Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt breaks down an important 2014 study indicating that the Social Justice Warrior phenomenon on campus is not a trend, but instead marks a deep cultural shift. The paper is not by Haidt, but it’s long, so he summarizes it for his readers. Excerpts (all boldface in Haidt’s original):
I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.
Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.
I want to make the ideas in the article widely available. It’s a fairly long article, so I provide below an outline of its main sections with extensive quotations from each section. My hope is that you can read the text below and get 80% of the value of the article in just 7 minutes.
In what follows, all text is copied and pasted directly from the published article, [except for comments from me, which are in brackets.] I have also bolded the lines that are most important for understanding the phenomena described in The Coddling of the American Mind.
The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.
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.
In other words, they aren’t going to protest poverty; they are going to protest chalk on the sidewalk.
And why are these things occurring in university settings? Because they are already highly egalitarian:
According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. [Therefore…] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013). [p.706-707] [In other words, as progress is made toward a more equal and humane society, it takes a smaller and smaller offense to trigger a high level of outrage. The goalposts shift, allowing participants to maintain a constant level of anger and constant level of perceived victimization.]
It really is true: you cannot please the SJWs. They will keep moving to goalposts to keep their anger stoked. And the more elite your profession is, the greater is the likelihood that it will be made subject to SJW-style moral blackmail. What’s more, the paper finds, the more “diverse” an institution/community is, the more subject it is to these tactics, because members of one group find that they can increase their power by using these tactics against others. Diversity, in this sense, is very much the enemy of social cohesion.
Quoting a portion of the paper that says SJW-ism arises in a culture that privileges victim status, Haidt concludes that colleges that indulge SJW whining are doing them a great disservice. Haidt:
This is the great tragedy: the culture of victimization rewards people for taking on a personal identity as one who is damaged, weak, and aggrieved. This is a recipe for failure — and constant litigation — after students graduate from college and attempt to enter the workforce.
Haidt goes on to cite a portion of the paper that says the growth in the college administrative bureaucracy has fed this too, as universities have added “diversity” staffers. And the explosive growth of social media, which allow for the rapid publicization of grievance, also plays a role.
Here’s where it goes beyond campus, perhaps indicating a society-wide shift. The authors of the paper say that America used to have an honor culture, where people who felt their honor was slighted would seek personal means of restoring it, often violence. That gave way to a dignity culture. From the paper:
The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.
Microaggression complaints have characteristics that put them at odds with both honor and dignity cultures. Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount to showing that one had no honor at all.
Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.[p.714-715]
A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization. … Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.
I urge you to read the whole thing. The paper Haidt cites goes on to say that the SJW mentality is not exclusively something on the political and cultural left, and gives examples. If that is so, then it says that even conservatives are being corrupted by a system that rewards a sense of victimization. And why not? If trying to be dignified and responsible about conflict means you will lose to the whiny babies who can squeal the loudest about their so-called oppression, then you learn to do what it takes to win.
The Haidt blog entry makes me wonder about Donald Trump, and whether he is a candidate for our time in ways heretofore unappreciated. He is a man who trafficks in verbal aggressions, both micro and macro. To his supporters, his refusal to kowtow to the language of liberal grievance is admirable. In other words, SJWs have no power over him, and that can be refreshing when you see other authorities terrified of being called bigots, oppressors, racists, and what have you.
But Trump is also a man who constantly paints himself as a victim. This explains his childish obsession with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, for example. He constantly takes small slights, the sort of thing you would expect a presidential candidate, or even a man of Trump’s age, to shrug off — he takes them and makes a federal case out of them for why he is being treated unjustly. Here is a man of extreme wealth and privilege in his own right, who has managed to vanquish nearly every one of his opponents for the GOP nomination — including Jeb Bush, the Establishment prince — and in so doing smash the once-mighty Republican Party … and yet he cannot let the smallest thing go. Here he is reacting to the women on The View talking him down the other day:
Explain how the women on The View, which is a total disaster since the great Barbara Walters left, ever got their jobs. @abc is wasting time
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2016
And when you point out that this kind of thing ought to be beneath a man of Trump’s stature and, um, dignity, many of his supporters immediately rush to claim the mantle of victimhood for their man.
So I wonder: Is Trump the first Social Justice Warrior presidential candidate, in the sense of weaponizing grievance in a way similar to that done by left-wing campus protesters? On campuses, leftist protesters rarely make actual reasoned arguments; they simply assert that they are in pain, and have been mistreated, and demand redress. Similarly with Trump, in his speeches, he tries to strike a resonant emotional chord with his listeners, and appeals to their sense of grievance (which often has valid grounds). He positions himself both as the petitioner and the authority who will bring justice to the situation. In other words, he’s both the Emory University students traumatized by chalk, and the college president who is going to feel their pain and undertake administrative actions to give them what they want.
Contrast this to Hillary Clinton, who is the college president of the Democrats, listening the pain expressed by various victim groups in the Democratic coalition, and promising to deal with their grievances fairly, in standard Democratic fashion. The emotional power of Trumpism is that he is himself constantly aggrieved. Like campus SJWs, he’s a narcissist who is never satisfied — and he may be the first major politician from the right to take the grievance culture of the privileged campus left and make its tropes and strategies work for him in a presidential campaign, by heightening the sense of victimhood in his supporters (whether they are actual victims or not), offering himself as a Victim who stands in for them all, and also as the potential Authority figure who will restore justice.
And think about this: Trump boosted himself against his GOP rivals earlier in the primary season in part by diminishing them personally. He insulted Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in particular, and he did it in ways that exploited their vulnerabilities (e.g., a disengaged Jeb! was “low-energy”; “Little Marco” was too unseasoned and ready for office). He was able to get away with it for a couple of reasons. First, Trump has no apparent sense of honor or dignity, and has a long-established a public persona that renders him immune to the sort of behavior that would embarrass most grown men. Second, his GOP opponents all still belong to a culture of dignity, and did not know how to respond effectively to his taunts. When they tried — Marco Rubio getting into the gutter with him — they looked terrible, because it was fake, and really did diminish them.
In a similar way, on campus, I am fairly certain that most students don’t agree with the SJWs, at least not their tactics, but are afraid to speak out because they intuitively understand that to be a victim is to have power within the university community. If they are white, or male, or a member of some other community deemed oppressive by SJW ideology, they would expose themselves to attack if they stood up to the SJW bullies. Note how the president of Emory promised SJW protesters that he would use campus security cameras to track down the people who wrote “Trump 2016” in chalk on campus sidewalks, and punish them if caught. Can you imagine? Bringing the security apparatus of the campus to bear on people who chalked support for a presidential candidate on the sidewalk. But that is the power of SJW victimhood.
Plus, one likes to think that most students have enough residual dignity to restrain themselves from behaving like bully-babies.
What if that changes? What if students — whites, males, and other out-groups — decide that they’re going to fight fire with fire, and adopt Trumpian methods on campus, challenging the sacred victim status of the SJWs, and claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves, and intimidating university authorities until they get what they want? Trump has shown what you can do to acquire power if you just don’t give a rat’s rear end what people think of you. That is, if your own belief in yourself and your righteousness is so absolute that you are not susceptible to believing that it is undignified or dishonorable to present yourself in the public square as a victim. Trump’s genius is to present himself as both victim and victor, and that kind of thing is not going to work on campus. But sooner or later, the tactics of the SJWs are going to be taken up by their opponents, because that’s the only way they will save themselves from being entirely disempowered on campus, and in time, in the workplace. Trump has shown that establishments are weaker than people think, and can be pushed over. So have the SJWs. All that campuses need now are counterprotesters to the SJWs, making similar uncompromising demands from administrators, driven by nothing but their feelings of grievance. Then we can have a proper war of all against all.
If we really are undergoing a tectonic cultural shift from a culture of dignity to a culture of victimhood, the implications for democracy are profound, and profoundly troubling. But it is entirely what you would expect from a society riven with what the left-wing social critic Christopher Lasch, of blessed memory, called “pathological narcissism.” Here are quotes from a 1976(!) essay in The New York Review of Books:
The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling—even if it is only a momentary illusion—of personal well-being, health, and psychic security. Therapy is the modern successor to religion; but this does not imply that the “triumph of the therapeutic” constitutes a new religion in its own right.
Therapy constitutes instead an antireligion, not always to be sure because it adheres to rational explanation or scientific methods of healing, as its practitioners would have us believe, but because modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs.
Even when they speak of the need for “meaning” and “love,” therapists define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them—nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise—to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself. Love as self-sacrifice or self-abasement, “meaning” as submission to a higher loyalty—these sublimations strike the therapeutic sensibility as intolerably oppressive, offensive to common sense and injurious to personal health and well-being. To “liberate” humanity from such outmoded ideas of love and duty has become the mission of the post-Freudian therapies and particularly of their converts and popularizers, for whom mental health means the overthrow of “inhibitions” and the nonstop celebration of the self.
The weakening of social ties, which originates in the prevailing state of social warfare, at the same time reflects a narcissistic defense against dependence. A warlike society tends to produce men and women who are at heart antisocial. It should therefore not surprise us to find that the narcissist, although he conforms to social norms for fear of external retribution, often thinks of himself as an outlaw and sees others in the same way, “as basically dishonest and unreliable, or only reliable because of external pressures.” “The value systems of narcissistic personalities are generally corruptible,” writes Kernberg, “in contrast to the rigid morality of the obsessive personality.”
The ethic of self-preservation and psychic survival is rooted, then, not merely in objective conditions of economic warfare, rising rates of crime, and social chaos, but in the subjective experience of emptiness and isolation. It reflects the conviction—as much a projection of inner anxieties as a perception of the way things are—that envy and exploitation dominate even the most intimate relations. The cult of personal relations, which becomes increasingly intense as the hope of political solutions recedes, conceals a thoroughgoing disenchantment with personal relations, just as the cult of sensuality implies a repudiation of sensuality in all but its most primitive forms. The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic about the power of positive thinking, radiates pessimism. It is the world view of the resigned.
Lasch was writing about the Me Decade, but his insights are helpful to explain the culture now coming into being. Trump is the quintessential narcissist. The SJWs are narcissists, exquisitely attuned to their own “pain.” We live in a debased post-Christian culture in which power is acquired among elites by appealing to one’s alleged weakness. It will not stay confined to elite culture. The Trump campaign suggests that it is already migrating into the public square in a big way.