Megan McArdle recently wrote a column for Bloomberg View about microaggressions. Pointing to a new sociology paper by Bradley Manning and Jason Cooper, she explains their theory that our society has evolved from an honor culture to a dignity culture to a victim culture:
Western society, they argue, has shifted from an honor culture — in which slights are taken very seriously, and avenged by the one slighted — to a dignity culture, in which personal revenge is discouraged, and justice is outsourced to third parties, primarily the law. The law being a cumbersome beast, people in dignity cultures are encouraged to ignore slights, or negotiate them privately by talking with the offender, rather than seeking some more punitive sanction.
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.
She illustrates a difficulty that victim cultures face:
If you establish a positive right to be free from alienating comments, it’s hard to restrict that right only to people who have been victimized in certain ways, or to certain degrees. It’s easy to say everyone has a right not to be alienated. It’s also easy to say “you should only seek social or administrative sanction for remarks that are widely known and understood to be offensive slurs.” It is very, very hard to establish a rule that only some groups are entitled to be free from offense — because the necessary corollary is that it’s fine to worry the other groups with a low-level barrage of sneers, and those groups will not take this lying down. The result will be proliferation of groups claiming victim status, attempting to trump the victim status of others.
A while back, when I wrote about shamestorming, I ended up in a Twitter discussion with a guy who chided me for letting my privilege blind me to the ways that minorities (specifically women in tech, and more broadly on the Internet), experience microaggressions. You know how that conversation ended? When I pointed out that he had just committed a classic microagression: mansplaining to me something that I had actually experienced, and he had not. As soon as I did, he apologized, though that hadn’t really been my intent. My intent was to point out that microaggressions are often unintentional (this guy clearly considered himself a feminist ally).
But I inadvertently demonstrated an even greater difficulty: Complaints about microaggressions can be used to stop complaints about microaggressions.
McArdle’s approach seems pretty sensible. Of course microaggressions exist (and she has some interesting comments about the messages she gets from undercover conservative faculty members at universities), but the way that they are policed in a victim culture makes little sense.