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.