This post that consists of three parts: First, I will give a brief review of Jonathan Haidt and his publications – this section is optional and can be skipped if you like. Second, I will summarize “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” an article by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning concerning the nature of microaggressions and the emergence of “victimhood” culture – this is the main meat of the post. Finally, I will use Nietzsche’s master/slave moralities to apply Campbell and Manning’s paper to the differences between victimhood culture and the gospel.
I’m a big fan of Jonathan Haidt in that I deeply applaud his efforts at building bridges of mutual understanding and communication across political and ideological divides. (The degree to which he has succeeded in these attempts is another issue.) This is not to say that I agree with everything he says. For starters, I think that he limits himself far too much to American ideologies within the very recent past – even by American standards. It is only within this very limited scope that one can call the PC left “liberal” and the free-market right “conservative”. A better way of seeing the political divisions, I suggest, is by acknowledging that 95% of Americans are liberal in some form or another in that they strongly value freedom; it’s just that some of these liberals tend toward the egalitarian direction of socialism while others tend toward the stratified direction of conservatism.
Within this broader scope, one can better appreciate where Haidt himself stands, ideologically speaking: he is a moderate liberal, probably close to John Stuart Mill. Consequently, whereas at times he claims to have “stepped out of the political game,” and become an impartial observer, at other times it becomes quite obvious that he has done no such thing. Nothing has made this more clear, I suggest, than his recent efforts at stemming the recent resurgence of political correctness and identity politics. Within these efforts he still strives to facilitate understanding, but the appearance of neutrality seems to have been left behind.
It is tempting to think that the objections that the PC left have with him largely boil down to the packaging of his ideas, not the content of the ideas themselves. Unfortunately, the left-wing Marcusians (as Haidth calls them) do not recognize any significant difference between form and content since either one can function as a kind of domination in society. Thus, whereas Haidt is explicitly aimed at opening a space that is safe for uncensored speech and dialogue, his opponents are centrally concerned with how opening a space that is safe from the domination of uncensored speech and “dialogue”. These politically motivated objections to Haidt are evidence enough that he is not as politically neutral as he would probably like.
While I would love to unpack the differences between Haidt’s traditional conception of theory and Herbert Marcuse’s critical theory, I will resist the temptation for the time being. Instead, I will merely point the reader to Traditional and Critical Theory by Max Horkheimer for a decent intro to the theoretical differences at play between Haidt and the leftist intellectuals who object to him. The point that I want to make in this context is that Haidt’s attempts at building bridges of communication breaks down largely because he does not cast his ideological net wide enough to accommodate the different types of reasoning that are native to non-liberal socialism (and non-liberal conservatism, for that matter).
Microaggression and Moral Cultures
I would now like to briefly summarize a paper which Haidt links to and summarizes at his website: Microaggression and Moral Cultures by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning . First, I will discuss two common types of microaggressions and the social contexts in which they are moralized. Second, I will summarize the historical emergence of three moral cultures that largely correlate with the cultures of conservatism, liberalism and socialism.
Campbell and Manning categorize microaggressions into two types: overstratification and underdiversification. A microaggression of overstratification is an expression – though rather small and non-threatening in and of itself – of a systemic stratification according to which one “higher” group repeatedly and systematically dominates a “lower” group. While the individual act itself may not be an obvious case of whites dominating blacks, men dominating women, rich dominating poor, etc., the act is still interpreted as an expression or reminder of the systematic domination of one group over another. While microaggressions of stratification are cases of one group being positioned beneath others, microaggressions of underdiversification are when a group is systematically excluded from some space. Put differently, a mere lack of domination is not enough (think ‘separate, but equal’); an active integration of marginalized groups is also necessary. A space in which a diverse range of underprivileged classes are both well-integrated and free from systemic domination is often called a “safe space.”
While it might be counter-intuitive to some, Campbell and Manning found that complaints of microaggression actually increase as a community becomes less stratified and more diverse. The more equal a community becomes, the more loudly people will complain about inequalities and the more diverse a community becomes, the more loudly people will complain about infringements upon diversity. Thus, the most egalitarian and diverse environments in our country – university campuses – are exactly the places where we find the loudest complaints about inequality and a lack of diversity. The reasoning behind this is somewhat complex and worth exploring in the original paper. The basic idea is that as a community comes to embody the values in question, the costs of moral indignation decrease while the benefits increase. In other words, the more a community comes to embody equality, the more incentive a person has within that community to portray themselves (and others) as victims of inequality.
Within their history of moral cultures, Campbell and Manning call communities that have come to incentivize victimization in this way “cultures of victimhood.” (Again, I really dislike the negative connotations associated with this particular label.) This culture of victimhood is currently clashing with a moral culture of dignity in the same way that the latter clashed with a moral culture of honor roughly 300 years ago. A brief discussion of the similarities and differences between these cultures is in order.
A moral culture of honor is one in which social status is attached to a refusal on one’s part to be dominated by anybody else. One thinks of Aristocrats, knights, Samuraii, the old west, or any other community that approaches Nietzsche’s master morality. A person within such a society is very sensitive to microaggressions of stratification in their interpersonal relations, but – and this is what sets it apart from victimhood – places full responsibility on the offended individual to avenge such offenses on their own. Indeed, to not fight back or retaliate in response to a perceived dishonor is considered immoral cowardice. To advertise one’s victimhood, or even to appeal to legal authorities in some cases, is proof that one has no honor at all.
With the rise of more centralized legal authorities and (especially) political constitutions came cultures of dignity. Within such cultures, moral worth is not something that must be earned and defended, but is instead something that each person is born with. Within such a community the “good opinion” of others is not as valuable such that people will often be praised for their “think skin” and tolerance – virtues that have no place within an honor culture. When a person is offended, they are expected to either let it go and move on or, if the offense is egregious enough, report it to a centralized third party. These authorities, usually the legal or administrative authorities, will thus negotiate the proper compensation between the involved parties. The ideal for this culture, then, is to use the legal system as “quickly, quietly and rarely as possible.”
A culture of victimhood combines different elements from the honor and dignity societies in a way that cannot be reduced to either one. As in the case of the honor culture, people are very sensitive to stratifying acts of domination, but, more like the dignity culture, people will address such offenses through appeals to a third party. This combination of caring deeply for one’s social status while at the same time seeking to establish and preserve this status through appeals to a third party incentivizes a kind of public self-victimization that is very foreign to both honor and dignity cultures. Unlike the dignity culture, on the one hand, perceived offenses will not be “tolerated” within a culture of victimhood. Unlike the honor culture, on the other hand, such offenses are repaired by advertising one’s weak and exploited nature rather than one’s strong and exploitative nature. Since people depend upon a third party rather than themselves for their moral standing, and since people are no longer willing to quietly tolerate offenses to their moral standing, this places an immense burden upon and corresponding power within the hands of this third party in the form of centralized control or unchecked populism.
The Gospel: A Culture of Honor, Dignity or Victimhood?
My question at this point is this: which of these cultures does the gospel advocate? I referenced above Nietzsche’s distinction between the master morality of the Aristocrats and the slave morality of the Christians. While I did equate the culture of honor with master morality, I balked at equating slave morality with the cultures of dignity or victimhood – although there is certainly some overlap. Both dignity and victimhood cultures are based in the presence of a strong third party that is capable and available to correct offenses, while slave morality based around the immediate absence of such a third party. Moral status is to be measured and redeemed in heaven, not this mortal life. Christian morality, as Nietzsche understood it, probably best corresponds to the underprivileged majority within honor cultures.
With the rise of centralized legal authorities, however, I think the gospel adapted quite seamlessly to a dignity culture. The slave morality ideal of “turning the other cheek” in active toleration was generalized such that pretty much every group could expect to offend and be offended by somebody. In the case of egregious offenses, the church did and still does make some appeals to legal authorities, but such appeals are indeed, quick, quiet and rare. Such tendencies of the dignity culture match up pretty well with what the church teaches and expects from the world around it today.
What I absolutely do not find within the gospel is an unqualified condemnation of all forms of domination or an unqualified praise of diversity. Yes, the scriptures condemn the domination of secular authorities as well as *unrighteous* dominion but consensual subservience to the righteous dominion of the Lord’s prophets is very much a part of the gospel. Similarly, the church does encourage certain amounts of bounded diversity – something which a victimhood culture would say is not diversity at all. Yet, one does not find any suggestion that anybody and everybody should be able to join the church without conforming to some standards or another. Indeed, the scriptures often urge a rather strong isolation from the cultures and false gods of the world – the very opposite of integration.
In the end, I find little support within the gospel for the hypersensitivity to offense that characterize the honor and victimhood cultures. To be sure, all three cultures had their own ways of righting wrongs. Masters within the honor culture fought for themselves and their kin while the (Judeo-Christian) slaves sought their status in heaven. People within the dignity culture universalized and secularized this slave morality in the form of tolerating many offenses, thereby minimizing the importance of status, not withstanding the occasional appeal to third-party arbitration. Inasmuch as the believer retained their care for moral status, it was largely measured and avenged by God and in His own time. The victimhood culture, by contrast, abandons the slave morality altogether by seeking to universalize a master morality in which every person’s social status in this life is jealously guarded by mortal men and women within some “third party.” Such a concern with status and power within this world, however, stands in stark contrast to the gospel of meekness taught by Jesus Christ.
In Nietzschean language, the gospel teaches us all to be slaves within the culture of dignity, not masters within the culture of victimhood. Our moral status is to be measured in heaven, not jealously guarded within this fleeting life.