Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Don't be an ignorant jerk"

.... We used to call this "rudeness," "slights" or "ignorant remarks." Mostly, people ignored them. The elevation of microaggressions into a social phenomenon with a specific name and increasingly public redress marks a dramatic social change, and two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, have a fascinating paper exploring what this shift looks like, and what it means. (Jonathan Haidt has provided a very useful CliffsNotes version.)

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. ....

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. .... The result will be proliferation of groups claiming victim status, attempting to trump the victim status of others. ....

Honor cultures frequently developed a lot of rituals to constrain the violence which otherwise would have degenerated into a blood-soaked war of all-against-all. If you look at the Burr-Hamilton duel, you see a tremendously elaborate process for what is basically two men deciding to duke it out over a nasty remark at a dinner. .... Unless victim culture can find similar stopping mechanisms, it will collapse into the bloodless version of the endless blood-feuds that made us seek alternatives to honor cultures in the first place.

Does that mean that majorities should be free to microaggress their little hearts out? Of course not. ...[A] lot of it simply boils down to saying "Don't be an ignorant jerk." This is a laudable injunction. It's a remark that has always been best delivered in private, without a gun in your hand. And if at all possible, with a friendly smile. [more]