Campbell and Manning Respond to Readers’ Comments
[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.