About five weeks ago I highlighted a new book by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, which you can buy (or see a preview) at the link below. It’s by two sociologists, and although there may be a bit much academic sociology for the general reader, there are lots of references to back up their statements.
I thought the book worth reading because I firmly believe that much of intersectional and authoritarian Leftism is a form of solipsism rather than a call for social justice—a way of calling attention to yourself (there’s nobody so demanding of empathy as a self-styled victim) to set you apart from others. That’s not to say that there are no victims, for of course bigotry persists in this world, but it’s hard to explain how those who are fully entitled and “privileged” nevertheless try to place themselves as high as possible on the victim hierarchy, and do things like demanding new forms of segregation, like campus “cultural centers,” or kicking gay men off the hierarchy because they’re not sufficiently oppressed.
What’s new in the interview that’s not in the book is the authors’ analysis of the #MeToo movement and a more detailed discussion of “cultural appropriation”, whose policers see as a form of moral pollution. They also have a few choice (and not necessarily positive) words about Lindsay Shepherd, who seems increasingly to be touting her own status as victim as well as courting white supremacists while denying it.
This view is not popular, for it “erases” the self-styled victims, but I think Campbell and Manning have some valid points. As I summarized their argument in my last post:
. . . the main topic is the pervasiveness of victimhood culture on college campuses, which means mostly the Left.
Campbell and Manning explain why campuses seem to have become the focus of this culture (I won’t explain that here), and contrast it with two other forms of culture that have existed over history. One is “Honor Culture” (the culture of the Old South, some Muslim societies, and many street gangs), in which individuals are expected to be offended by insults and take matters into their own hands, meting out what they consider “justice” to restore their honor. Another is “Dignity Culture”, in which individuals are supposed to ignore insults, but, if harassment becomes too pervasive or damaging, to appeal to third parties like the government rather than acting as vigilantes.
Campbell and Manning claim that “Victimhood Culture” is a hybrid of these two forms: individuals, seeing themselves as victims (the pivotal aspect of such a culture), easily take offense at slights and insults, real or perceived, and yet rather than rectifying these slights themselves, appeal to third parties for adjudication. In this case, it’s mostly university authorities (and, of course, social media) who are the “third parties.” That explains in part the huge recent growth of administrators relative to faculty members in American universities. Many of these administrators are there to adjudicate disputes or enforce speech or behavior codes.
If you don’t have time to read their book, the two authors are interviewed by Quillette editor Claire Lehmann at the following link:
I can do little more than call attention to this article, and give you two quotes:
We argue that victimhood culture, at least in its more extreme forms, is new. We see it in its purest form on contemporary college and university campuses. Manifestations of victimhood culture include complaining about and punishing microaggressions, demanding and creating safe spaces, requesting and requiring trigger warnings, and banning or disinviting speakers who might offend designated victim groups.
. . . Like honor cultures, victimhood cultures emphasize one set of vices and virtues over others. They are concerned with eradicating oppression and privilege, and this single-minded moral obsession can lead to the similar kinds of perversities that come from neglecting other virtues in honor cultures. But even in an honor culture your moral status usually has to do with your own behavior rather than someone else’s. In a victimhood culture it’s instead your identity as a victim that gives you status. It’s not your own virtue at all, but someone else’s treatment of you, that makes you virtuous.
One problem with this is that you end up with a system of morality that doesn’t offer much incentive for good behavior. Honor cultures incentivize bravery while neglecting other virtues. But if you want esteem in a victimhood culture, what can you do? It’s not like you can become a victim. Or actually, you can — you can portray yourself as weak and in need of help, you can portray others’ behavior toward you as harmful and oppressive, and you can even lie about being the victim of violence and other offenses. Victimhood culture incentivizes bad behavior.
The extreme form of victimhood culture we see among activists on college campuses leads to another problem in that one’s status as a victim comes not just from individual experiences of victimhood but also from one’s identity as part of a victim group. The idea is that all members of certain groups are victims, but that no one else is. Activists even argue that whites cannot be the victims of racism, or men the victims of sexism. Likewise, whether people can be victims of new offenses like cultural appropriation or microaggression, depends on their identity. A white person wearing a hairstyle associated with African Americans would be cultural appropriation, for instance, but an African American wearing a hairstyle associated with whites would not be. Likewise, those who have pioneered the concept of microaggression have made it clear that not all slights count. A white male elementary school teacher may experience stereotypes and put-downs, for example, but to call those microaggressions would be a “misapplication of the concept.”
The incentivizing of victimhood as a moral virtue also explains why so many campuses are caving into it, becoming virtual slaves to the demands of their students, and why the student complaints become increasingly ridiculous. I see this happening on my own campus, and there are parts of it I can’t abide (see here, for instance).
Everyone wants to be special in some way, and, by viewing identity politics through the lens of sociology and psychology, Campbell and Manning offer one entrée into the tortuous world of campus politics.