McCardle: 'How grown-ups respond to microaggressions'

Megan McCardle, writing in Bloomberg, penned an excellent article on "microaggressions" and the "victim culture." She bases much of her piece on a recent paper by two sociologists that described the "moral culture" that has arisen that causes people to compete  for victim status, or for the status of acting as their protectors.

The two sociologists -  Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning - trace the history of our "moral culture," going back to the 16th and 17th century when we lived in an "honor culture" where slights and insults were answered personally throught duels and wars. The honor culture evolved into a "dignity culture" in the 19th and 20th century where every human being was endowed with dignity and insults or offensive actions were dealt with by the law or worked out between the two parties.

Now the dignity culture has morphed into this nightmare "victim culture." McCardle lists some of its attributes:

Microagressions mark a transition to a third sort of culture: a victim culture, in which people are once again encouraged to take notice of slights. This sounds a lot like honor culture, doesn't it? Yes, with two important differences. The first is that while victimhood is shameful in an honor culture -- and indeed, the purpose of taking vengeance is frequently to avoid this shame -- victim status is actively sought in the new culture, because victimhood is a prerequisite for getting redress. The second is that victim culture encourages people to seek help from third parties, either authorities or the public, rather than seeking satisfaction themselves.

The debate over microaggressions often seems to focus on whether they are real. This is silly. Of course they've always been real; only the label is new. Microaggressions from the majority to the minority are as real as Sunday, and the effect of their accumulated weight is to make you feel always slightly a stranger in a strange land. The phenomenon is dispiriting, even more so because the offenders frequently don't realize that their words were somewhere between awkward and offensive (once again).

On the other hand, in a diverse group, the other thing you have to say about microaggressions is that they are unavoidable. And that a culture that tries to avoid them is setting up to tear itself apart.

I'm using microaggressions broadly here: to define the small slights by which any majority group subtly establishes its difference from its minority members. That means that I am including groups that may not come to mind for victim status, like conservatives in very liberal institutions. And no doubt many of my readers are preparing to deliver a note or a comment saying I shouldn't dare to compare historically marginalized groups with politically powerful ones.

I dare because it highlights the basic problem with extensively litigating microaggressions, which is that it is a highly unstable way of mediating social disputes. Deciding who is eligible to complain about microaggressions is itself an act by which the majority imposes its will, and it is felt as alienating by the minorities who are effectively told that they don't have the same right to ask for decent treatment as other groups. 

I would add that the "unstable" means of litigating disputes is a feature, not a bug, of the victim culture. Here's how Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe it in their paper:

Black’s theory of partisanship identifies two conditions that make support from third parties more likely. First, third parties are more likely to act as partisans when they are socially closer to one side of the conflict than to the other, as they take the side of the socially closer disputant (Black 1998:126)… Any social tie or social similarity a third party shares with one disputant but not the other increases the chance of partisanship. Second, third parties are more likely to act as partisans when one side of a conflict is higher in status than the other, as they take the side of the higher-status disputant (Black 1998:126). [p.700]… But note that these campaigns for support do not necessarily emanate from the lowest reaches of society – that they are not primarily stocked or led by those who are completely lacking in property, respectability, education, or other forms of social status. Rather, such forms as microaggression complaints and protest demonstrations appear to flourish among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities. The socially down and out are so inferior to third parties that they are unlikely to campaign for their support, just as they are unlikely to receive it. [p.701].

The victim culture is far better organized than the opposition to it, which gives it a leg up in the practical political scheme of things. This presages the notion that no matter who is in power, there will always be a sizable component of victims and rescuers willing to shame people into boycotting businesses, getting people fired or thrown out of school, or otherwise ruin the lives of their targets. 

Until companies, school administrators, and other people in authority are willing to stand up to the bullies and ignore their whining about "microaggressions, "trigger warnings," "safe places" and all the other artificially created accoutrements to the victim culture, we wil have to continue walking on eggshells so as not to offer any offense to anyone.