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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.”

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.

Victimhood Hoaxes and the Culture of Credulity

Victimhood Hoaxes and the Culture of Credulity

Recently it became international news that an 11-year old Muslim girl in Toronto was the victim of a hate crime. She was on her way to school, we all learned, when a man attacked her and used scissors to cut her hijab. After initially running away when she screamed, the man even returned to attack her again.

Now Toronto police say the incident never happened. Yet the story was accepted as fact. News reports even named the apparent victim, as did the Canadian Prime Minister of Justin Trudeau, who tweeted out his sympathy.

Why was everyone so credulous? It’s not exactly esoteric knowledge that people sometimes make up stories. It’s not even the first time someone has made up a story about an attack involving a hijab. Just in 2016 a woman falsely claimed three men attacked her on the New York subway and tried to remove her hijab. At the University of Michigan a woman falsely claimed that a man threatened to set her on fire if she didn’t remove her hijab. And at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette a woman falsely claimed two men robbed her and stole her hijab.

One might expect skepticism upon hearing a similar story, or at least a hesitancy to weigh in quickly and emphatically. But as Jason Manning and I talk about in our new book, the emerging culture of victimhood leads to credulity about certain kinds of claims. Skepticism about such claims of victimhood can get one branded an oppressor, while credulity is seen as virtuous. There is no penalty for being wrong over and over again, but there may be a penalty for any reaction that can be said to further victimize a victim. Thus will the Justin Trudeaus of the world keep believing and publicizing such claims, no matter the harm it does to the apparent victims or to the broader culture.

(Image: Pinocchio, by Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) -http://www.linguaggioglobale.com/Pinocchio/menu_pinocchio.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=600805)