A version of this article was previously published on the Learn Liberty blog.
In recent years, campus activism has become an increasingly visible aspect of American life. For instance, in 2015, Yale professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis came under fire for encouraging students to critically consider a new policy on Halloween costumes. The controversy reached a boiling point when Nicholas Christakis met student demonstrators in a courtyard and attempted to engage them in discussion:
More recently, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray and Middlebury College Professor Allison Stanger were assaulted shortly after they were driven out of a lecture hall where Murray was scheduled to speak. The protesters succeeded in shutting down the talk by simply speaking over him:
This behavior is condemnable for a host of reasons, the least of which is that much of what the protesters are shouting is just factually incorrect (for example, Murray has long supported gay marriage, but the chant “racist, sexist, anti-gay” is simply too good to pass up). That the protesters eventually resorted to violence speaks to their moral certitude (a phenomenon that can be observed in other, similar protests), which is all the more troubling.
And yet, there are seemingly respectable people willing to defend this kind of savagery. Writing for Slate, Osita Nwanevu argued that the protesters were correct (and presumably, the violence that they employed was acceptable) because Trump: “In the Trump era, should we side with those who insist that the bigoted must traipse unhindered through our halls of learning? Or should we dare to disagree?” At Inside Higher Education, John Patrick Leary quipped that the protesters had “every right to shout him down.”
Disagreement is one thing. But shouting down opponents or – worse – engaging in violence in an effort to silence them is something else.
In a country that has traditionally touted its tolerance for the expression of a diverse range of views, how did we get to this culture of victimhood? Let’s take a moment to review American cultural evolution.
Anyone who thinks that the nasty tone of American politics today is an historical anomaly should take a brief stroll down Google Lane and read about the Hamilton-Burr duel. The short version goes like this: Alexander Hamilton (former Secretary of Treasury) and Aaron Burr (Vice President of the United States) are long-standing political rivals. Upon learning that Hamilton had made particularly bruising comments about him at an elite New York dinner party, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. On July 11, 1804, Burr shot Hamilton, who died the following day.
This sordid moment in American history is a classic example of what social scientists call a “culture of honor” – that is, a culture in which one’s reputation is made and maintained by a protective attitude and aggression toward those who would attempt to exert their dominance. Reputation – what others think of you – is paramount.
Such cultures are blessedly rare in the Western world, having been largely supplanted by what sociologist Peter Berger called “dignity culture.” In dignity cultures, a person’s worth is internal, and isolated from public opinion. What matters most is how one handles the minor slings and arrows that accompany many human interactions; a person with dignity does so quietly, usually by addressing the offending party directly and in private, if at all.
Dignity cultures are necessarily individualistic. There is no widespread notion of common guilt. Human agency is, by implication, paramount. It should be no surprise that for most of the 20th Century, Western societies have evolved to prize dignity over honor.
Let me be clear: this is a good thing. Most of us would recoil in horror at the thought of Mike Pence killing Jack Lew in a duel. I do not consider this point to be controversial. Some cultures are better than others, and Western culture today is certainly morally superior to its earlier instantiations, where slavery, sexism, and segregation were the norm. A culture in which dignity rather than honor is the standard bearer should be regarded as an appreciable improvement.
But for many young Americans (and yes, this does appear to be a uniquely American phenomenon), the notion of quietly bearing one’s trials has become passe. Getting back to the issue at hand: I believe that much of what we have witnessed on college campuses in recent years can be explained by the rise of what sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning call “victimhood culture.” They state:
Watch the videos again: these students are engaging in precisely the behavior Campbell and Manning describe. They are demanding recognition of various victimhood statuses, and are unwilling to engage in any form of dialogue with those with whom they disagree. The category of “victim” is a moral absolute: no one can argue in favor of its fallibility.
But our understanding of victimhood culture and its relationship with the campus culture wars is incomplete without a commensurate recognition of what Nick Haslam calls concept creep: our understanding of what constitutes harm has broadened to include unintentional verbal slights, rather than being limited to overt, deliberate physical aggression.
This can be seen throughout the footage in question, but is particularly visible at one point in the Yale/Christakis row, when complaints take a turn for the hyperbolic: in response to an attempt by Christakis to appeal to the common humanity of everyone present, one student replies that such appeals are inappropriate “because we’re dying!”
It is difficult to understand how a student at one of the world’s top universities – well positioned to enter the halls of power after graduation – could reasonably be considered a member of an oppressed group, much less one that is being exterminated. Students at Yale, regardless of race or ethnicity, are among the cognitive and social elite. The idea that a simple email about Halloween costumes could constitute an existential threat is nothing short of delusional.
But this observation is unlikely to quell the kind of uprising seen at Yale and Middlebury. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point out, the students in these instances are likely engaging in a kind of emotional reasoning: making inferences about the state of the world based on their feelings, rather than an attempt to evaluate matters from a disinterested position that prizes objectivity.
Advancing victimhood as a meritorious state while simultaneously expanding the criteria by which it is established means that those seeking social status are in constant competition. This “oppression olympics” (as some have termed it) means that marginalized status will become defined in an increasingly divisive manner. In this way, victimhood culture sows the seeds of its own destruction.
In an ironic twist, a culture of victimhood resembles a culture of honor in a surprising number of ways: for example, both demand that grievances be addressed, often publicly. It could even be argued that victimhood has obtained a privileged position that is impossible to challenge without incurring significant social costs. A new set of norms have emerged on college campuses, where there is a perverse honor in claiming to be oppressed.
Indeed, it is no wonder that victimhood culture has risen to prominence on elite colleges in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Only under such relatively comfortable conditions could this kind of silliness prosper.
In fact, any worldview that prizes victimhood cannot survive outside the cloistered environment of a college campus. The real world – with its job markets, mortgage payments, and adult responsibilities – has a way of encouraging us to prize dignity over victimhood. Capitalism insists on results, and is relatively unconcerned with our subjective emotional evaluations of the world.
This is the primary reason why we ought not take the protesters at Yale and Middlebury too seriously. They will be forced to grapple with the real world and leave their activism behind.
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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.