As I was Saying…

I’ve written several posts about the culture of victimhood and microaggression now hegemonic in academia and eslewhere. Among other points, I’ve noted that such a culture of perceived oppression is actually made possible only by the clemency of the ambient culture:

It is as if the grievance culture is a little ‘virtual machine’ running inside the Western cultural operating system; it is only the smooth functioning of the external OS — peace, prosperity, tolerance, etc. — that makes running the virtual grievance-culture ‘game platform’, with its amusingly inverted status polarities, possible at all.

I’ve also pointed out that in order for the religion of ‘social justice’ to sustain itself, it must always be climbing toward a summit that is in principle unreachable — which means that it must operate with the same urgency at every scale, no matter how much progress has already been achieved:

There’s no limiting principle. And if you watch for a while, you begin to realize that “social injustice” is not only infinite, but fractal. It’s a Julia set of grievances. Zoom in all you like; new affronts will appear at every scale, world without end.

Likewise, I’ve remarked that such a system results in a curious inversion of status:

It’s been said* that “to learn who rules over you, simply find out whom you are not allowed to criticize.” I now offer you Pollack’s Principle of Privilege:

To learn where true privilege lies, simply see how people choose to identify themselves.

Once upon a time, people of mixed race did everything they could to “pass” as white. No longer. The mulatto Barack Obama ostentatiously identifies himself as black, while pallid Elizabeth Warren listed herself in the legal and academic community as a “Native American”.

Another sign of this inversion of privilege is that membership in groups considering themselves ‘oppressed’ is as tightly restricted as an exclusive country-club, and for the same reasons. No sooner had the news about Ms. Dolezal came out than she was denounced as a scurrilous pretender to victimhood. But people only defend what has value. In a right-side-up world, no sane person would ever bother fighting to keep others from seeking low status — but they will do whatever it takes to wall off their privileges against unqualified pretenders.

Finally, I’ve observed that relief from all of this injustice is always expected to come from an external authority:

The sought-after remedy is always some act of government: an entitlement or preference of some sort, or some new constraint upon the liberties of others.

In light of all that, I was interested to see that a pair of sociologists have published a substantial paper on this topic. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has commented extensively on it, with lengthy excerpts. The gist is that we are witnessing the emergence of a new culture that merges, in appalling new ways, the principle characteristics of what Haidt calls ‘honor cultures” and “dignity cultures”. Haidt’s post begins:

I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind

The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.

It’s all there. The reliance on third parties:

Both individualized and collective conflicts might be brought to the attention of authority figures asked to punish the offender or otherwise handle the case. Small children often bring their complaints to adults, for example, while adults might bring their complaints to the legal system…

Historically, the growth of law has undermined various forms of unilateral social control. In times and places with little or no legal authority to protect property, settle disputes, or punish wrongdoers, people frequently handle such problems on their own through violent aggression – a phenomenon that students of law and social control refer to as “self-help”… Legal authority can potentially supplant other mechanisms of social control, from milder forms of self-help to negotiated compromise and mediation. Insofar as people come to depend on law alone, their willingness or ability to use other forms of conflict management may atrophy, leading to a condition [referred] to as “legal overdependency”… the core of much modern activism, from protest rallies to leaflet campaigns to publicizing offenses on websites, appears to be concerned with rallying enough public support to convince authorities to act.

… and the “virtual machine” that depends on an “operating system” featuring overall social clemency:

Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. [Therefore…] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality.

… and the fractal nature of injustice, which manages to maintain the same urgency even as we zoom in to smaller and smaller scales of actual “oppression”:

In other words, as progress is made toward a more equal and humane society, it takes a smaller and smaller offense to trigger a high level of outrage. The goalposts shift, allowing participants to maintain a constant level of anger and constant level of perceived victimization… It is in egalitarian and diverse settings – such as at modern American universities – that equality and diversity are most valued, and it is in these settings that perceived offenses against these values are most deviant. [p.707]. [Again, the paradox: places that make the most progress toward equality and diversity can expect to have the “lowest bar” for what counts as an offense against equality and inclusivity. Some colleges have lowered the bar so far that an innocent question, motivated by curiosity, such as “where are you from” is now branded as an act of aggression.]

The inversion of status within the “virtual machine”:

But why emphasize one’s victimization? Certainly the distinction between offender and victim always has moral significance, lowering the offender’s moral status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs, though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims, emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless… Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.

… and of course, the withering and destructive effect on civilization:

This is the great tragedy: the culture of victimization rewards people for taking on a personal identity as one who is damaged, weak, and aggrieved. This is a recipe for failure — and constant litigation — after students graduate from college and attempt to enter the workforce.

Spot-on, all round. Inclined as I am to the view that there is a relentless cycle of ascent and decline that proceeds quite naturally in high civilizations, and to the view that such civilizations create institutions — in our case, for example, secularism, multiculturalism, and universally enfranchised democracy — that in turn bring about their own extinction, I’m glad to see such a thorough examination of all this. I’m sure it will be a useful resource.

Read the whole thing here.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Musey says

    Malcolm! You’re supposed to be on holiday. Really, you should avoid the internet bickering and have fun but seeing as you started it,let me think…. about victimhood.

    Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places but the loudest cries that I hear, echoing round the ether, come from white men who feel that they are being oppressed. Even though they are still in charge of almost everything.

    You talk about the “clemency of the ambient culture”. Well yes, but this new receptiveness towards the lower orders looks good (to some) but achieves nothing, because paying lip-service to an idea is no good. It does get a few people excited though..a few people who don’t seem to realise that they still have the power. Clemency, and empathy with the lower orders would go out the window if there was any real, meaningful shift in power but we’re nowhere near that.

    So have a lovely holiday and relax. Ask Nina to take the photos so that all us oppressed, poor folks stuck at home can have some vicarious pleasure.

    Love to you both. Have fun and I didn’t mean to cast a pall over anything, and anyway, I’m sure that I don’t have that power!

    Posted September 16, 2015 at 3:51 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Musey, have you actually read the linked items? It seems to me you’re rather missing, if I may say so, the point.

    Posted September 16, 2015 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Musey says

    No Malcolm, I did not do my homework but I had noticed that many of the links were to your previous essays with which I am already familiar, and I was in a rush.

    My comment was superficial but it came from an educated, if mistaken, guess at the gist of this post. Maybe I was wrong and certainly I concede that there is much more depth to your post than my comment acknowledged. However……

    I will read the other links sometime over the weekend and I may get back to you. In the meantime where are all your supporters? I was expecting a lynch mob. You are seriously missing Henry who would no doubt have put me firmly back in my box with a few well chosen insults.

    Posted September 18, 2015 at 12:09 am | Permalink
  4. Whitewall says

    “where are all your supporters?” We are watching the daily evidence of the very points our host is making in his essay, including the other links. You are much too charming for any sort of “lynch mob”.

    Posted September 18, 2015 at 7:34 am | Permalink
  5. Troy says

    Somehow, I think that the women sold to and by ISIS are not too concerned about microaggressions.

    This will lead to the further atomization of an already atomized culture. Who would wants to talk to people like you are talking to toddler?

    Posted September 19, 2015 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  6. Musey says

    Whitewall, you’re pretty charming yourself. Thank you for being so kind.

    Troy, if you were addressing me at all in that comment, and I really don’t know, you are conflating two very different issues because if ISIS and its crazy ideology is coming to rule the world, our whole way of life is stuffed.

    Last but not least, Malcolm. I did my reading as required in order to give a more measured response to your post. “Microaggressions” are, most of the time, annoyances. Nothing more, and usually are shrugged off by sane people who know there are other things to worry about that actually matter. In some cases though, I suppose some feel aggrieved by ongoing, or continuous sniping. A young woman once complained to me that a workmate called her “clip-clop” because he said she had legs like a horse and her heels made the corresponding sound… and I have to admit that I nearly fell off the chair, laughing. What she didn’t make clear initially, is that he called her “clip-clop” many times a day, day in, day out. Anyway, he was reprimanded and stopped doing it because she was finding it upsetting. I understood that, eventually, and anyway he was a nasty guy. Let me be careful here because I’m not saying that men are more cruel than women but that was just the first example of low-level bullying that came to mind, that on the surface seemed funny. It happens from both sides.

    Some people have more serious concerns and some minorities who complain probably have legitimate reasons. It’s not always petty, trivial stuff.

    Posted September 21, 2015 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  7. Musey says

    Henry, I only just noticed that you had returned to the fold. Good to have you back! Nice photo.

    Don’t hold back Henry, if you feel like putting a word in just go for it. I’ve missed you.

    Clip clop.

    Posted September 22, 2015 at 3:28 am | Permalink
  8. JK says

    “Microaggressions” are, most of the time, annoyances. Nothing more, and usually are shrugged off by sane people who know there are other things to worry about that actually matter.

    Hello Musey!Enjoy the link – in full.

    (In the offchance that doesn’t get you to the correct Courts complaint transcript you can find the whole thing on the next (and do note the “jk” mentioned in the brief article is not “Your JK”).

    Posted September 24, 2015 at 5:25 am | Permalink
  9. Musey says

    JK, I enjoyed the link, in full. Just two silly people arguing which means nothing in the general scheme of things.

    I just always wanted my daughter to know that she would be supported in the same way her brothers were, and if I’m being honest, she knew that from the start.

    I am a mother to very gentle boys who love their women and it does worry me that my sweet girl will get out into the world, and find out that she is resented, even hated.

    And to my lovely husband who has always been the best, I really have to say thank you. Do you know how much I love you? Really, no joking about, I do.

    Posted September 26, 2015 at 12:37 am | Permalink