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Monday
Sep142015

Thoughts on "Victimhood Culture"

This article in the Atlantic has been making the rounds recently, commenting on a recent scholarly paper (sadly paywalled) on the theory of microagression. Some things that struck me about the piece:

1. It’s strange that most of the commentary on the article acts as if Campbell and Manning (the authors) are dispassionate sociologists, when they clearly have a dog in the fight. They’re charactering past cultures in terms of virtues those cultures nominally value, then don’t even try to identify what virtue the modern culture they disparage is reaching for. It might be accurate to speak of a “solidarity culture”, where the way to respond to a slight is to encourage mass opprobrium, and shibboleths and linguistic norms that demonstrate in-group identity are of paramount importance.

2. It’s really strange that the Atlantic article comments extensively on a blog post from nearly two years ago. Sure, the blog has “microaggressions” in the title, but the Oberlin Microaggresions Tumblr was active from February to September 2013. Despite the title, the stuff it started off cataloging doesn’t exactly fit the bill. (The point of microaggressions is that stuff that’s not overtly aggressive can still be grating, not that it may be ambiguous to what extent an overtly awful person is being a troll.)

3. That blog starts out as a discussion of really overt racism, continues with posts that are a mix of overt racism and the sort of thing actually meant by “microaggressions”, then ends with an angry rant by a Hispanic student who tells a white student to “leave the soccer team” for daring to speak a word of Spanish, mocks their attempt to apologize, and asserts that they “take up to [sic] much space”. The blog ends at that point, with no explanation why. Probably whoever was running the blog moved on to other things, but it would fit the narrative arc to say that last post was some sort of culmination of the state of racial discourse at Oberlin, at which point students decided to never write about that subject, or possibly any subject, ever again. (At the very least, such a narrative would make fine fodder for an Atlantic article.)

4. The article notes:

If “dignity culture” is characterized by a reticence to involve third parties in minor disputes, an argument could be made that many black and brown people are denied its benefits. In a city like New York during the stop-and-frisk era, minorities were stopped by police because other people in their community, aggrieved by minor quality-of-life issues like loitering or sitting on stoops or squeegee men, successfully appealed to third-parties to intervene by arguing that what may seem like small annoyances were actually burdensome and victimizing when aggregated.

To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name?

If you already have political power, it is easy to be dignified. Simply appeal to the law only for serious matters, once your culture has successfully set the definition of what is “serious”. Anything not serious can be easily ignored.

5. Were the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s a product of “dignity culture” or “victimhood culture”? Those protests neither “exercised covert avoidance” nor “sought only to restore harmony without passing judgment”. They appealed for political support against something other than “the most serious of offenses”. Was that an example of “toleration and negotiation”, or a “complaint”, aimed at winning the political support of third parties?

6. A Megan McArdle piece on the same article notes (of duels):

The seconds, the formalities, the extended opportunities for apology, raise the cost of fighting, lower the cost of not doing so, and thereby mitigate the appalling violence to which honor cultures are prone. Unless victim culture can find similar stopping mechanisms, it will collapse into the bloodless version of the endless blood-feuds that made us seek alternatives to honor cultures in the first place.

“Bloodless” is still more than enough to ruin lives, of course. And even when overt violence has been relegated to the margins, any sufficiently big mob is enough to give a violent fringe plenty of motive force.

7. The Atlantic article links to a post by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt wrote a book called The Coddling of the American Mind. In the page on his site where he talks about critical response to the book, he writes:

The New Republic: The trigger warning myth, by Aaron Hanlon. This is a thoughtful essay about the sensitivities needed to lead a seminar class through difficult material. His main point is that TWs are not a form of censorship. I agree. He argues that sometimes guidance is needed beforehand. I agree with that too. I just think its very bad for students to call it a “trigger warning,” or to do anything to convey to students the expectation that they will be warned about… everything.

So you want to write a book about how annoying liberals are, but lack any substantial disagreement. Nothing to do but get into a knock-down drag-out fight about linguistic norms.

8. “Political correctness has gone too far” has gone too far. Well, that’s the joke. More accurate would be: “Political correctness has gone too far” has not gone anywhere.

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