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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Are we living in a culture that prizes victimhood?

Sean Rife
Learn Liberty

In recent years, campus activists have become an increasingly visible aspect of American life. 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:  


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.
Cultural Evolution: From Honor To Dignity

In a country that has traditionally touted its tolerance for the expression of a diverse range of views, how did we get here? 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 longstanding political rivals. Upon learning that Hamilton had made particularly bruising comments about him at an elite New York dinner party, Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel. On July 11th, 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.

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