Conservative Victimhood

Conservative Victimhood

Since Jason Manning and I first started writing about victimhood culture, we’ve been interested the culture’s spread beyond the campus left where it began and where it appears in its most extreme form. What’s especially interesting, as we discuss in our book, is that aspects of the new culture end up being adopted not just by mainstream liberals out of sympathy for the campus left, but also by those on the right who see themselves as staunch opponents of the emergent culture.

What social psychologists call competitive victimhood occurs when two sides of a conflict argue over who has been victimized the most. This occurs in a variety of contexts, and it is unsurprising, in a victimhood culture where victimhood acts as a kind of moral status and campus activists accuse their opponents of privilege, that those so accused would seek to point out their own status as victims. In 2014, for example, Tal Fortgang, a conservative student at Princeton, wrote an article documenting the hardships his family had endured. He framed this as a response to injunctions to “check your privilege,” and after pointing to examples of family members who were shot, or who fled the Nazis, he sarcastically said, “Maybe that’s my privilege.”

In this manner those on the right may end up mimicking campus activists in pointing to their own victimhood as conferring credibility and moral authority, even if their embrace of victimhood isn’t entirely serious. Fortgang did not display other aspects of victimhood culture, such as extreme sensitivity to slight or the demand that administrators and other authorities step in to do something. But other right-wing opponents of victimhood culture may do so.

Consider, for example, a recent National Review article by Frederick M. Hess called “When College Presidents Mistake Lib-splaining for Conservative Outreach.” The title — which Hess might not be responsible for — uses the neologism lib-splaining as a variation on new victimhood culture offenses such as mansplaining, whitesplaining, and straightsplaining, implying that it’s some kind of offense for a liberal to explain something to a conservative. The implication is the same — members of oppressor groups should take care when talking to members of victim groups — only in this formulation liberals are the oppressors and conservatives are the victims. Hess’s complaint is that Occidental College’s president, Jonathan Veitch, as part of an outreach to a conservative group on campus, encouraged them to read Russel Kirk’s Conservative Mind and met with them frequently to discuss it. To many people this might sound like a model of engagement across ideological lines, a model of respect for viewpoint diversity that Heterodox Academy and others advocate. Veitch tried to direct the students toward more intellectual works and encourage them to bring in higher quality conservative speakers. He didn’t try to propagandize. But Hess portrays this as “ideological regulation,” and while noting that The Conservative Mind is a seminal conservative text, complains that it “is also a ponderous, orotund volume first published in 1953 and spanning more than 500 pages.” “Even a thoughtful college student,” he says, “might not regard it as a particularly enjoyable extracurricular read.” Perhaps there’s more to the story than this. College presidents actually have denigrated denigrated conservative groups and have violated their free speech rights in recent years. But if Veitch has a history of doing so, Hess doesn’t say. Instead, he complains about lib-splaining, and it seems that any kind of conversation at all with the group, any attempt to guide the students toward better work, would be deemed offensive.

Also consider one more recent complaint. Conservative and libertarian students at Duke are asking the university administration to condemn Professor Nancy MacLean’s remark that many libertarians “seem to be on the autism spectrum—you know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have difficult human relationships sometimes.” In the complaints we see many of the same tendencies we typically see from outraged leftists. There’s the rephrasing of things to say things MacLean didn’t actually say, such as the author of the report at Campus Reform saying that MacLean speculated “that support for individual liberty might actually be the result of a mental disorder.” There’s the misunderstanding of statistical averages, as when an outraged student says “just because you are a libertarian doesn’t mean you are autistic and just because you are autistic doesn’t mean you lack empathy.” What you don’t see is any reference to actual evidence. Surely neurodiversity correlates with political beliefs, but those who are outraged act as if it is self-evident that what MacLean said it is false.

We have reason to believe it might be true, though. Writing in the libertarian magazine Reason  in 2010, science journalist Ronald Bailey summarized some of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work on libertarians. This part is especially relevant here:

Some of the more intriguing results reported in this study involve the Empathizer-Systemizer scale. The scale measures the tendency to empathize, defined as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion,” and to systemize, or “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing—and they scored a lot higher. The authors go on to suggest that systemizing is “characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism.”

MacLean was criticizing libertarians, and it can be hard to avoid taking offense when your critics try to explain your views. It sounds offensive — maybe it’s even intended to offend — and your first instinct isn’t to find out what might be true about it. But maybe it should be. Maybe the pursuit of truth should be a student’s primary goal. If libertarians and conservatives adopt the practice of complaining to authorities whenever they’re offended, and of taking offense so easily, it will threaten the survival of the university as a place of free inquiry and debate just as these things do when they come from the left.

Image by Robert Couse-Baker (Flickr: angry mob) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
When Is a Fad Not a Fad?

When Is a Fad Not a Fad?

Our first foray into studying victimhood culture focused on websites that listed examples of so-called “microaggressions.” The microaggression catalogues were a strange new behavior, one that suggested new ways of thinking about and handling moral conflict. We soon realized it was part of a larger pattern, one that included other new practices like campaigning for safe spaces, demanding trigger warnings, and telling people to “check their privilege.” We pointed to social conditions that we believe explained the rise of this new pattern of moral life — what we called victimhood culture. Having no reason to think these conditions would reverse themselves, we suggested victimhood culture would continue to grow.

This was in 2014. When our first paper on the topic began to attract attention in 2015, it met with some skepticism. Some noted that a few of the microaggression blogs that first attracted our attention had become inactive and took this to indicate that the entire concern with microaggression was a fad whose time had passed.

Yet, in the years since, it seems like the concept of microaggressions has continued to gain currency and influence. Consider some recent signs that concern with microaggressions is still going strong:

  • On February 9-10, Illinois State University hosted a two-day workshop on “Race and Immigration Under the Trump Administration.” The theme for the second day of the conference was “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” It featured presentations such as “Microaggressions in the Classroom: What We’ve Learned from Student, Faculty, and Staff Responses to the Microaggressions in the Classroom” and “Micro-aggressions, School Climate, and Educational Equity: A Critical Praxis Approach.” The event reportedly cost $14,000.
  • On January 31, Indiana State University hosted a webinar on “Micro Aggression, Equity & Inclusion.” Describing the event, the school’s Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence said, “Martin Luther King Jr said it best ‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’  This statement simplified how micro aggressions can hinder or hurt our society and campuses.”
  • On January 22, Multnomah County, Oregon reached an agreement with a municipal workers union. The contract states that “the County and the union won’t tolerate any form of “micro-aggression,” which is defined as ‘commonplace and casual verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities and denigration, often unintentional or unconscious, that repeat or reaffirm stereotypes and convey negative or derogatory messages based on the recipient’s status in a racial minority or other non-dominant culture group.’”
  • On February 13, Hip Hop Wired magazine published a piece on a Brooklyn woman, Andrea X, who founded a women-of-color-only retreat in Costa Rica because “her annoyance with white micro-aggression moved her to remove ‘white people from my personal life.’”
  • On January 15, a Michigan high school teacher authored an editorial claiming that his school’s ban on wearing hats and hoodies in class (excepting religiously mandated headwear) was a racial microaggression because it expects students of color to follow a European tradition of politeness.
  • The YMCA in Manchester, New Hampshire hosted workshops on Martin Luther King Day that addressed such topics as microaggressions and the gender spectrum. (A larger workshop, attended by 200 people, was initially entitled “Unpacking Whiteness” before complaints led to it being called “Unpacking Social Identies.”)
  • Last November, the University of Arkansas publicized a talk given by one of its doctoral students, who “spoke to a group of about 60 parents and students between the ages of 14 and 18 at the ABC Adolescent Center in Little Rock” about microaggressions and their impact.

Some of these cases involve educating people on how to avoid accidentally giving offense, and so are not drastic departures from the norms of restraint and etiquette found in mainstream dignity culture. The same goes for something like a recent blog post at HuffPost Canada with the title “How to Shut Down Microaggressions While Keeping Your Cool,” which gives advice that includes keeping calm and considering the possibility that the offense was unintentional. Not all who invoke the term fully embrace every aspect of victimhood culture, and not every aspect of victimhood culture is completely different from mainstream morality.

Yet it’s still notable that these everyday slights and awkward statements are now being labelled as a species of aggression (a term we used to reserve for intentional hostility), that they are presented as evidence of large-scale conflict (the domination of entire social groups), and that they are treated as something worthy of so much attention. Also notable is that they are defined so that only people from historically disadvantaged groups can be subject to them. Speaking of the need to remove white people from one’s life is, apparently, not a microaggression, not matter how hurtful a white person might find it. The concept itself suggests a heightened moral sensitivity and a moral system that treats higher social stature as a kind of moral handicap.

We might also note that the term microaggression has, to some extent, been supplanted by new terms describing specific microaggressive offenses. One of these new offenses is cultural appropriation, and it too is quite visible in recent headlines. For instance, we recently blogged about the newly deviant nature of white people practicing yoga. Consider some other examples:

  • Cosmopolitan tells us that fashion retailer Zara was “Called Out for Cultural Appropriation For its “Check Mini Skirt,” which sported a pattern similar to traditional clothing from parts of South and Southeast Asia: “Literally ANY Indian person could’ve pointed out in two minutes what the problem is with this.”
  • Teen Vogue describes a similar complaint against clothing company H&M, accused of cultural appropriation for selling socks with a pattern that resembled the word “Allah” written in Arabic letters. The company insists the resemblance was a coincidence.
  • Fashion designer Zuhair Murad was criticized for cultural appropriation after a runway show in which models wore clothing inspired by Native American styles, with some wearing feathers in their hair.

Cultural appropriation is, like other sorts of microaggression, an intercollective offense — something described as a way of oppressing entire social groups. Though not an act of physical force, it might be labelled as a kind of aggression or even violence. And like other microaggressions, it is by definition something that only some groups can commit.

What’s particularly interesting about cultural appropriation is that, in the recent past, some of these offenses might have been described as virtues — signs of tolerance, wordliness, and interest in other cultures — in the very same social circles where they are now condemned. One of the reasons we write about all this stuff is that, as sociologists who study morality, it is fascinating for us to see new categories of offense come into being. It is equally fascinating to see these moral concepts rapidly spread through the social world, such that people casually talk about them as if they had always known that offenses like cultural appropriation or deadnaming were great sins, even if they first heard of them last year.

It makes one wonder how often cultural change renders itself invisible, with those ahead of its advance dismissing it as an irrelevant fad, and those in its wake forgetting it was ever any other way.

Photo: Alfred Levegh vainqueur de Paris-Toulouse-Paris 1900 sur Mors à pneus Michelin, Histoire de l’automobile, Pierre Souvestre, éd. H. Dunod et E. Pinat, 1907 (ASIN B001BPBE58) p.484 (reprise d’une photographie de Motor Review)
Victimhood Culture and Statistics

Victimhood Culture and Statistics

Victimhood culture has arisen in its extreme form recently among groups of campus activists, but it pervades other parts of the university too. Many of the precepts — that speech can be violence, that whites can’t be the victims of racism or men the victims of sexism, etc. — come from what is taught regularly in many humanities and social sciences courses. And while it may seem that other parts of the university are immune, increasingly that’s not the case. A recent story in the Claremont Independent describes Pomona College’s Introduction to Statistics course:

This spring semester, the general Introduction to Statistics (MATH058) course at Pomona College has a new addition to its curriculum—the exploration of social justice issues. …the class uses “examples from social justice literature [to] help explain the statistics.” …. A component of the class also includes mandatory journals submitted every week that “should contain reflections on both the statistical and social justice topics covered.”

And while this kind of thing may be unusual in math and natural sciences courses, this isn’t the first example of it. An Engineering professor at Smith College, for example, received an award from the National Science Foundation “for her work on implementing and assessing critical and feminist pedagogies in engineering classrooms.” And she received another award for “combining social justice work and science pedagogy.”

Increasingly the purpose of the university seems to be to combat oppression and to empower victims. Social justice rather than truth is becoming the university’s telos, as Jonathan Haidt has noted. Every part of the university community must be on board. And “if truth conflicts with social justice, truth gets thrown under the bus.”

Photo by Officialpomonacollege (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Victimhood Culture and Violence

Victimhood Culture and Violence

Toni Airaksinen interviewed Jason Manning and me about our new book:

The Rise of Victimhood Culture, to be published next week by Palgrave MacMillan, eschews traditional thinking about campus culture and asserts that conflict arises when “a more traditional culture of dignity” comes into tension with the nascent “culture of victimhood.” …

“Victimhood culture considers offensive words a form of violence and oppression, something that must be remedied by public or administrative action,” Manning said, adding that this new cultural regime is often “antithetical to free speech and conducive to censorship.” … he observed that when college administrators don’t clamp down on speech that students find offensive, some students may feel “justified in committing violence in ‘self-defense.’

This is the circumstance under which victimhood culture can lead to violence. Campus activists prefer to have authorities deal with those who offend them, but sometimes the authorities refuse. “No one will protect us? We will protect ourselves.”

Read the whole thing at Campus Reform.

And for more on censorship, violence, and victimhood culture, see our posts on “Fighting Words and Free Speech” and “Outrage and Inquiry.”

Victimhood Culture and Concept Creep

Victimhood Culture and Concept Creep

We recently blogged about the strange case of a Michigan State University professor who claimed that white Americans who practice yoga are participating in the “continuation of white supremacy and colonialism.” Not only does this claim represent the sometimes confusing nature of contemporary moral debates, it also illustrates another trend that we discuss in our book: the stretching of concepts related to harm and oppression. In a process that psychologist Nick Haslam calls “concept creep,” terms for referring to harm and oppression are expanding to cover an ever-wider variety of things. In our book, we mention the example of violence:

Most still use the term to refer to physical force, such as punching, kicking, or stabbing. But many also apply the term to harsh language, social inequality, and whatever else they consider harmful. Agencies such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Center for Disease Control now define violence to include verbal abuse and psychological harm. Sociologists might refer to patterns of disadvantage as structural violence. Student activists often have an even more expansive conception. One Oxford student demanding the removal of Cecil Rhodes’s statue explains, “There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to lectures, there’s a violence to having to sit with paintings of former slave holders whilst writing your exams” (quoted in Furedi 2017:59). When a student at Scripps College reported someone had written “Trump 2016” on her white board, the student government president condemned the slogan as “intentional violence” (Soave 2016). Even terms for specific and extreme kinds of violence get stretched in this way: When one Canadian artist displayed paintings influenced by a Native American style, activists accused her not just of cultural appropriation, but of “cultural genocide” (Nasser 2017).

We see something similar with the term white supremacy. In the traditional and still most common definition, this refers to belief in the innate superiority of the white race over all others, usually coupled with a belief in not giving people from different races equal rights. It conjures images of U.S. slavery and its justifications, the Jim Crow laws that mandated second-class citizenship for Southern blacks, Ku Klux Klan rallies and Neo-Nazi marches. It does not typically conjure images of people who are open-minded, believe in equal rights, have friends of other races, but happen to practice yoga.

Yet the concept is now applied to this, as well as to other things far afield from its traditional usage. Another recent example comes from Salisbury University, where a professor taught students using a “Pyramid of White Supremacy” diagram that displays a hierarchy of various things that are supposedly different degrees of white supremacy, building up to “genocide” at the apex. In addition to things like the “KKK” and “racial slurs,” it includes “remaining apolitical,” saying “we all belong to the human race,” and “cultural appropriation” (presumably including the practice of yoga).

Victimhood culture encourages this sort of concept creep. Conditions that breed a high sensitivity to slight encourage people to describe things they find offensive in the strongest possible terms – not a mere insult, but a verbal assault; not an awkward statement, but a microaggression; not just irritating, but oppressive. Victimhood culture also involves a tendency to rely on third parties – complaining to authorities or to the public at large – and this too encourages people to use the most severe terms available. Language that emphasizes and exaggerates one’s degree of victimization becomes a tool for convincing others to join one’s side.

The resort to strong labels can be effective – people do view things differently depending on how you frame them. But it can also backfire. When practicing yoga or talking about the unity of the human race is branded “white supremacist,” we might wonder if there is any behavior on earth a white person can engage in that’s not white supremacist. The term could well lose its moral force, such that accusations of white supremacy no longer even raise eyebrows. Should that happen, the main beneficiary might be those who actually campaign for racial hierarchy – the ones the term used to describe.

(Photo by Marc Nozell, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)