Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Conor Friedersdorf on the rise of the Victimhood Culture

There is a lot I could write about this, and I mean "a lot" even for me, but it will take time to formulate the thoughts.

Meanwhile ... here are some very long extracts from two pieces Friedersdorf has published in the last week.

Per their discipline, the sociologists offer structural explanations for why college students are addressing conflicts within the framework of “microaggressions.” Victimhood culture “arose because of the rise of social conditions conducive to it,” they argue, “and if it prevails it will be because those conditions have prevailed.”  
Those social conditions include the following:

  • Self-help in the form of dueling or fighting is not an option.
  • “The availability of social superiors—especially hierarchical superiors such as legal or private administrators—is conducive to reliance on third parties.”
  • Campaigns aimed at winning over the support of third parties are likeliest to occur in atomized environments, like college campuses, where one cannot rely on members of a family, tribe or clan to automatically take one’s side in a dispute.
  • Since third-parties are likeliest to intervene in disputes that they regard as relatively serious, and disputes where one group is perceived as dominating another are considered serious by virtue of their aggregate relevance to millions of people, victimhood culture is likeliest to arise in settings where there is some diversity and inequality, but whose members are almost equal, since “a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.”  
This interesting theory offers a lot of fodder for reflection––indeed, it is broader in scope and more nuanced in its particulars than I’ve been able to convey in this article, and interested readers should read Jonathan Haidt’s treatment for more detail.

I ponder microaggressions as “a form of social control in which the aggrieved collect and publicize accounts of intercollective offenses, making the case that relatively minor slights are part of a larger pattern of injustice and that those who suffer them are socially marginalized and deserving of sympathy,” I certainly see their emergence on college campuses, but I wonder about other possible iterations.

For example, the emergence of “the blogosphere” in the early aughts––something I participated in to some extent–– was rife with examples of conservative, progressive, and libertarian bloggers calling attention to minor slights against their respective ideological groups by mainstream media outlets. In “Fisking” the MSM, the aggrieved seized on these slights, often exaggerating them in the process; tried to garner the support of third parties (an ombudsman, the public at large); cast themselves as victims of unfair treatment; and demonized adversaries.


Victimhood cultures emerge in settings, like today’s college campuses, “that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions,” they argue. “Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood ... the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”

To return to Oberlin, it is instructive to imagine how an exchange-student from Spain might react to the Hispanic student’s post on the Oberlin Microaggressions blog. Were he operating in an honor culture, he might find the student and slap her in the face. In a dignity culture, he might ignore the post, or write the student a private note that says, “Hey, just to let you know, in my native country, there are millions of people who are both white and native Spanish speakers. And we all say fĂștbol.”
Whereas in a victimhood culture, the Spaniard might write his own post at Oberlin Microaggressions, constructed to heighten the perceived insult. “Hey you American supremacist,” he might tell the Hispanic student, “your HEGEMONIC ignorance of MY PEOPLE effectively ERASES US. Before you engage in RHETORICAL GENOCIDE against me in the future, consider that by calling it YOUR LANGUAGE you’ve EXCLUDED millions of people in a country smaller and poorer than yours.” Then someone else could take offense and call the Spaniard a white-male colonialist. There is no end to conflict in a victimhood culture.

There's also a follow-up


3) Reporting “microaggressions” to college authorities empowers administrators to wield ever greater control over campus life; it chills even unobjectionable speech by faculty members and students alike; and it deprives students of the ability to learn how to coexist without adult supervision or intervention in an environment where the stakes are lower than a first job or group house or marriage. Plus, why savage individuals for “micro” offenses when everyone ostensibly agrees that the problem is cumulative? The logic is similar to that of drug warriors who urge harsh punishments for random users because drug use is harmful in aggregate, then act like their critics just don’t get how damaging heroin is. 

4) While many public complaints about “microaggressions” pertain to objectionable, cumulatively burdensome interactions, many others do not. Yet collectors and aggregators of “microaggression” complaints bundle them based on the intensity of the grievance felt by the person asserting it, not independent criteria. The emotional experience of accusers is treated as sacrosanct. In this way, the subjective emotions of the most mercurial teenagers come to disproportionately shape campuses, whether or not they accord with group opinions or reality.


What’s in dispute is whether the framework inevitably encourages excesses. Its critics believe that it is too vulnerable to gaming to be workable; that it will always trend toward absurdity; that its defenders do too little to remedy its excesses; and that one needn’t put up with the costs because there are other ways to get all the benefits.

​5) Those beliefs are premised not only on the many anecdotal examples of parodic complaints that appear on campuses where “microaggressions” as a framework prevail, but on the insight that if status accrues to people based on expressing grievance and demonstrating victimhood, the incentives to exaggerate both will be irresistible, especially among immature people in their late teens and early twenties.

Where I'd eventually like to go with this is to propose that a suspicion of a victimhood culture has so permeated evangelicalism in some settings that the skepticism may fuel reactions to what are colloquially known as watchblogs. The problem seems to be that there's another element at work in why people in evangelical circles could view watchblogging with suspicion and it's not just the "this is gossip/slander" stuff, because those reactions can show an ignorance of how some watchblogging can deal almost entirely with material available for public consideration.  No, there's something else but to get to that something else is best saved for another post. Providentially, someone over at Slate has touched on the thing.

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