microaggression, victimhood, and digital culture

Take as evidence these two recent articles in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture” and “Is ‘Victimhood Culture’ a Fair Description?” These articles take up research by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning (“Microaggression and Moral Cultures“). As Campbell and Manning observe:

In modern Western societies, an ethic of cultural tolerance – and often incompatibly, intolerance of intolerance – has developed in tandem with increasing diversity. Since microaggression offenses normally involve overstratification and underdiversity, intense concern about such offenses occurs at the intersection of the social conditions conducive to the seriousness of each. It is in egalitarian and diverse settings – such as at modern American universities – that equality and diversity are most valued, and it is in these settings that perceived offenses against these values are most deviant.

They also make the fairly obvious observation (which I’d like to explore further in a moment) that

As social media becomes ever more ubiquitous, the ready availability of the court of public opinion may make public disclosure of offenses an increasingly likely course of action. As advertising one’s victimization becomes an increasingly reliable way to attract attention and support, modern conditions may even lead to the emergence of a new moral culture.

However, the part of the article that becomes the focus of Friedersdorf’s articles comes at the end, where Campbell and Manning contend that while historically we have had an “honor culture,” where typically people resolve disputes unilaterally, often through violence (think duels), and a “dignity culture,” where people turn to third parties (e.g. courts) to resolve disputes but would tend to ignore microaggressions. Today we find ourselves in what they term a “victimhood culture” which is

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.

In a moment of all-too-predictable social media irony, the response to Friedersdorf’s first article is to claim injury over the microaggression in the term “victimhood culture,” a reaction which provokes the second article, which includes an interview with Manning explaining their choice of the term and their awareness of the response it might provoke.

But let me return briefly to the social media point. I imagine there’s an argument to made tracing the intersection of information-media technology with moral codes (e.g. court systems relying on the mechanization and then industrialization of print, typewriters, catalog systems, etc.). So the notion of a new digital morality or ethics might be expected, as would be a new digital rhetoric. As Campbell and Manning discuss, the development of microaggression blogs represent an effort to demonstrate a pattern of what some might consider minor offenses. It’s a strategy that takes advantage of the “long tail” and crowdsourcing qualities of the web, as well as the potential for going viral.  In both honor and dignity cultures, the scale of offense is always on the level of the individual. One person is aggrieved, and the offenders are judged for their individual actions. Here, while we can still say that individuals offend and are aggrieved, the rhetorical strategy of the argument made here is to seek the support of third parties by representing a systemic pattern of microaggressions involving otherwise unrelated individuals. While I would not go so far as to say that such rhetorical strategies are impossible without social media, it seems clear that digital culture has made such efforts far more visible and effective.

It is interesting, as Campbell and Manning observe, that it is in those cultural spaces that are the most diverse and egalitarian (e.g. campuses) that this rhetorical strategy has taken hold, in part because those institutions are more likely than others to become partisan supporters of the aggrieved in these instances (whether in the form of faculty or institutional policy itself). Already we begin to see some rather complex dynamics around this matter, such as a student refusing to read a book because it offends his Christian sensibility (I’m sure you all remember that one) and this recent issue on my own campus involving an African-American graduate student posting “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” signs around campus as part of an art project. Examples such as these muddy the distinction Campbell and Manning seek to make that victimhood culture is structured around claims made against dominant cultural groups.

I’m not interested in a meta-moral argument over whether or not this emerging moral code is good or not. And I’m certainly not interested in naming it. But I am curious about what I see as two competing socio-rhetorical tendencies at work here.

On the one hand there is the tendency toward a destratified, diverse, and egalitarian culture, perhaps best typified by college campuses. In this environment, participants have to live and work with others who are quite different from them without recourse to claiming any innate superiority (i.e. no stratification). Of course stratification does occur (because equality is more a mathematical abstraction than a real world state) but the idea is that it is temporary or ad hoc and consensual (though we can pull out Lyotard here if we like). So, for example, there is stratification in a classroom between the professor and the students, but not necessarily elsewhere on the campus. And that stratification is limited and requires consent, even in the classroom (e.g. trigger warnings protecting or faculty protections against Yik Yak attacks). And even in the case of that Yik Yak attack, there’s always an opportunity for victimhood to flow in a variety of directions.

On the other hand though, we clearly see something quite different in social media, where participants move toward less diverse social groups. Certainly this is the purpose of microaggression blogs, where users join in common cause, and those blogs are hardly the only example of that. I don’t think one can ascribe a single purpose to a diffuse networked movement like this, but I at least find it difficult to determine if the microaggression movement is one that seeks to accelerate and shape the formation of an increasingly diverse and egalitarian society or if it rather seeks to set limits on diversity, at least as Manning and Campbell use the term.

For example, it is dignity culture that gave us the now familiar aspects of university general education that deal with racism, sexism, and other forms of social inequity, as well as multicultural literature, ethnic studies, gender studies, and so on. Such curricula clearly make sense within a dignity culture as means to foster a more diverse and egalitarian culture. However, I think it is an open question whether such classes will be viewed as moral in a microaggression culture (or whatever you want to call it, apparently not “victimhood culture”). Again, at least in Manning and Campbell’s account, in a dignity culture the slights of microaggression were overlooked, and microaggressions occurred all the time as students were asked to read things that challenged their views (and which they might find offensive) and students often would say things (many times, though not always, out of ignorance) that offended others in the class. It may be that such courses will become nearly impossible to teach (they’ve never been easy). The risks of speaking in such a classroom are far higher now than they’ve ever been for both faculty and students. Beyond that, if we see this microaggression movement spread, I will be curious to know if the result is that students’ social relations become less diverse even as the overall demographics of higher education move in the other direction. Perhaps that sounds like a moral argument against the microaggression movement because it suggests that the result will work against diversity and egalitarianism, but I don’t see it that way. If anything I think it suggests redefining what diversity and egalitarianism might be.

Anyway,  I prefer to think about these matters in rhetorical terms. All rhetorical acts involve risk and thus must also involve some perceived possible reward. Obviously we all say and do things impetuously at times and that is always risky. It’s generally wise to make one’s best effort to restrict such acts to private moments in one’s most intimate and trusted social relations. Microaggression introduces us to a new set of risks for rhetorical acts occurring beyond those intimate social relations.

There is at least some tendency socially to indemnify oneself against these risks by claiming some value in honesty, in telling it how it is, in being a “straight shooter.” The microaggression movement relies on this strategy itself; it does not recognize the validity of those who counterclaim offense in their own claims of microaggression. It is indeed a complicated web of rhetorical performance. And perhaps this is what we need to recognize (and why we continue to mistrust rhetoric): it’s not honesty that we value but the effective rhetorical performance of honesty. That is, one that must protect itself against claims of microaggression as one must protect oneself against all counterclaims to a rhetorical act. In classical terms, claims of microaggression are claims against ethos, against one’s moral authority to say what one has said.

If we think about it this way, microaggression points us to a destabilization of ethos in a digital culture. To reestablish ethos, we have to reconceive identity and the authority it provides in a networked culture. Until then, it will remain quite difficult to determine what is and isn’t permissible to say.

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