The Victim: Our Modern Hero
It’s a time honored tradition of people who are getting old to lament the disintegration of society as evidenced by the next generation. I mostly hate that tradition for two reasons: society wasn’t particularly wonderful when I was a kid, and I’m in the “next” generation.
Yes, as a high school graduate of the year 2000, I am probably the oldest millennial you know. And as a member of this cohort, I have little interest in trashing the traits and aspirations of my own people. But what’s happened over the last couple of weeks at Missouri and Yale, in view of the last year of utterly ridiculous behavior amongst my age-related compatriots, has made me change my mind.
Several weeks ago I read “Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account” by Jonathan Haidt, co-author of the Atlantic‘s phenomenal “The Coddling of the American Mind“. In it he references a study by two sociologists about the origin of “microaggressions” (“Microaggression and Moral Cultures“). It was a fascinating read at the time, but in light of these recent events, it’s revealed itself as the explanation I (you? we?) have been waiting for.
The Culture of Victimhood
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.
– Haidt, “Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account”
Once, the man who avenged all insults and injuries to himself and his family was the heroic figure. Later, it was the man who rose above the minor insults and injuries, and relied on the law to resolve major disputes. But today’s heroic figure is different. Today’s hero is the Victim.
That capital ‘v’ is important. The Victim is not simply the person who was assaulted or robbed or denied rights. Those are simply victims. And victimhood has little to do with being the Victim.
The Victim is created – she is an illusion of semantics and emotional reasoning. Here is an example: This Labour MP Says She Won’t Be Bullied Into Silence By Rape Threats.
BuzzFeed News revealed how Philip Davies had argued that it wasn’t fair that MPs held a Commons debate on International Women’s Day every year and there was no equivalent for men.
His call was rejected on Tuesday by the backbench business committee. Phillips, the only female member, told Davies: “When I’ve got parity, when women in these buildings have parity, you can have your debate.”
Suddenly Phillips was swamped with tweets like this.
The tweets that follow aren’t particularly kind. The first is an insult, calling Phillips “a disgusting human being.” I’m sure it’s not pleasant to get that message, but as an elected official it’s part of the package. But the rest of the revealed messages are all arguments about ideas. There are no threats, and no other insults. Just harsh criticism. Except for this:
There’s a very important thing to notice about this: those aren’t tweets, but Reddit comments (downvoted comments, no less). These weren’t threats made to her, these were (gross and inappropriate) comments made elsewhere on the internet. Sure, they aren’t acceptable, but they aren’t threats. She was asked to provide evidence of threats, or “violent sexist abuse” (using her own words), and what she came back with was text that she had to seek out.
Though the original issue was her derision of a request to discuss workplace deaths and high suicide rates among men, it was so important to Phillips to be the Victim that she sought out internet commentary that would make her so, and semantically turned them into threats. Then she became a hero by constantly tweeting about the abuse she was supposedly suffering.
This isn’t genuine victimization, this is manufactured outrage. And all to cover the fact that she was in the news for snidely dismissing serious issues concerning men. She was, in fact, the villain in the original story – yet became the Victim.
It used to be easy to see something like this as an isolated incident. Or as behavior reserved for the stranger corners of Tumblr and gender studies programs. But it’s gone mainstream.
All over the country students are learning that it is their right to never be uncomfortable, which leads to conflict when that right is transgressed. At Yale, Prof. Erika Christakis sent an email to students at her residence hall advising them to be conscious of their costumes and talk to each other about what’s offensive or inappropriate, rather than relying on administration to handle it. Be adults, and manage this on your own. The response has been unbelievable.
Calls for her and her husband’s resignation. Hostile protests on campus. Emotional screeds shouted at them. When Nicholas Christakis said he didn’t believe he’s violated his role as “Master” (essentially headmaster) of the college, a student shouted:
“Then why the fuck did you accept the position?! Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!”
This is in response to truly heinous statements, like the following:
- “I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”
- “it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day.”
- “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”
- “Talk to each other.”
I can see how such sentiment would get the blood boiling, can’t you? This example is infuriating, because it demonstrates that members of one of the nation’s (the world’s) most elite student bodies feel the need to be shielded from discomfort – even the possibility of discomfort – to go on with their daily lives. “According to The Washington Post, ‘several students in Silliman said they cannot bear to live in the college anymore.'” Read the take at the Atlantic. The weakness and entitlement of the student behaviors chronicled there are remarkable. As a bonus, it ties in with Coddling quite well.
The key to this story is that no victimization actually occurred. Two administrators simply said, “You’re adults, I’m not going to restrict your behavior so as to protect you from being offended. You’re capable of handling this on your own.” They chose to value freedom and responsibility over trigger warnings, and might lose their jobs for it.
The Victim on Parade
And now we come to Missouri. Taking all of the stories at face value, some unacceptable things happened there. But the response is frightening.
First, a black student was called the racial slur. He was rightfully upset, but he immediately jumped to this dramatic response: “I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society.” Look, guy, this is not some cosmic sign that your existence is some kind of threat. You’re not that important. This was some racists being racist, not a societal allegory.
Next, a drunk white guy called a group of black students the racial slur. The chancellor responded immediately, but that wasn’t good enough. Other incidents were alluded to, though not necessarily reported. Then there was the poop swastika.
Now, be sure your hear me here: these racist incidents are bad. And they may even represent a genuine pattern (the type you shouldn’t be surprised to find in Missouri). But what they don’t represent is what the students protesting say they represent:
- “… our lives are still not valued. At some point, after spending all that energy telling people that I deserve to be recognized as a human, like my existence matters, at a certain point you are putting people in a corner and you keep poking them with a stick, things escalate until people feel like they are hurt.”
- “I thought, ‘What else do I have to do to prove my humanity’?”
- “I’m already not treated like I’m a human.“
To sort of quote the Atlantic article about the incidents at Yale:
“We simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus,” the letter says, catastrophizing.
This notion that one’s existence can be invalidated by a fellow 18-year-old
donning an offensive costumesaying mean things to you in public is perhaps the most disempowering notion aired at YaleMizzou.
We’ve reached a point where if someone offends you – or if they allow the possibility that someone else might offend you – they are outright denying your humanity. Surely we have to see that we’ve gone off the rails.
How have we gotten to this point? How did we get to a place where the slightest insult (and yes, I’m saying that a stranger driving by and calling me a nigger is a slight insult) is tantamount to a dismissal of my very existence?
The Biggest Victim
Competition is basically barred from childhood. It’s being kept out of the classroom and off the athletic field. But we’re a competitive species…it’s the very nature of our existence and how we’ve become the de facto rulers of the planet. We compete for resources, shelter, security, social standing, and mates. We compete with other people, animals, the weather. And when you remove one type of competition, others will rise in its place. This generation’s competition is for the Biggest Victim.
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.
– Haidt, “Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account”
Being perceived as a victim of circumstance makes you weak, and perhaps unfortunate. Being perceived as a victim of oppression, however, gives you the moral high ground. Being the Victim gives you moral superiority. And as more people try to achieve Victim status, we become more desensitized to their claims. So the claims had to become more extreme in order to generate sufficient outrage.
Claims of inequality are no longer enough to demonstrate Victimhood. Each claim must reach the level of violence or existential exclusion. So satirizing the trend of exaggerating microaggressions makes you a “violent prick”. Suggesting that adults handle their own conflicts around Halloween costumes means you’re asking them to ignore “the degradation of [their] cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it”, and invalidating their very existence.
Those are just the mainstream reports. If you look in the more fringy parts of the ‘net, you’ll find claims that more and more people are equating words with violence. This is where my fear for the next generation is centered.
The Victim of the Future
The trend is obvious. College students, and most likely, their contemporaries outside of university, are becoming progressively more sensitive. They are increasingly unable to handle the most basic reality of life: some people – most people – are selfish and mean. As Haidt says: “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.” (emphasis mine).
These oversensitive, overreacting students will eventually be in the world with the rest of us. What havoc will the wreak on the wider world? How will they deal with the inevitable failures and disappointments of life? What will become of us?
It probably seems that I’m most certainly overreacting myself. But the social implications of the last major college uprisings (in the 60’s and 70’s) are still manifesting. I doubt that we’ll have an entire generation that is incapable of functioning on a day to day basis. But the impulse to control speech to prevent offense threatens the First Amendment, and the trend of responding with hostility to any disagreement poses a threat to the stability of society. As does the documented increase in mental illness.
The ability to navigate disagreement, minor offenses, and competing priorities is critical to democracy. The alternative, something that is growing in prominence (especially in the election season) is rule by competing mobs. Each mob wearing its Victim status on its sleeve, unaware that being “oppressed” is not the same as being right, and completely unwilling to concede that their enemies on the other side are people, too.
We desperately need a counter movement, and a new hero. Because Victims don’t lead, they must be led. Eventually one will come…I hope for my own children’s sake that it happens soon.