GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 11, 2015

Up from Victimhood

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:03 pm

From the Reason website (

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.”

There’s nothing all that new here for GAnicks, even though it’s good to see such discussions become more “mainstream.” We can add to and clarify the above in a few ways (perhaps Campbell and Manning do so in their essay). First of all, there is such a thing as “honor” for women, which involves preserving their chastity (and all external “signs” of chastity) until marriage (and fidelity to husband thereafter). More importantly, we can clarify the continuity, and not just breaks, between honor, dignity and victimhood cultures that the final paragraph seems to presuppose. “Dignity” is a reciprocal granting of presumptive honor, or a universalization of the right to be free of insults and to have offenses against oneself avenged. The dignity culture delegates the responsibility of avenging insults to a third party, endowed with “impartiality” (something unthinkable in honor cultures, but ultimately predicated on something like the honor of God and a state stronger than the contending Big Men). So, the dignity culture is really an objectified or formalized form of the honor culture, with the new ingredient being the crucial but inherently vague notion of “impartiality” or “justice.” But the transition from dignity to victimhood is most interesting for us. To prove that one has indeed been offended before an impartial arbiter is to be compelled to construct a convincing case that one is a victim. Participating in the dignity culture is, then, already sustained training in victimhood—you learn to present yourself as having been helpless in the face of some malicious attack, which ultimately involves really becoming helpless. All this, so that, like in an honor culture, the offense to one can be unmistakable, and can be given unqualified recognition. (It’s interesting that representatives of honor cultures, like the Greek heroes in the Illiad, always seem to be moaning and whining about the pettiest slights, just like today’s victims, even if they are prepared to commit violence in their name.) We can see the Holocaust as the trigger for the rapid acceleration of the development of the victimhood culture, and as providing its particularly melodramatic and hysterical forms, but the dignity culture (which is to say, civilization) is just a way station to victimhood. All that has to happen to tip the dignity culture over into victimhood is for “impartiality” and “justice” to be debunked as disguised forms of victimization—this is not that hard, as the standards of judgment necessarily rely upon common sense notions of “reasonableness” which support those closer to the normative center. The excerpts from the article included at the link suggest that the “benefits” of victimhood include “raising their moral status”, but we can flesh that out as well: victimhood generates a therapeutic culture in which we are all victims of repressive social norms (even the oppressors, ultimately), and within a therapeutic culture, victimhood is redemptive insofar as naming your victimization is the first step towards reclaiming whatever in one’s identity has been dishonored. One can thereby present oneself publicly as (in another Holocaust reference) a “survivor.”

Of course, civilization may be a way station to cultural forms other than victimhood. Or, at least, we must assume, if civilization is to have a future (and if we don’t assume that, there’s no point to writing this post, or doing much of what any of us does). But that’s the question, and simply tearing down victimary thinking and institutions (the focus of my last two posts), however necessary, won’t supply an answer. The centrality of nationalism to the post-victimary discourses I have been looking at is suggestive, though. Nationalism emerges within the nation-state form, first of all under the absolutist monarchies (and then in rebellion against the monarchies, in which the “true” nation threw off the shackles of their own representative of a continent-wide ruling elite). It is therefore post-tribal (the monarchs broke up the great families, i.e., tribes, of Europe) and post-honor. But the nation defends its honor on the international stage, so even while extirpating the honor culture within its own borders it must promote the values that add to national strength, such as wealth creation, martial valor and physical vigor, fertility and scientific and technological prowess. The lessons of the phantasmal character of nationalism will presumably have to be learned again—the nation, as that which is denied by today’s transnational elites, national minorities and victimhood culture, is one thing; the nation as a real actor with a determinate ethnic content is something else entirely. Nations are always defined by their external and internal others who are always imagined others—none of which means that nations and nationalisms aren’t real, just that they’re constituted by fantasies in a variable relation to the reality principle. In particular, the dangerous mimetic modeling that leads to international antagonisms is difficult to control without some shared sacrality (like “Christendom”)—for a while, the nationalisms of the anti-immigrant European parties and a possible American variant would be united in their shared resistance to the global “ruling class,” but what if they win? And any American white nationalism will be even more phantasmal—where is the cut off date for real Americans: the 1960s, when Mexicans started to come? The early 1900s when Jews and Italians were arriving? Why not the 1840s, with the Irish? When were “whites” ever a “nation” in the first place, if not through resentment towards some minority aggression? What about all the people with mixed heritage? Etc. White nationalism might provide a focal point of resentments that need expression and resolution, without necessarily providing a program for that resolution.

The problem is that the victimhood culture prevents us from discussing the most basic and urgent issues of civic and political life: immigration, crime, war and terrorism, to name a few. We are completely paralyzed in these areas, so the victimary position becomes the default one. To talk about crime is to talk about blacks; to talk about immigration is to talk about Mexicans; to talk about war and terrorism is to talk about Muslims; and once we start talking about blacks, Mexicans and Muslims you can be sure that we will end up talking about Jews. This is necessarily the case because the advocates of victimhood culture will give us no choice by demonizing open discussions on crime, war and terrorism, and immigration as racist. The demonization works, because everyone is terrified by even tiptoeing up to the line of violating deeply embedded norms against racism. We will only start speaking out once the alternative, our current paralysis and delusion, becomes even scarier to more people.

In other words, the method of keeping peace in the modern, post-World War II, rights based nation-state has been for the Lilliputian minorities to tie up the majority Gullivers in a pre-emptive manner. Certainly, in a post-victimary order, the actual power differentials among groups would have to be expressed and negotiated openly (what those power differentials are, and even which groups might emerge, may very well surprise us). Doing so peacefully and even productively would have to involve prioritizing neither honor nor dignity, although both motivations will surely continue to be important. We need a political thought and practice aimed at institution preservation over individual rights—as Vox Day says, “The more an institution converges towards the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice, the less it is able to perform its primary function.” We need to recommit to “primary functions”—but what modern political theory comes anywhere near doing so—other, perhaps, than Foucauldians, negatively? It’s remarkable how uninteresting the question of the construction of massive institutions of health, education, policing, the military, etc., has been to political theorists of the 19th and 20th centuries, who have focused mostly on petty questions of satisfying increasingly implausible grievances. What must be more important than the fragility of the individual and her grievances must be discipline, the ability and readiness to place yet another mediation between one’s desire and its realization. This also means the consecration of desire, and the building of a world in time—a kind of temporal canopy, we might say. A culture of discipline would defend the honor of “impartiality,” but without the support of God or State, by introducing mediations based on the study of the relative danger of different resentments. But there must be some truth in the name of which one defers, some possible ostensive—otherwise, one ends up like the officer in Kafka’s “The Penal Colony.” Let’s not make things easy by imagining the deus ex machina of a Christian revival. The civilizing process must be seen to lead back to, to be a gift from, an origin, an origin that is further revealed in disciplinary increments. In pointing to what one is not appropriating, one points to the possibility of a shared non-appropriation, a possibility that is a source of dialogue. Even a nihilist or psychopath cannot deny desires that have been deferred, and so this is something we can all talk about at any time. Cultural practices that foreground such discipline, that enact, maneuver us into, mimic, even mock, novel acts of non-appropriation, would be the acts of faith a post-victimary order needs. In the past, discipline cultures relied on traditional faiths and modern, scientistic assumptions about progress. Today, I think it would entail a more demanding faith in one’s unseen future fellow sign users—a faith that, while the signs anyone puts forth will unfold in ways that could not have been foreseen, and therefore cannot be controlled, at least some of those successor signs will register the peace giving intentions of their originator. The increased margin of discipline one signifies is a needed gift, even if you can’t know what the gift actually is, who will receive it, or what use they will make of it. Faith, in the end, must involve sharing in the immortality of the sign.

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