Analyzing the problematic subcultures which arose in the last decade or two on university campuses and which are now spreading to other parts of society, author Bradley Campbell distinguishes between ‘dignity culture’ and ‘victimhood culture.’
The ‘victimhood’ culture assigns permanent moral values to an individual based, not on her or his being a rational human being, but rather based on the individual’s race, gender, ethnicity, etc. According to this ideology, an African-American is essentially a victim, regardless of academic or economic achievements. So is a woman, or a person whose heritage is from the Spanish-speaking parts of Central or South America.
Likewise, a person of “white” (European) descent, or a male, is permanently an ‘oppressor,’ despite the morality or immorality of any of his actions. Being a victim or an oppressor is, for those who embrace victimhood culture, an innate and immutable status. Bradley Campbell writes:
Dignity culture fights oppression by appealing to what we all have in common. Our status as human beings is what’s most important about us. But victimhood culture conceives of people as victims or oppressors, and maintains that where we fall on this dimension is what’s most important about us, even in our everyday relationships and interactions.
Although the ideology of the victimhood culture arose at universities, it is not friendly to intellectual integrity. In fact, integrity and consistency are not virtues in the eyes of victimhood culture.
The political vision of the Enlightenment - that the governed, being uniformly rational despite differences of race or gender, are the source of the government’s legitimacy because their rationality directs them toward a general consensus about those social structures which best preserve life, liberty, and property - is not accepted by the victimhood culture.
Citizens or voters in a state - or researchers or professors at a university - do not have validity because they embody human reason’s quest for knowledge, according to the victimhood mentality. Instead, victimhood teaches, they are valid because they are of a certain race, gender, ethnicity, etc.
This means that victimhood culture is ultimately incompatible with the goals of the university. Pursuing truth in an environment of vigorous debate will always involve causing offense — and one of the shibboleths of victimhood culture is that it’s okay to offend the oppressors but not the oppressed. Many campus activists, realizing this, have attacked the ideals of free speech and academic freedom. One of these visions will have to prevail — either dignity culture and the notion of the university as a place to pursue truth, or victimhood culture and the notion of the university as a place to pursue social justice.
Some critics of victimhood culture, Bradley Campbell writes, mistakenly assume that the campus activists who promote the victimhood culture are too fragile, too much like a snowflake, to be confronted by a diversity of opinions. Campbell disagrees. He argues that the victimhood culture is a reaction to what it perceives as injustice.
This raises several questions: How does one determine what is justice or injustice? How does one respond, rather than react, to it? These questions are at least as old as Socrates, and are never easy to answer.
Is it an injustice for a person to be exposed to individuals who have contrasting opinions? Or is it a healthy and intellectually stimulating experience?
It’s not that campus activists are afraid of taking risks; rather, they’re outraged by what they see as injustice. An example from the book’s first chapter actually highlights the difference. In the 1990s, parents began following medical advice to keep their young children away from peanuts. Peanut allergies were very rare at the time, but they could be deadly. The strange thing was, peanut allergies began to skyrocket after that. We now know this was precisely because children were no longer being exposed to peanuts. It turns out that early exposure to peanuts is good for most children’s immune systems.
Bradley Campbell examines a recent book, written by Lukianoff and Haidt. He argues that the book makes the mistake of labels in the ‘social justice warriors’ as fragile snowflakes. Campbell argues that the advocates of victimhood culture aren’t timid, but rather they are mistaken.
Lukianoff and Haidt use the analogy of peanut allergies:
What Lukianoff and Haidt say, correctly, is that this illustrates the principle of antifragility. As with the immune system, various kinds of adversity often strengthen us. Campus activists, like the parents protecting their children from peanuts, often embrace a myth of fragility. They believe people need protection from microaggressions and conservative speakers, lest they cause them harm.
Instead of embracing head-to-head debate with those who embrace divergent viewpoints, the campus activists believe that they need to shelter their fellow students from those viewpoints. These activists picture themselves, not as timid or fragile, but rather as strong: hence the ‘warrior’ in ‘social justice warrior.’
But they view their fellow students as fragile, as victims, and as members of various oppressed classes. Hence the drive to shelter them.
The question which these advocates have failed to contemplate is this: might it not be a strengthening experience for their fellow students, the alleged victims, to learn that they will not wither when encountering a diversity of opinions, but rather that such intellectual sparring is in fact a strengthening experience?