Jonathan Haidt summarizes a paper (by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning) which may help explain some of the dynamics now manifesting themselves on college campuses and even in the larger society. In brief: prior to the 18th and 19th century, most Western societies were cultures of honor, in which people were expected to avenge insults on their own–and would lose social respect and position should they fail to do so. The West then transitioned 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 transitions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.” The spirit of this type of culture could be summarized by the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Campbell and Manning assert that 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 the difference, Haidt explains is this:
“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.” Campbell and Manning distinguish the three culture types as follows:
“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.”
I had read something about this model a couple of months ago, and was reminded of it by a discussion at Bookworm Room. She described a scene of insanity at Rutgers “university,” in which students were so traumatized by a speech given by Milo Yiannopoulos that “students and faculty members held a wound-licking gathering at a cultural center on campus, where students described “feeling scared, hurt, and discriminated against.”
“A variety of different organizations and departments were present to listen, answer questions and show support” to the apparently weak and vulnerable students, who just a few days prior had disrupted Yiannopoulos’ event by smearing fake blood on their faces and chanting protest slogans. One student at the event told the Targum that they “broke down crying” after the event, while another reported that he felt “scared to walk around campus the next day.” According to the report, “many others” said they felt “unsafe” at the event and on campus afterwards. “It is upsetting that my mental health is not cared about by the University,” said one student at the event. “I do not know what else to do for us to be heard for us to be cared about. I deserve an apology, everyone in this room deserves an apology.”
In comments to Bookworm’s post, I said “Victorian maidens were apparently encouraged to be emotionally fragile. Apparently this encouragement now applies to both sexes and also possibly to those not of the upper classes”…to which commenter Ymarsarkar responded “Mostly because they figured out that men with titles and power liked protecting women who were fragile. To a certain extent. It was almost like a marriage trick. Why peacocks have colors.”
Indeed, Victorian women (of the upper classes, at least) must have perceived that being seen as vulnerable worked out a lot better for them than did the opposite–although many or most must have internalized the behavior to the point they believed that was who they really were.
I think Campbell and Manning are on to something with their model. A very important question, of course, is what is driving the transition to Model Three…and can this transition be neutralized or reversed?
Haidt says that it is the very presence of administrative bodies to which one may complain about minor forms of victimization that gives rise to 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.” But I don’t think the presence of these administrative bodies would have much effect had not a high % of the institutional population been exposed to extreme and fragility-creating forms of “self-esteem building” in K-12 schools and by parents.