Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Microaggressions, Moral Cultures, and the Culture of Victimhood

Two sociologists theorize the campus culture of victimhood as a transition to a third moral culture, supplanting earlier cultures centered around honor and dignity. Their theory gives a possible explanation for why a well-meaning liberal like Yale Professor Christakis has such difficulty communicating with protestors in the videos above. Christakis is focused on logic, rationality, and open discussion, while the students want a Safe Space and someone who acknowledges their pain without analyzing it.

Growing up, I could easily understand that there was a "generation gap" between people my age and our parents and teachers. But I could not imagine what the gap would be like between us and our own children and students. (Gee, I'm hip, and I'll always understand what it's like to be a kid or teenager...) Perhaps this is it.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures
Authors: Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning
Source: Comparative Sociology, Volume 13, Issue 6, pages 692 – 726 (2014)
DOI 10.1163/15691330-12341332

Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.
Summarized here by Jonathan Haidt. (I highly recommend following the link as Haidt excerpts from the paper and adds insightful commentary.) More in The Atlantic and Chronicle.
... 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.
If I were a sociologist or psychologist I might coin new terms like Self-Infantilization or Hyper-Sensitivity Social Justice Disorder.

See also Struggles at Yale and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

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