In praise of dignity and justice

They’ll ask me how I got her I’ll say I saved my money
They’ll say isn’t she pretty that ship called dignity

Dignity, Deacon Blue

In Microaggression and Moral Cultures, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue that we are at a turning point in the way we understand morality. In the past, morality was a matter of honour. Honour had to be earned in some way – whether through an accident of birth, the acquisition of wealth, good works, or public reputation – and respect was seen as honour’s due. A lack of due deference to those possessing honour was an insult to that honour; an insult that demanded redress. Hence duels.

Then, with the development of the social institutions whose purpose was to protect the rights of ordinary people, the concept of dignity became dominant. Unlike honour, dignity does not have to be earned, it is yours by right. Everyone deserves respect unless they transgress the conventions of civilised discourse and polite society. The conventions of dignity are reflected in our language: Politeness costs nothing. Manners maketh the man. Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy. Courtesy became the oil that greased our day-to-day interactions. As Jonathan Haidt puts it on his blog, “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.” The ideal is to have a thick skin and, when pushed to the limit, “use the courts as quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible.” (C&M, p.714)

Now, Campbell and Manning suggest, we are entering a new era of morality: the culture of dignity is being subsumed by a new culture of victimhood. In this new culture, it is no longer assumed that everyone possesses dignity and worth. Instead, it is assumed that insults and slights are an attack on our honour and must be redressed. In contrast to the culture of honour, victims are not expected to seek this redress alone but to appeal to more powerful others for support. According to Campbell and Manning, this involves “building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offences”.

They say:

…the social conditions that promote complaints of oppression and victimization overlap with those that promote case-building attempts to attract third parties. When such social conditions are all present in high degrees, the result is a culture of victimhood in which individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.

This encourages the kinds of witch-hunts, moral crusades and public shaming that have become routine on social media. This has given way to a new kind of bully, the Cry-Bully, “a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper.” This has led to social media dominated by those who attack others mercilessly and then, when their victims retaliate, proclaim their victimhood to the world.

It’s a sort of Munchausen’s syndrome – causing one’s own misery then complaining about it – seen most sadly in the case of Hannah Smith, the 14-year-old girl who took her own life in 2013 after allegedly being cyber-bullied on the teen website Ask.fm. It turned out that some 98 per cent of the abusive messages came from poor Hannah herself, with only four posts being contributed by actual trolls.

This is an extreme example, but more common is the hysterical claim that the claim that ‘safe spaces’ are being violated wherever one person disagree with another. A typical Cry-Bully strategy is passive-aggressively attack their victim and then claim that anyone who rejects their interpretation is a ‘troll’.

Of course, this is just satire – it could never happen in real life could it? Could it?

Now of course, some people would counter that so-called ‘microaggressions’ can cause real damage. In this LA Times article, Regina Rini argues that Campbell and Manning’s theories are flawed. She points out that throughout history, only the powerful have a right to redress in cultures of honour or dignity. Of course she’s absolutely correct to point out that, “If you were a woman in medieval Europe, you were not expected or permitted to respond to insults with aggression. Even if you were a lower-class man, you certainly would not have drawn your sword in response to an insult from a superior.” But is she right about the limits of the culture of dignity? She points out that even in the recent past, “People of color, women, gay people, immigrants: none could rely on the authorities to respond fairly to reports of mistreatment.” She rejects the concept of victimhood:

The new culture of victimhood is not new, and it is not about victimhood. It is a culture of solidarity, and it has always been with us, an underground moral culture of the disempowered. In the culture of solidarity, individuals who cannot enforce their honor or dignity instead make claim on recognition of their simple humanity. They publicize mistreatment not because they enjoy the status of victim but because they need the support of others to remain strong, and because public discomfort is the only possible route to redress.

This seems pretty reasonable. She even acknowledges the argument made by Haidt and Lukianoff that “talk of microaggression corrodes public discourse; it encourages accusations and counter-accusations rather than critical thinking” but ultimately rejects their proposal that “students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses”. She seems to suggest that accepting potential offence is synonymous with accepting sexism and racism. The irony is that, as Campbell and Manning point out, “microaggression complaints and protest demonstrations appear to flourish among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities.” And this is how an utterly necessary culture of solidarity is being warped and trivialised into one of victimhood.

Solidarity is certainly worthwhile and probably the only way for the genuinely oppressed to cope with their plights.n a truly dignified culture, solidarity would proabably be unnecessary, but we’ve got a long way to go before the marginalised and disadvantaged enjoy the same access to justice as do readers of this blog. Clearly, sexism, racism, and any other brand of -ism, are things we should not tolerate, but this rather misses the point. Surely we can accept that these are hardly binary choices? Instead can’t we embrace the negative capability required to accept a world in which racism and sexism are unacceptable and allow that others can disagree with us without us needing public redress for feeling threatened or offended? I

The current trend to seek out sexist or racist attacks in any kind of disagreement is alarming. Labelling those of the other side of an ideological divide as trolls, merely for expressing their opinions in a forthright manner is dangerous. Labels like troll should be reserved for those who genuinely seek to persecute others with threats, insults and aggression. The treatment Mary Beard was utterly unacceptable, but so is calling Germaine Greer a misogynist.

The key concept here is what Campbell and Manning call ‘overstratification’:

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.

The culture of victimhood is, in part, one of envy. I’ve argued before that equality is unfair. In a society where everyone is equal, the disadvantaged are raised up and made to feel special, but if everyone is special, no one is. Instead, treating fairly, means recognising our differences and treating us accordingly. Some people need more help, some people are in a position to give that help. Where we claim offence for microaggression and seek the raise our moral status as victims of perceived oppressors, we take away from genuine victims. We caricature our adversaries as privileged and blameworthy, and cast ourselves as pitiable and blameless. But do we really believe that Deputy Headteachers with many thousands of followers on Twitter are pitiable? Do we really see them as blameless in their discourse with others? How can we take seriously the claim a successful white male that he is being victimised by other, less-successful white men in a world where women in some parts of the world are stoned for speaking out against oppression?

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Campbell and Manning conclude their paper as follows:

What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity…. the clash between dignity and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion: One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound. And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable authority. In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly minor, but in this context even minor offenses – or perceived offenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic. Add to this mix modern communication technologies that make it easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the rise of a victimhood culture.[p.718]

Being a victim is undignified

This ‘clash’ or ‘conflict’ is real. I appreciate that, as always, people tend to genuinely believe what they profess to believe. But be careful what you wish for. Dignity is made possible through access to the institutions of justice. Victimhood is made possible through access to the mob. If you believe in justice, in the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt, you should value the dignity of others. If you find yourself feeling oppressed by criticism of your ideas,  instead of rounding up a gang of mates to defend your honour and ostentatiously cowering behind ‘bully-proof windows and ‘troll-proof doors’, try reading these suggestions on how to deal with criticism.

If our culture of dignity is supplanted for one of victimhood, we might not like where it leads.

4 Responses to In praise of dignity and justice

  1. David Terron says:

    As always provocative, well written and ATFQ – answers the flaming question. 😎

    My problem with ‘teaching superstars’ and the silly twitter brawls that sometimes follow them is that it detracts from what I want from them. Good USEABLE advice that I can apply in my classroom. Sometimes what a certain chap used to push out was aimed more at self promotion and frankly much of his torrent of ‘handouts and stuff’ was unuseable, pretentious or too complicated for the kids. Hence I unfollowed him and concentrate on the likes of X Y and Z as well as the usual posse from Scotland. I follow you avidly though!

    I’m not interested in teacher politics – I get enough of that at work with the Nats and the lefties – can’t these self important asses remember who is the important one here? Yes, it’s me. The frontline teacher struggling against SLT, Cooncil admin halfwits, students who know the discipline policy won’t be followed by fellow staff or SLT leaving a forlorn ‘last hope’ of a few decent types surrounded by the warring tribes….

    That said I always liked oldandrew. Even though he’s on the opposite side of the political divide from me on many things he always argues well, with passion and allows alternative viewpoints. He has not – in my experience – simply shut people out and screamed ‘bully’

    Loss of dignity? Good God man, I’m talking about loss of sanity, an unwillingness to carry on regardless by younger staff, or losing the desire to reach that one kid who you CAN save as you can’t save them all. And some people worry about their dignity….. *slaps them with a wet haddock to wake them up*

  2. Deborah Hulme-Sheffield says:

    David, thank you for this exploration of victim hood. Ben Elton explores a possible dystopian future in his novel Blind Faith – the picture he paints is positively the scariest thing I have ever read because so much of it is happening now; although as of yet, it is happening in isolated pockets. I believe that we have to find a way to educate our students to be robust and resilient, socially, personally, emotionally and academically before they become professional victims and that in order to do that, we have to make it possible for young people to experience failure and then the triumph of moving beyond failure to success.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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