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Author: Bradley Campbell

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
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.”

The Crime of Yoga

The Crime of Yoga

What’s wrong with yoga? If you haven’t been paying much attention to recent moral concerns of the American left, you might assume any opposition to yoga would come from those on the right who object to it as culturally alien or associate it with Eastern religion. For example, recently parents in a Georgia school district objected to the use of yoga and mindfulness practices to reduce student stress. The statements of two of the parents make clear their concerns about the religious (and non-Christian) nature of the practices:

“No prayer in schools. Some don’t even say the pledge of allegiance,” Cobb County mother Susan Jaramillo told NBC affiliate WXIA. “Yet they’re pushing ideology on our students. Some of those things are religious practices that we don’t want our children doing in our schools.”

Christopher Smith, whose sons attend Bullard, shared a similar sentiment on Facebook.

“Now we can’t pray in our schools or practice Christianity but they are allowing this Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation,” he wrote. “This is very scary.”

It might come as a surprise, then, that yoga has also started to become controversial on the far left. At the University of Ottawa, Jen Scharf had been teaching a free yoga class for the disabled for years with the Centre for Student Disabilities before the Centre began having concerns with what they called “cultural issues.” The problem, apparently, was that that yoga comes from India, and it is therefore “cultural appropriation” for non-Indians to practice it. The instructor suggested changing the name — from “yoga” to “mindful stretching” — but the class ended up being canceled.

Shreena Gandhi, of the Religious Studies department at Michigan State, and Lillie Wolff, “organizer, facilitator, and healer,” also have concerns about yoga. In “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation,” they even link yoga to “white supremacy.” They lament that yoga teachers in the U.S. “do not learn about Hindu tradition or Indian cultural history.” The physical aspects of yoga are only part of the practice, and by using these outside the larger context, Western practitioners “are perpetuating the re-colonization of it by diluting its true depth and meaning.”

This is “cultural appropriation,” they say, and it is “a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people.”

They do not recommend that Westerners stop practicing yoga, but they do implore readers to “take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” They ask them “to go beyond an unaccountable surface level relationship with yoga to a deeper, more transformative place of practice, awareness, contemplation, and engagement.”

Oddly, the complaint of conservative parents in Georgia is that yoga is a religious practice that shouldn’t be taught in schools, and the school officials say it’s just exercise. But the complaint from the left is that it’s just being used as exercise without embracing the religious and cultural practices that gave rise to it.

As different groups of activists draw from such divergent, incompatible moral frameworks, following contemporary debates can be bewildering. To a rural, conservative Christian who associates yoga with urban liberals, and who might be suspicious of its Hindu origins, the claim that it is (or usually is) a white supremacist practice must seem nearly insane. It may even confuse cosmopolitan liberals for whom dabbling in a wide variety of cultural practices is a sign of tolerance and openmindedness.

When did cultural appropriation become a crime? When did it become white supremacy? As the emerging victimhood culture spreads, expect to keep hearing of new kinds of offenses like cultural appropriation. Expect to see old terms like white supremacy used in new ways. Expect to see practices long thought of as benign, perhaps even liberal, come under attack.

Photo by lululemon athletica (Flickr: Yoga Journal Conference) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Fighting Words and Free Speech

Fighting Words and Free Speech

In the past few years on American college campuses we’ve seen canceled talks, violent protests, resignations of professors and administrators, and much more. But the events at Evergreen State College in the spring of 2017 still stand out as the most extreme of all the victimhood eruptions. There activists vilified and threatened Professor Bret Weinstein for objecting to a “Day of Absence” where whites were encouraged to leave campus. The administration sided with the activists, and at one point Weinstein had to teach his classes off campus when the police told him they couldn’t protect him. Eventually Weinstein left, but the college has faced declining enrollment and bad publicity since then.

But as Weinstein says in a recent Twitter thread, the college “refuses to comprehend what occurred, and so digs down, not out.”

Weinstein discusses a recent talk at Evergreen by civil rights attorney Alan Levine on “Campus Protests and the Fight against White Supremacy.” At the talk Levine portrayed attempts to silence and punish speech on campus not as illegal or even undesirable censorship, but as part of a noble struggle against racism. As Howard Dean did recently, in doing so he apparently smeared Nicholas and Erika Christakis and other critics of campus censorship.

But how did a civil rights attorney defend censorship? He did so by appealing to the Supreme Court’s “fighting words doctrine” and claiming that it allows universities to regulate offensive speech. Levine isn’t the first to invoke the fighting words doctrine in this manner, but he is wrong about what it says. And given the history of the doctrine, it’s also very strange to see the left invoking it.

“Fighting words” are indeed an official category of unprotected speech, along with obscenity, true threats, and some others. But the Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision in which the Supreme Court formulated the doctrine was the only time the Court has ever upheld a conviction for fighting words. In that case a man was convicted for insulting a police officer. This is hardly known as progressive decision, and subsequent rulings have undermined it enough that many scholars think of the fighting words doctrine as dead.

What’s also strange about the efforts of some contemporary activists to resurrect the fighting words doctrine is that the kinds of laws the Court was upholding in Chaplinsky have their origin in 19th-century honor culture. As Jeffrey Rosen explains, the laws worked as an indirect way of prohibiting dueling. Under the old honor code, certain kinds of insults demanded an aggressive response, so in addition to prohibiting the aggression, one way of preventing duels was to prohibit the insult. Legislatures thus passed laws not only against dueling, but also against provoking duels. They prohibited fighting words — words that in an honor culture would be expected to lead to violence.

Chaplinsky was a throwback to this era. As Rosen notes, even at the time of the decision, the culture had changed substantially:

The foundation of the fighting-words doctrine had collapsed long before the Supreme Court enshrined it as marginal constitutional law in 1942. The Chaplinsky Court defined fighting words as those that “men of common intelligence would understand would be words likely to cause an average addressee to fight.” In a culture based on honor, there was a consensus about the meaning and impact of fighting words. It was perfectly obvious that being called a liar would have provoked a 19th-century gentleman to insist on fighting a duel. But by the 1940s, no such consensus existed.

So the doctrine has seldom been used. And as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) points out, “As the Law is understood today, it is obvious that a citizen calling a policeman a ‘fascist’ [the issue in Chaplinsky] is protected by the First Amendment.”

Now the culture is changing again. In The Rise of Victimhood Culture, Jason Manning and I argue that the new emerging victimhood culture among campus activists has at least one thing in common with the honor cultures of the past — sensitivity to slight. Thus we see current activists on the left repurposing Chaplinsky and the fighting words doctrine. Once again, certain kinds of offense just can’t be tolerated.