“Where Microaggressions Come From”: Some (Gently Triggering) Reflections

Just finished reading some extracts of Campbell and Manning’s 2014 paper “Microaggression and Moral Cultures”, by way of Jonathan Haidt’s website.

Haidt, who is best known for penning The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind, and most recently for helming initiatives aimed at supporting ideological diversity on college campuses, finds much to praise in Campbell and Manning’s piece, which neatly partitions cultures into those based on “Honor”, “Dignity”, and (most recently) “Victimhood”.

This three-part taxonomy has since become somewhat popular among those seeking to understand the strange expansion of political correctness in recent years. To summarize, where “Honor” cultures depend on the individual’s ability to react decisively to even minor personal offenses in order to avoid personal shame, and “Dignity” cultures instead prize self-restraint and informal self-reliant mediation, with appeal to official systems of justice as a last resort, “Victimhood” cultures are a new modality where the emphasis is on maximizing one’s appearance of grievance and helplessness from the get-go, in hopes of immediately attracting a powerful authority to punish the (alleged) source of the grievance.

In some ways, even if it is over-simple and even if “Victimhood culture” is really anything but new (see Karpman Drama Triangle), it’s tempting to accept this taxonomy as a helpful description of a disturbing trend of emotional ultra-fragility and accusation-proneness in the younger generations. For my part, it certainly fits some of my own encounters with the new, ostentatious “victimhood”—such as a very recent occasion when one of my table-mates complained of feeling “triggered” three or four times in the span of several minutes, mainly whenever environmental problems or possible differences between the sexes were brought up. (It is interesting, by the way, to experience firsthand how such “triggering” claims actually function as threats.)

But in another sense these exercises in taxonomy, with their air of studious neutrality, are themselves symptomatic of a much wider problem, namely the wholesale relativism and quietism that have come to permeate the intellectual, and particularly the academic sensibility of the times—and which arguably enables the rise of Victimhood culture in the first place. It is as if the very people who would clear away the phenomenon of “microaggression” are themselves deathly afraid of being accused of—microaggression!

For instance, given the kind of world-creating magic potency that is modernly vested in the word “culture”, the very packaging of Victimhood as a “culture” could easily legitimize or immunize it. After all, as long as one agrees (as Campbell and Manning seemingly do) that different “cultures” are incommensurable, separate realities, “lived experiences” with inherently equal validity, there can be really no justification for opposing the rise of a “Victimhood culture”… or any other type of “culture”, for that matter. Under the relativist modus operandi, any criticism of Victimhood Culture may easily be chalked up to chauvinism, personal distaste, misunderstanding, outright malice, and so forth—and so itself become fodder for more grievance.

Absurd as this all may sound, one can already find places in Haidt’s comments section where this same reflexive, self-paralytic relativism, under the guise of sober neutrality, wells up. One does not have to look long and hard to find an attitude along the lines of: “who are we to judge Victimhood Culture, since we are ourselves soaked in/tainted by the assumptions of Dignity Culture? Let us instead non-judgmentally study Victimhood Culture as the fascinating human artifact it is!”

So unless there is the willingness to take off our relativist-anthropologists’ hats (& kid-gloves) and say outright that a “Victimhood Culture” is indeed foolish, destructive, and yes, objectively bad, there is a danger in today’s climate that well-meaning discussions of this sort will boomerang and end up buttressing and “dignifying” Victimhood Culture as culture… perhaps up to the point of cordoning it off as a marvelous new object of study, or of deeding it special protections and privileges. This would be the very opposite of the thing that is needed–which is, of course, to actively oppose and then dispose of it.

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