Over at the Righteous Mind blog, New York University moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is signposting a fascinating article, "Microaggression and Moral Cultures," by two sociologists in the journal Comparative Sociology. The argument in the article is that U.S. society is in the midst of a large-scale moral change in which we are experiencing the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past. If true, this bodes really bad for future social and political peace.
In honor cultures, people (men) maintained their honor by responding to insults, slights, violations of rights by self-help violence. Generally honor cultures exist where the rule of law is weak. In honor cultures, people protected themselves, their families, and property through having a reputation for swift violence. During the 19th century, most Western societies began the moral transition toward dignity cultures in which all citizens were legally endowed with equal rights. In such societies, persons, property, and rights are defended by recourse to third parties, usually courts, police, and so forth, that, if necessary, wield violence on their behalf. Dignity cultures practice tolerance and are much more peaceful than honor cultures.
Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning are arguing that the U.S. is now transitioning to a victimhood culture that combines both the honor culture's quickness to take offense with the dignity culture's use of third parties to police and punish transgressions. The result is people are encouraged to think of themselves as weak, marginalized, and oppressed. This is nothing less than demoralizing and polarizing as everybody seeks to become a "victim."
To give readers some idea of what is being argued, I include below a couple of sections highlighted by Haidt. Bracketed comments are by Haidt.
A) Microaggression as Overstratification
According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as "overstratification." 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.As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013). [p.706-707] [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.]
B) Microaggression as underdiversity
Microaggression offenses also tend to involve what Black calls "underdiversity" – the rejection of a culture. Large acts of underdiversity include things like genocide or political oppression, while smaller acts include ethnic jokes or insults. The publicizers of microaggressions are concerned with the latter, as well as more subtle, perhaps inadvertent, cultural slights…. Just as overstratification conflict varies inversely with stratification, underdiversity conflict varies directly with diversity (Black 2011:139). Attempts to increase stratification, we saw, are more deviant where stratification is at a minimum; likewise, attempts to decrease diversity are more deviant where diversity is at a maximum. In modern Western societies, an ethic of cultural tolerance – and often incompatibly, intolerance of intolerance – has developed in tandem with increasing diversity. Since microaggression offenses normally involve overstratification and underdiversity, intense concern about such offenses occurs at the intersection of the social conditions conducive to the seriousness of each. 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.]
C) Victimhood as Virtue
When the victims publicize microaggressions they call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders. In doing so they also call attention to their own victimization. Indeed, many ways of attracting the attention and sympathy of third parties emphasize or exacerbate the low status of the aggrieved. People portray themselves as oppressed by the powerful – as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy. [They describe such practices going back to ancient Rome and India] … 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. [p.707-708] [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].
Haidt's analysis is well worth your attention (and awfully dispiriting).