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Author: Jason Manning

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 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)
A Prophecy of Victimhood

A Prophecy of Victimhood

In his blurb for our our book, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was kind enough to call us “prophets of the academic world.” He referred to the fact that our first article on victimhood culture – “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” – came out in 2014, a time when few people outside of activist circles had ever heard of microaggressions. In our paper, we posited the spread of microaggression complaints, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other manifestations of victimhood culture. It wasn’t until after our article was published that a series of high profile victimhood eruptions – the Halloween costume controversy at Yale, mass protests over an email at Claremont McKenna, a president pressured to resign at Missouri – brought greater public attention to these things, and to the idea that something strange and new was going on at colleges and universities.

We appreciate Haidt’s compliment, and we do indeed take some pride in diagnosing and explaining the moral shift before many others were even aware of it. But at least some of this recent moral evolution is an acceleration of older trends, and there have been other astute observers who saw where things were headed.

We recently became aware of a piece published by Joseph Epstein in The New York Times in 1989 called “The Joys of Victimhood.” Had we known about it sooner, we surely would have cited it in our book, for Epstein’s argument, written decades before ours, makes some similar observations.

Epstein opens by noting that speakers at the previous year’s Democratic Convention seemed to take pride in advertising things such as having been to rehab for alcoholism, having suffered from addiction to diet pills, or having been born an illegitimate child. He considers this a willingness to embrace the identity of being a victim, and notes that: “Victims have never been in short supply in the world, but the rush to identify oneself as a victim is rather a new feature of modern life.” We likewise argue that, while people in every society might complain of victimization, contemporary victimhood culture is unique in the degree to which people emphasize and advertise their neediness, disadvantage, or suffering.

In our work, we note that portraying oneself as a victim can be a useful conflict tactic, and is often geared towards winning sympathy and support from third parties. Epstein likewise notes that “to position oneself as a victim is to position oneself for sympathy, special treatment, even victory” and gives examples of how victimization works as a tactic of social protest.

We argue that contemporary victimhood culture is most developed and entrenched at colleges and universities, where it shapes not only student life but entire fields of study. Epstein likewise remarks:

“There has come into being a large number of people, many of them in universities, who, if not victims themselves, wish to speak for victims or rouse other people to a sense of their injury as victims. They are the intellectual equivalent of ambulance chasers. Perhaps the best place to see the traffic of victims and ambulance chasers in full flow is in the contemporary university. I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that nowadays if you cannot declare victim status, or find some way to align yourself with putative victims, in the contemporary university you don’t figure to have much standing.”

In our book, we address the seeming paradox that victimhood culture is most highly developed not at the lowest reaches of society, but among the relatively affluent populations of private colleges and Ivy League universities. On this point, Epstein quotes Harvard Graduate Christopher H. Foreman, Jr.: “’The psychological comfort of being simultaneously privileged and oppressed seems too enticing for many people to forgo.” Epstein adds: “The scene thus presented is that of the fortunate teaching the privileged that the world is by and large divided between the oppressed and the oppressors, victims and executioners, and that the former are inevitably morally superior.”

In our work we note that victimhood culture’s sympathy with those recognized as victims is often paired with hostility toward those seen as privileged or as in any way (even unconsciously) contributing to oppression. Critics of contemporary victimhood culture often draw attention to this punitive side of the moral system, and some use “crybully” as a perjorative term for those they think use victimhood claims to dominate others. Writing in 1989, Epstein prefigures this term: “A subtle shift takes place, and suddenly the victim is no longer making appeals but demands . . . . Public pronouncements from victims take on a slightly menacing quality, in which, somehow, the line between victim and bully seems to blur.”

Epstein’s observations suggest that the foundations for contemporary victimhood eruptions were being laid decades ago. In our book, we make a similar point about the intellectual foundations of victimhood culture – neo-Marxian ideas that percolated through the academy for decades before achieving their contemporary prominence. This raises the question of why victimhood culture has accelerated so much in recent years. We suggest some relevant factors in our book, and perhaps readers can think of more.

(Hat tip to Mark Steckbeck for pointing out Epstein’s article: https://twitter.com/msteck1/status/956148620532862976)
(Photo by Mark Schierbecker – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48413476)
Outrage and Inquiry

Outrage and Inquiry

From our new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The new activist culture calls for colleges to confront the small, perhaps unintended slights known as microaggressions, to provide trigger warnings for course material that might offend or upset, and to become safe spaces where ideas go unchallenged. It is characterized by extreme moral sensitivity, and in this way is similar to honor cultures of the past where men were highly sensitive to insults and responded to perceived slurs against their character with duels and other forms of violence.

The new culture is less concerned with slights against individual character than with anything perceived as furthering the oppression of victim groups. In either case, though, extreme moral sensitivity presents a problem in an academic environment. As we warned, “Honest inquiry and communication are bound to offend someone,” so if colleges are to be places of inquiry and communication, “they must have a climate where people are less — not more — prone to outrage than elsewhere.”

Read the whole thing here.

Free Speech as Disarmament

Free Speech as Disarmament

Other people are wrong. A lot.

Other people have crazy and dangerous ideas. They express horrid and immoral beliefs. They argue for destructive policies, and sometimes sway people into adopting them. We cite scientific evidence; they cite debunked pseudoscience. We express insightful criticism and give powerful arguments; they engage in malicious attacks and put up smokescreens of obfuscation.

Why should we let other people speak, even when their ideas are wrong, loathsome, and hurtful?

The question presupposes our ability to control whether they speak or not. That is, it assumes the power to police speech and silence speech we do not like. Doing that effectively requires certain social arrangements. It requires legal institutions constructed and charged with regulating speech, procedures for reporting or discovering offenses, methods for punishing and silencing offenders. If there are existing rules – such as constitutional protections for free speech – they must be dismantled or bypassed. And of course all this social machinery requires people empowered to do the myriad tasks necessary to keep the system working.

If one wants to make war, one needs to construct weapons, and this is equally so for the battle against bad ideas and hateful speech.

Someone committed to battling destructive speech might well urge for the creation of these institutional weapons. Once we have them, they think, we can finally achieve victory. Sure, we will allow reasonable debate – we’re just banishing the unreasonable ideas of the zealots and bigots. Our rational, moral, humane ideas will have the floor.

Few people are very good at thinking two or three moves ahead on the chessboard. So many of those who enthusiastically call for the creation and proliferation of anti-speech weaponry have not given much thought to what will happen if their enemies gain control over it. What if we aren’t the ones who get to decide what is reasonable debate, and what is unreasonable science denial? What if it is the people who disagree with us who get to make the distinction between an acceptable criticism and unacceptable hate speech?

Consider a recent case from Spain:

A Catalan high school teacher, Manel Riu, appeared in court on Thursday accused of hate speech for his tweets and Facebook posts criticizing Spain, government members and the Guardia Civil police. Over a hundred people escorted him to court in Tremp, west of Catalonia, where he denied any wrongdoing and asked for the case’s dismissal.
The case against Riu includes 119 tweets gathered by the Guardia Civil. Most of them can still be found online in his account (@Mireiagalindo). On November 9, he tweeted: “I don’t believe in God, or in the soul, or eternal life, or heaven, or hell… Actually, I do believe in hell: hell is Spain.”

The article gives us no idea if Sr. Riu has ever taken a position on free speech or on hate speech laws. But one could easily imagine someone in his position having vocally supported punishments for hate speech on the assumption that they would mostly be employed against people who said hurtful things about, say, Muslims or Jews. How shocked would such a person be to find such social weaponry turned against themselves?

Similarly, in a recent interview between psychologist Jordan B. Peterson and British television reporter Cathy Newman, Newman challenged Peterson to explain why his freedom of speech should trump transgender people’s right not to be offended. His response was to point out that her interview had been uncomfortable for him – was she not risking offense with her speech? Newman seemed genuinely taken aback, as if she had not considered that a rule against giving offense could ever constrain her speech as well.

Perhaps many of those who urge for stronger weapons against speech cannot imagine that they, or people who agree with them on every matter of importance, will not be the ones in charge of them. Perhaps they cannot imagine the day will come when their own beliefs are the ones deemed controversial and offensive, or false and heretical. Perhaps they believe it a law of history that only good, intelligent people like themselves get to control the institutional machinery of society. Perhaps they are not that familiar with history at all.

For others, the possibility that anti-speech weaponry might be used against them in the future is enough to convince them that it should not be created in the first place. Despite the strong temptation to use force to silence those people for once and for all, they think along the lines of Sir Thomas Moore in A Man for All Seasons: If you tear down free speech protections in your pursuit of the devil, what do you do when he turns ’round on you? They might conclude that the game of eradicating intolerable speech is like tic-tac-toe or thermonuclear warfare: The only winning move is not to play.

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