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, […and] place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent
Nasim Taleb nailed the idea with his recent book “Anti-Fragile.” A carton of eggs is fragile, so you’d better handle it with care. But many things in our world are anti-fragile: they are systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. The immune system is anti-fragile: If you protect your kids from dirt and germs, you’ll weaken their immune system and set them up for more autoimmune diseases. Similarly children and teenagers are anti-fragile. If you protect their feelings with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggression training for everyone in the community, you weaken them, you make them fragile.
I was making a list in my mind of all the ways that victimhood culture violates ancient wisdom when I was invited to give a talk at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. In my talk, I run through three sets of ancient ideas that many modern “coddling” universities (and high schools) violate, and I imagined what a university would look like if it was built on ancient wisdom instead. I called this mythical university “Strengthen U.” In the video, I pretend to be admissions officers from the two universities, trying to recruit high school students to apply.
Here is the video (30 minutes)
Incidentally, I thought the Buckley program was terrific. It’s a student organization for conservatives, but in my visit I found that it has some real political diversity in it. The audience at my talk was roughly a third right of center, a third left, and a third libertarian — this is the most political diversity I have ever seen when speaking at a university. These students are engaging with arguments from all sides, and doing it civilly. They will emerge stronger and smarter. Progressive Yale students who don’t get involved with Buckley have few other chances to be exposed to conservative ideas or conservative faculty. (That’s what happened to me when I was at Yale in the 1980s.) If they go on to careers in law, politics, or business, where they must engage with conservative ideas and arguments, they will not know what to say, and will fall back on the kinds of Marcusian rhetorical devices that I describe in the video, and which you can see in action in the Twitter exchange at the bottom of this post. For more on the benefits of political diversity at universities, please see HeterodoxAcademy.org.Read More
Below is the letter to the editor that Greg Lukianoff and I submitted to the New York Times in response to an op-ed by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne, which defended the use of trigger warnings.
The Times did not respond to our submission, so here it is:
To the Editor:
Re: “Why I use trigger warnings” (Opinion, Sept. 19): Kate Manne’s efforts to alert her philosophy students about potentially upsetting course content shows her to be a caring teacher. But her critique of our essay condemning trigger warnings begins with a non sequitur. She is surely right that “the evidence suggests” that some of her students “are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma.” But that does not logically imply that “the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.” We have not found any empirical evidence that trigger warnings yield any psychological benefits, whereas there is empirical evidence suggesting that they might be harmful. So it is more logical to conclude that if trauma is common, then the harms caused by trigger warnings might be significant.
Manne then offers an analogy: “Exposing students to triggering material without warning seems more akin to occasionally throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.” This is not a valid analogy. Asking students to read novels or Greek myths that include sexual assault is like saying the word spider in the presence of an arachnophobe, which anxiety experts tell us is a good way to reduce the long-term emotional power of spiders. If well-meaning teachers and friends work together to help an arachnophobe avoid exposure to the word spider, or to pictures of spiders, spider webs, and Spiderman, they will strengthen the arachnophobe’s conviction that mere reminders of spiders are dangerous. This is how a temporary and reversible phobia can be hardened into a lifelong and debilitating identity.
Manne also asserts that “there seems to be very little reason not to give these warnings.” It’s simple courtesy, no? Trigger warnings are like “advisory notices given before films and TV shows.” But those warnings are given so that parents can keep their children safe from material for which they are not yet emotionally mature enough. This is why the American Association of University Professors has condemned the use of trigger warnings as being “at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
Furthermore, once a few professors start giving these warnings, students will begin to request them from their other professors, and this may lead to a cascade of caution among the rest of the faculty. Last year, seven humanities professors from seven colleges penned an Inside Higher Ed article stating that “this movement is already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” The professors reported receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.”
There is a more subtle harm caused to students when professors use trigger warnings. One of us (Haidt) teaches in New York City. Suppose Haidt took his students on field trips all over the city, but every time he took the class to the Bronx, Haidt took additional steps: he gave the class a warning, weeks in advance, and he hired a paramedic to ride with them in the bus. Just in case. What effect will this have on the students, and on their future willingness to visit The Bronx on their own?
Do we really want to tell our students that some of their fellow students could end up in emergency care if they were to read certain novels without being properly steeled for the task? This message would reflect and strengthen the “culture of victimhood” that sociologists have identified as emerging on our most egalitarian college campuses. It could weaken students to the point where we might, someday, really need paramedics in our classrooms.
For the record, below is the Twitter exchange I had with Manne as a result of this blog post. Note that Brad Wilcox’s tweet was not part of this exchange — it just happened to be posted during my exchange with Manne.
[Below is a guest post from Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, in response to my previous blog post on their article]
Jonathan Haidt’s discussion on this blog of our article “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” led to a number of comments here and elsewhere. We are grateful for everyone’s insights and observations, and especially for those that have directed us to some very useful resources (commenter D.M. Ryan was especially helpful, as were the blog posts of Ronald Bailey and Alan Jacobs). Many of the commenters brought up important objections and questions that we’d like to address more thoroughly.
1) Is the culture changing? What’s your evidence?
Some have questioned whether the changes we discuss have actually occurred. These questions tend to deal with our conception of moral culture, our evidence, or both. Commenter Sarah, for example, asks about whether all three cultures we discuss are actually distinct moral cultures, and Steve Ruble wonders “what the objective evidence for an actual shift in the cultural moral code would look like.”
One thing to keep in mind is that our concept of moral culture is just shorthand for identifying clusters of traits that are more prevalent in one setting than another. The “moral cultures” we identify are in that sense both a simplification and a matter of degree. This is true of the honor and dignity cultures identified by previous scholars as well as the victimhood culture we view as divergent from each of these. When we talk about a new moral culture arising, we mean that a cluster of traits has become frequent and prominent enough that we think it ought to be distinguished from the others.
What we are interested in is what people have conflicts about and how they handle them. Certainly many of the things we identify as characteristic of victimhood culture can be seen in the past. Just about every society in history has had people complaining and appealing to third parties. For that matter, just about every society has had violent aggression, direct negotiation, tolerance, avoidance, and so forth. And one can still see honor conflicts and violent retribution in the contemporary United States. But we doubt college students today are as likely to worry about maintaining a reputation for toughness and pugnacity as young men in the antebellum South, and they’re certainly less likely to fight duels. Similarly, we think they are more likely than young people 50 or 60 years ago to complain to the public or to authorities about being hurt by offensive remarks.
These are empirical matters, and perhaps someone will find evidence to counter or to support our claims. In science, a single paper is rarely the last word on any subject, all the more so when the paper involves general theoretical ideas like the principles of conflict and social control employed in our paper.
But for now the evidence we do present – the microaggression complaints, the calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces – seems to us to illustrate well enough the emergence of a fairly distinct kind of moral thinking. Consider too that some very stark examples are too new even to have made it into our article, published just nine months ago. Since then university administrators have begun to heed the cries of the microaggression complainants. The University of California system, for instance, has issued a set of guidelines for faculty listing a number of statements that might be microaggressions, and its regents are now considering a policy guaranteeing the right of everyone in the university community to be free from “expressions of intolerance.” There seems to be a change in social control and moral life afoot.
2) Don’t people other than campus activists complain about microaggressions?
The term “microaggression” comes from the campus left, and it is there that we see victimhood culture at its peak. But we certainly see manifestations of it elsewhere, and many of our readers have, in person or online, pointed to various examples of conservatives, evangelical Christians, or others complaining about minor slights, portraying themselves as oppressed, or in some other way claiming victim status. This is something we point out in our article – that if victimhood confers status, then all sorts of people will want to claim it. But the extent of this is something worth investigating. As Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, asks, “To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name? How are their actions the same as and distinct from Oberlin Microaggressions [a microaggression website he discusses] and its analogs at other campuses?”
One reason microaggression complaints illustrate so well the cultural change from a dignity- to a victimhood-based morality is the name itself. Microaggression complainants differ from others who complain about often unintentional slights or other verbal offenses in that they label these offenses as a kind of “aggression.” Someone asking you a normal question, perhaps inappropriate for the occasion, like “Where are you from?” is thus not friendly and well intentioned, or even awkward and ignorant, but an “aggressor” who has victimized you. It is this terminology, in part, that makes these kinds of complaints so appealing to the complainants and their supporters and at the same time so outrageous to others. What might otherwise be understood as the rudeness or cluelessness of individuals is now cast as a way in which dominant collectivities marginalize and oppress minority groups.
Still, as Alan Jacobs notes, “Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole.” We think they are to some degree, and this is likely to increase. True, there may be a backlash. And yes, it’s always possible social conditions will change in ways that send the course of moral evolution down some other path. We cannot see the future in a crystal ball. But what we do see is that the conditions we claim give rise to a full blown victimhood culture among circles of campus activists are present to lesser degrees elsewhere and show few signs of abating. And it seems that victimhood begets victimhood, as those accused of oppression and privilege find it easiest to defend against such accusations by claiming victimhood themselves. For instance, someone taken to task for being blinded by privilege might be able to silence a critic by labeling his criticism an instance of mansplaining or some other microaggressive offense. And even those most opposed to the morality of victimhood might become similar to their opponents in the course of the conflict, as they increasingly focus on minor and verbal offenses. A complaint about a microaggression complaint is, like the microaggression complaint itself, a complaint about a matter most people would see as trivial.
Under the right social conditions, social behaviors reproduce themselves like a seed crystal dropped into solution. Introduce one violent gang into a lawless setting, and it won’t be long before other gangs form to defend or compete against it. Victimhood culture might self-replicate in similar ways, with the clash of victimhood and dignity giving way to clashes between competing victims.
3) Is the term “victimhood culture” appropriate?
The supporters of microaggression complaints, trigger warnings, and safe spaces commonly object to the term “victimhood culture.” As commenter Andrew puts it, “I don’t think anyone in this emerging set of norms, frameworks, and models for reactivity to speech would describe it as a culture of ‘victimhood.’” Is our use of the term therefore pejorative rather than descriptive? We think it is not, though the question is a fair one. Elsewhere we have noted our own moral preference for dignity culture and commitment to academic freedom, but we don’t find the moral assessment of moral cultures nearly as interesting as the descriptive sociology of moral cultures. As sociologists we are fascinated by alternative moralities such as those of honor and victimhood. Honor is interesting because it is such a peculiar type of status, one associated with a reputation for bravery. So is victimhood, which involves the conferral of a kind of moral status on those designated as victims of oppression. Since this is what best distinguishes this emerging morality from others, we see “victimhood culture” as the most appropriate name.
We do understand why some might see the term as pejorative, though. There is an asymmetry between this term and the terms honor and dignity: People in honor cultures openly refer to their honor and judge it a good thing, people in dignity cultures openly refer to their dignity and judge it a good thing, but people in victimhood cultures would not likewise openly refer to victimhood as a kind of status and judge it a good thing.
We believe this could not be any other way, as there is an inherent tension – a cultural contradiction if you will – in demonizing the privileged and valorizing the oppressed. Supporting one side in a conflict – judging it as virtuous and throwing your weight behind the cause – accords that side a kind of status. The contradiction is that support goes to those who lack privilege, but the ability to attract support is a kind of privilege. It is perhaps then quite difficult – a source of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – to openly acknowledge this: that a reduction in oppression – however limited in context and extent – comes from being recognized as oppressed. If this is the case, it is not really the term “victimhood culture” that people are objecting to, but the very idea that victimization is increasingly valorized, or that anyone might find it attractive to gain recognition as a victim or member of a disadvantaged group.
It is likewise difficult to admit that privilege can ever be a liability. What Lukianoff and Haidt call “vindictive protectiveness” creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before they speak up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” But the advocates of this type of morality seldom acknowledge they are harming anyone at all. This is especially so since, while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim. As commenter Andrew puts it, the culture “seems to separate people into those-who-harm, those-who-are-harmed, and those-who-protect-from-harm.” And as Jake Was Here adds, in response to Andrew, “Those Who Harm can NEVER become Those Who Are Harmed, and Those Who Are Harmed can NEVER become Those Who Harmed.”
Designating one group as protected implicitly designates others as unprotected. While some advocates justify this inequality as serving the purpose of counterbalancing other systemic inequities, such as the continuing effects of historic oppression, it seems that others have difficulty recognizing that the distinction creates any inequality at all. For example, recall the policy the regents of the University of California are considering – to guarantee a right to be free from verbal expressions of intolerance. The policy also says that it “does not apply to the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech.” But obviously these two things cannot both be true. To say someone has a right to be free from some type of speech means someone else is prohibited from speaking. Which groups fall into which category is the only question. They do not answer that question explicitly, of course, since, as Megan McArdle points out, it’s “hard to establish a rule that only some groups are entitled to be free from offense.” The groups on the losing end “will not take this lying down.” They might even start complaining of their victimization and launching campaigns to sway authority figures and the public to their cause.
Owing to these contradictions, we believe, any accurate description of this moral milieu is bound to offend. As sociologists of morality, though, we must discuss these things as clearly as we can. Others can choose whatever terminology they like, so long as they too try to be clear and descriptively accurate as well. Again, our main purpose is neither to make ethical arguments nor to quibble over terminology. Our concern is with the grievances that people have, how those grievances are handled, and how these things vary across different social settings. It’s an endlessly fascinating topic, and we invite others to join us in exploring it.Read More
President Obama spoke out forcefully yesterday on the purpose of college and the perils of the new political correctness. (See coverage at Vox.) At a forum on college access and affordability, in Des Moines, Iowa, a high school student asked him about Ben Carson’s proposal that government cut funding for “politically biased colleges.” This gave the President an opportunity to talk about recent trends on college campuses, and how intellectual and political diversity in his own college days broadened his mind and changed some of his assumptions. Here’s the key section on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and “coddling:”
It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.
His whole response is a beautiful statement on the value of a liberal arts education — including exposure to political diversity — for creating thoughtful and open-minded citizens.
You can watch the whole interaction here. Drag the slider to 1:22:32
I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.
Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.
Later this month I will write a blog post laying out the implications of this extraordinary article. But first I want to make the ideas in the article widely available. It’s a fairly long article, so I provide below an outline of its main sections with extensive quotations from each section. My hope is that you can read the text below and get 80% of the value of the article in just 7 minutes.
In what follows, all text is copied and pasted directly from the published article, [except for comments from me, which are in brackets.] I have also bolded the lines that are most important for understanding the phenomena described in The Coddling of the American Mind. The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.
Here’s the full citation: Campbell, B., & Manning, J. (2014). Microaggression and moral cultures. Comparative sociology, 13, 692-726. [Link to journal online; Here is a link to an ungated copy at Academia.edu]
Conflict occurs when someone defines another’s behavior as deviant – as immoral or otherwise objectionable…. Conflict and social control are both ubiquitous and diverse, as the issues that spark grievances and ways of handling them vary enormously across social settings. Here we address changing patterns of conflict in modern societies by focusing on a new species of social control that is increasingly common at American colleges and universities: the publicizing of micro aggressions.[p.693]… As we dissect this phenomenon, then, we first address how it fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties. We note that these tactics sometimes involve building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses. We address the social logic by which such tactics operate and the social conditions likely to produce them – those that encourage aggrieved individuals to rely on third parties to manage their conflicts, but make obtaining third party support problematic. We then turn to the content of the grievances expressed in microaggression complaints and related forms of social control, which focus on inequality and emphasize the dominance of offenders and the oppression of the aggrieved.
We argue that the social conditions that promote complaints of oppression and victimization overlap with those that promote case-building attempts to attract third parties. When such social conditions are all present in high degrees, the result is a culture of victimhood in which individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance. [See DeScioli & Kurzban for more on the urgency of appealing to third parties] We contrast the culture of victimhood with cultures of honor and cultures of dignity.[p.695]
2) DEPENDENCE ON THIRD PARTIES
A) Gossip, Protest, and Complaint
Of the many ways people bring their grievances to the attention of third parties, perhaps the most common is to complain privately to family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. This is called gossip – “evaluative talk about a person who is not present.” … Both individualized and collective conflicts might be brought to the attention of authority figures asked to punish the offender or otherwise handle the case. Small children often bring their complaints to adults, for example, while adults might bring their complaints to the legal system (e.g., Baumgartner 1992). Explaining the rise of microaggression complaints, then, requires that we explain the conditions that lead individuals to bring their problems before third parties. We suggest that the same factors that increase reliance on third parties in general encourage the public documenting of grievances in particular.
B) The Structural Logic of Moral Dependence
There are several circumstances that make individuals more likely to rely on third parties rather than their own devices. One factor is law. Historically, the growth of law has undermined various forms of unilateral social control. In times and places with little or no legal authority to protect property, settle disputes, or punish wrongdoers, people frequently handle such problems on their own through violent aggression – a phenomenon that students of law and social control refer to as “self-help”… Legal authority can potentially supplant other mechanisms of social control, from milder forms of self-help to negotiated compromise and mediation. Insofar as people come to depend on law alone, their willingness or ability to use other forms of conflict management may atrophy, leading to a condition Black refers to as “legal overdependency” (1989:77).[p.697]
Similarly, a college or university administration might handle conflicts among students and faculty. Educational institutions not only police such academic misconduct as cheating and plagiarism, but increasingly enact codes forbidding interpersonal offenses…. But note that reliance on third parties extends beyond reliance on authorities. Even if no authoritative action is taken, gossip and public shaming can be powerful sanctions. And even those who ultimately seek authoritative action might have to mobilize the support of additional third parties to convince authorities to act. Indeed, the core of much modern activism, from protest rallies to leaflet campaigns to publicizing offenses on websites, appears to be concerned with rallying enough public support to convince authorities to act. [p.698]
3)CAMPAIGNING FOR SUPPORT
A second notable feature of microaggression websites is that they do not merely call attention to a single offense, but seek to document a series of offenses that, taken together, are more severe than any individual incident. As the term “micro” implies, the slights and insults are acts that many would consider to be only minor offenses and that others might not deem offensive at all. As noted on the Oberlin Microaggressions site, for example, its purpose is to show that acts of “racist, heterosexist/ homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, ableists, sexist/cissexist speech etc.” are “not simply isolated incidents, but rather part of structural inequalities” (Oberlin Microaggressions 2013). These sites hope to mobilize and sustain support for a moral crusade against such injustice by showing that the injustices are more severe than observers might realize.
A) The Structural Logic of Partisanship
Black’s theory of partisanship identifies two conditions that make support from third parties more likely. First, third parties are more likely to act as partisans when they are socially closer to one side of the conflict than to the other, as they take the side of the socially closer disputant (Black 1998:126)… Any social tie or social similarity a third party shares with one disputant but not the other increases the chance of partisanship. Second, third parties are more likely to act as partisans when one side of a conflict is higher in status than the other, as they take the side of the higher-status disputant (Black 1998:126). [p.700]… But note that these campaigns for support do not necessarily emanate from the lowest reaches of society – that they are not primarily stocked or led by those who are completely lacking in property, respectability, education, or other forms of social status. Rather, such forms as microaggression complaints and protest demonstrations appear to flourish among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities. The socially down and out are so inferior to third parties that they are unlikely to campaign for their support, just as they are unlikely to receive it. [p.701].
B) Partisanship and Conflict Severity
[This is a long section on how partisanship leads some participants to magnify, exaggerate, or even invent transgressions that never happened]
4) DOMINATION AS DEVIANCE
A third notable feature of microaggression complaints is that the grievances focus on inequality and oppression – especially inequality and oppression based on cultural characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. Conduct is offensive because it perpetuates or increases the domination of some persons and groups by others.
A) Microaggression as Overstratification
According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. [Therefore…] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013). [p.706-707] [In other words, as progress is made toward a more equal and humane society, it takes a smaller and smaller offense to trigger a high level of outrage. The goalposts shift, allowing participants to maintain a constant level of anger and constant level of perceived victimization.]
B) Microaggression as underdiversity
Microaggression offenses also tend to involve what Black calls “underdiversity” – the rejection of a culture. Large acts of underdiversity include things like genocide or political oppression, while smaller acts include ethnic jokes or insults. The publicizers of microaggressions are concerned with the latter, as well as more subtle, perhaps inadvertent, cultural slights…. Just as overstratification conflict varies inversely with stratification, underdiversity conflict varies directly with diversity (Black 2011:139). Attempts to increase stratification, we saw, are more deviant where stratification is at a minimum; likewise, attempts to decrease diversity are more deviant where diversity is at a maximum. In modern Western societies, an ethic of cultural tolerance – and often incompatibly, intolerance of intolerance – has developed in tandem with increasing diversity. Since microaggression offenses normally involve overstratification and underdiversity, intense concern about such offenses occurs at the intersection of the social conditions conducive to the seriousness of each. It is in egalitarian and diverse settings – such as at modern American universities – that equality and diversity are most valued, and it is in these settings that perceived offenses against these values are most deviant. [p.707]. [Again, the paradox: places that make the most progress toward equality and diversity can expect to have the “lowest bar” for what counts as an offense against equality and inclusivity. Some colleges have lowered the bar so far that an innocent question, motivated by curiosity, such as “where are you from” is now branded as an act of aggression.]
C) Victimhood as Virtue
When the victims publicize microaggressions they call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders. In doing so they also call attention to their own victimization. Indeed, many ways of attracting the attention and sympathy of third parties emphasize or exacerbate the low status of the aggrieved. People portray themselves as oppressed by the powerful – as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy. [They describe such practices going back to ancient Rome and India] … But why emphasize one’s victimization? Certainly the distinction between offender and victim always has moral significance, lowering the offender’s moral status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs, though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims, emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless. [p.707-708] [This is the great tragedy: the culture of victimization rewards people for taking on a personal identity as one who is damaged, weak, and aggrieved. This is a recipe for failure — and constant litigation — after students graduate from college and attempt to enter the workforce]
[Reminder: All text not in brackets is from Campbell, B., & Manning, J. (2014). Microaggression and moral cultures. Comparative sociology, 13, 692-726]
5) THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF MICROAGGRESSION
In sum, microaggression catalogs are a form of social control in which the aggrieved collect and publicize accounts of intercollective offenses, making the case that relatively minor slights are part of a larger pattern of injustice and that those who suffer them are socially marginalized and deserving of sympathy. [The social conditions that give rise to this form of social control] include a social setting with cultural diversity and relatively high levels of equality, though with the presence of strongly superior third parties such as legal officials and organizational administrators… Under these conditions, individuals are likely to express grievances about oppression, and aggrieved individuals are likely to depend on the aid of third parties, to cast a wide net in their attempt to find supporters, and to campaign for support by emphasizing their own need against a bullying adversary. [p.710]
Several social trends encourage the growth of these forms of social control, particularly in the United States. Since the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, racial, sexual, and other forms of intercollective inequality have declined, resulting in a more egalitarian society in which members are much more sensitive to those inequalities that remain. The last few decades have seen the continued growth of legal and administrative authority, including growth in the size and scope of university administrations and in the salaries of top administrators and the creation of specialized agencies of social control, such as offices whose sole purpose to increase “social justice” by combatting racial, ethnic, or other intercollective offenses (Lukianoff 2012:69–73). Social atomization has increased, undermining the solidary networks that once encouraged confrontational modes of social control and provided individuals with strong partisans, while at the same time modern technology has allowed for mass communication to a virtual sea of weak partisans. This last trend has been especially dramatic during the past decade, with the result that aggrieved individuals can potentially appeal to millions of third parties. [P. 710] …As social media becomes ever more ubiquitous, the ready availability of the court of public opinion may make public disclosure of offenses an increasingly likely course of action. As advertising one’s victimization becomes an increasingly reliable way to attract attention and support, modern conditions may even lead to the emergence of a new moral culture. [In other words: progress toward greater equality and inclusiveness, combined with the enormous growth of administrators and other “adults” on campus charged with adjudicating complaints about verbal behavior, plus social atomization, multiplied by the power of social media, explains why charges of “microaggression” have emerged so rapidly on some college campuses just in the last few years.]
6) THE EVOLUTION OF MORAL CULTURE
Social scientists have long recognized a distinction between societies with a “culture of honor” and those with a “culture of dignity”…. The moral evolution of modern Western society can be understood as a transition between these two cultures. [p. 711-712]
A) A Culture of Honor
Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them (Cooney 1998:108–109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly, those who engage in such violence often say that the opinions of others left them no choice at all…. In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510). Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs (Cooney 1998:122–129). But historically, as state authority has expanded and reliance on the law has increased, honor culture has given way to something else: a culture of dignity. [p. 712-713]
B) A Culture of Dignity
The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.
When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem (Aslani et al. 2012). Failing this, or if the offense is sufficiently severe, people are to go to the police or appeal to the courts. Unlike the honorable, the dignified approve of appeals to third parties and condemn those who “take the law into their own hands.” For offenses like theft, assault, or breach of contract, people in a dignity culture will use law without shame. But in keeping with their ethic of restraint and toleration, it is not necessarily their first resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities as frivolous. People might even be expected to tolerate serious but accidental personal injuries…. The ideal in dignity cultures is thus to use the courts as quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible. The growth of law, order, and commerce in the modern world facilitated the rise of the culture of dignity, which largely supplanted the culture of honor among the middle and upper classes of the West…. But the rise of microaggression complaints suggests a new direction in the evolution of moral culture.
C) A Culture of Victimhood
Microaggression complaints have characteristics that put them at odds with both honor and dignity cultures. Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount to showing that one had no honor at all. Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.[p.714-715]
A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization. … Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.[p.715]
The culture of victimhood is currently most entrenched on college campuses, where microaggression complaints are most prevalent. Other ways of campaigning for support from third parties and emphasizing one’s own oppression – from protest demonstrations to the invented victimization of hate-crime hoaxes – are prevalent in this setting as well. That victimhood culture is so evident among campus activists might lead the reader to believe this is entirely a phenomenon of the political left, and indeed, the narrative of oppression and victimization is especially congenial to the leftist worldview (Haidt 2012:296; Kling 2013; Smith 2003:82). But insofar as they share a social environment, the same conditions that lead the aggrieved to use a tactic against their adversaries encourage their adversaries to use that tactic as well. For instance, hate crime hoaxes do not all come from the left. [gives examples] … Naturally, whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else) confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it. As clinical psychologist David J. Ley notes, the response of those labeled as oppressors is frequently to “assert that they are a victim as well.” Thus, “men criticized as sexist for challenging radical feminism defend themselves as victims of reverse sexism, [and] people criticized as being unsympathetic proclaim their own history of victimization.”[p.715] [In this way, victimhood culture causes a downward spiral of competitive victimhood. Young people on the left and the right get sucked into its vortex of grievance. We can expect political polarization to get steadily worse in the coming decades as this moral culture of victimhood spreads]
The emerging victimhood culture appears to share [dignity culture’s] disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself [as in an honor culture] as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits. For example, students writing personal statements as part of their applications for colleges and graduate schools often write not of their academic achievements but instead – with the encouragement of the universities – about overcoming adversity such as a parent’s job loss or having to shop at thrift stores (Lieber 2014). And in a setting where people increasingly eschew toleration and publicly air complaints to compel official action, personal discomfort looms large in official policy. For example, consider recent calls for “trigger warnings” in college classes or on course syllabuses to forewarn students they are about to exposed to topics that cause them distress… [This is a clear link between microaggressions and trigger warnings — both make sense in a moral culture of victimhood]
What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity…. At universities and many other environments within modern America and, increasingly, other Western nations, the clash between dignity and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion: One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound. And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable authority. In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly minor, but in this context even minor offenses – or perceived offenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic. Add to this mix modern communication technologies that make it easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the rise of a victimhood culture.[p.718]
[For more on the subject of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and the new “vindictive protectiveness” on college campuses, please see resources on the Coddling page of this website]Read More
[Guest post by Chris Martin, graduate student in sociology, Emory University]
What’s the difference between social work and sociology? The two fields ought to be quite distinct, but as a sociologist myself, I sometimes can’t find the line between sociologists, who study society, and social workers, who remedy social problems. In fact, Karl Marx believed that interpreting society was less important than changing it, and he is the first member of sociology’s holy trinity.
Here’s the more important question—Is it OK to blur the distinction? Does it compromise scholarship when sociologists try to remedy social problems? If sociology, like economics, drew scholars from various ideological backgrounds, I think it would not be problematic. There would be room to debate the pros and cons of new and old forms of social order. American sociology, despite its progressive origins, once had such diversity. Sadly, that diversity has now vanished.
As Jonathan Haidt pointed out, at a 2011 social psychology conference, disciplines face problems when ideological diversity vanishes. Members of the discipline congeal into a moral tribe, which unites around the pursuit of fixed ideals. Because the left dominates social psychology, Haidt argued, social psychology sometimes resembles such a moral tribe, one that shares its totems and taboos. Conservatives (and libertarians) are either ignored or caricatured.
In a new article in The American Sociologist, I examine how sociology faces a similar problem. The article “How Ideology Has Hindered Sociological Insight” (ungated version here) draws attention to three problems.
The first is avoidance of taboo topics and conclusions. The taboos in sociology are similar to the ones that Haidt identified in his 2011 talk about social psychology: Ideas such as that “victims” are sometimes blameworthy, that sexes and races biologically differ from one another, that social beliefs are inborn rather than constructed, and that stereotypes sometimes match average group attributes.
I can see why research on these topics is hard to swallow, but how probable is it that the universe cares about the moral taboos of a small community of researchers who happen to live in the 21st century? In other words, wouldn’t you expect to reach morally troubling conclusions at least some of the time?
The second problem is data censoring. Often, data are trimmed to fit a liberal cause. Consider the case of White privilege. In the canonical article on White privilege, Peggy McIntosh noted, among other things, that her Whiteness endowed her with the privilege of housing affordability: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford ….”
Here McIntosh correctly implies that Whites are better off than Blacks—but incorrectly implies that Whites are better off than everyone else. White income actually lags behind Chinese-American, Filipino-American, Jewish-American, Indian-American, and Japanese-American income. McIntosh may not have had these figures at hand in 1989, but they’re easily available now. Yet they’re persistently trimmed because they interfere with the story that whites, as the majority-group oppressor, have privileges that are denied to all minority groups.
The third problem is limited empathy for outsiders. In everyday life, we often think we have social insight—we assume that we know what information other people hold in their heads. In fact, we have a tendency to assume that if we know something, other people know it too. In reality, of course, that doesn’t always hold. In fact, we don’t even know if other people use the same vocabulary that we use.
For instance, liberals often talk about inequality as a synonym for unfairness. They then describe conservatives as tolerant of inequality. However, inequality (in itself) may simply not be salient for people who aren’t liberals. It’s not that these people don’t care about fairness, but rather that they don’t think that inequality of outcomes necessarily implies unfairness. People (and groups) may differ in how hard they work, or in how valuable their contributions are in the current economy.
Because of these three problems, I believe that American sociology is not producing the very best work that it could produce. What is the solution? I agree with Haidt and his co-authors (in a recent paper) that the answer is diversity. We need to find and encourage more non-liberals to join the field of sociology. We don’t need the proportion of conservatives, liberals, and libertarians to match the proportions in the US population. That goal would be absurd. But we sorely need to change the current state of affairs. One social psychologist, Lee Jussim, recently wrote how he enacted change—see his blog post “How to Encourage Non-Liberal Students in Psychology.”
The irony here is that sociologists care about race, gender, and class diversity not just for the sake of social justice, but also for the sake of bringing different perspectives into the classroom. Given the relevance of political polarization to the study of social divisions, isn’t it obvious that sociology needs political diversity too?
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A few years ago, psychologists looked at all of the psychological studies of people in different cultures and concluded that Westerners are WEIRD. That’s an acronym, not an insult. People from Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic countries are consistent psychological outliers compared to the other 85% of the world’s population.
On psychological tests, Westerners tend to view scenes, explain behavior, and categorize objects analytically. But the vast majority of people around the world more often think intuitively—what psychologists call “holistic thought.”
Five years ago, I had just arrived at the University of Virginia, and I had a thought flash: Aren’t most of these WEIRD elements even more true of liberal culture within the United States? Liberalism thrives in universities (Education), cities (Industrialized), the wealthy East and West coasts (Rich), and ultra-pluralistic groups like Occupy Wall Street and Unitarian churches (Democratic). So if Westerners think WEIRDly, maybe liberals think even WEIRDer. I went to talk with my advisors, Shige Oishi and Jonathan Haidt, and they liked the idea and joined me on the project (along with Xuemin Zhang, Felicity Miao, and Shimin Chen)
Five years and thousands of participants later, we just published the findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. We found that American liberals think even WEIRDer, even more unlike the rest of the world, than the average American conservative.
We studied this using tests that cultural psychologist use to measure cognitive differences. In one test, participants have to choose two of three items to categorize together, such as scarf, mitten, and hand. Westerners tend to categorize scarf and mitten because they belong to the same abstract category. People in most other cultures tested such as China and the Middle East tend to pair mitten and hand because those two things have a relationship with each other. American liberals (on the left side of the graph below) choose those relational pairing much less frequently. American conservatives (on the right side) are more likely than liberals to do the relational pairing. It’s not a majority, but we can still see that the conservatives are less WEIRD in their judgments than are liberals.
Next we wondered if temporarily changing people’s thought style would change their political opinions, so we asked participants to think analytically—even if that was the opposite of their own style. Then participants read articles about social issues like welfare and drug sentencing. The temporary analytic shift made people more likely to support the liberal side, and a temporary intuitive shift made them more likely to support the conservative side.
This all leads me to think that it’s no accident that people call American politics a “culture war.” Liberals and conservatives do really see the world as if they were from different cultures, and it influences whether they see welfare recipients as moochers dragging down hard-working Americans or as people in need of a helping hand. It influences whether we see rehabilitation for drug offenders as rewarding bad behavior or as treating an illness. Social policies have facts and data, but how people see those policies depends a great deal on their cultural mindset.Read More