What sort of culture are we cultivating?
“Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response,” they write. “But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor.”
Then there is dignity culture:
“Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”
The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”
It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”
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.”
There is a certain power in outrage. In fact, today that is the most sought out power. With the ability to communicate (via the internet) and connect with millions of people in a keystroke, outrage is the burgeoning source of dominance. Sometimes this outrage is utilized in societally positive ways - the police have been incarcerating and killing black men and women for most of the last century but with our new technologies at play the conversation expands and increased awareness moves us toward action. At other times, this outrage is misused or at least used poorly like when a theater critic is mobbed by the Villagers.
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.
The weakness of this Olympiad of Victim Status is revealed when someone like Donald Trump simply refuses to bow to the outrage. Dick Cheney is another example. Refusing to apologize for the slights, doubling down on the insult and calling out the game defuses the consequences. I mean, if the Crowd Shaming of a Public Figure results in an attitude of "Get over it" what recourse do the aggrieved have but to revert their attention on someone more easily embarrassed?
This is not to say that there are no legitimate victims in our polarized society. As the categories become expanded, however, the effect is diluted. As the effect of outrage works for one group, another pops up to claim a piece of the Victim Pie until the myriad of competing victims drowns out any good that can come from it. The more voices offended by 'micro aggressions' the less is heard from those genuinely harmed by bigotry, sexism, discrimination and malice. At some point (and perhaps we are reaching that point) being unable to cope with disapproval or criticism becomes Orwellian in that Weakness = Strength.
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.
It all amounts to a race to the bottom - seeking out insult, assigning blame for one's unhappiness on an oppressor, hoping for the sympathy of the crowd, and turning to the power of the mob to obliterate anyone who might lightly tread on the toes of what used to be self esteem. It is Revenge of the Nerds writ large except that in this paradigm, instead of the Nerds banding together and beating the Frat Boys on their own home turf, the Nerds simply complain about being bullied and make no effort toward self improvement or empowerment. In this scenario, the Nerds just yell about the unfairness until the collective social network joins and shouts down the Frat Boys. In this scenario, Lamar (the gay black nerd) and Toshiro (the Japanese nerd) find fault in the idea that Gilbert and Lewis are white males and then turn on each other to battle it out for most put upon nerd.
It is the reverse of the adage "When everyone is special, no one is special." We now are entering into a dark reality that ends with "When everyone is a victim, no one claiming to be legitimately victimized can be heard."