In a number of posts over the years, I have tried to analyze the new views of history, culture and morality that have been emerging during the last few days--most recently in my post on the renaming of San Francisco schools. Others, I am discovering, have been doing the same thing more systematically and at greater length, although major media outlets have paid them very little attention. I recently read Cynical Theories by Helen Plumrose and James Lindsay, a very detailed, solid piece of intellectual history detailing the rise of postmodernism and five of its major offshoots: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, and disability and fat studies. Neither Plumrose nor Lindsay is a professional academic. They in turn led my to another book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, two professional sociologists. That book includes an extremely concise history of western civilization, in effect, which dovetails with some writing that I did more than three decades ago, but also explains why the foundations of the society I and other Boomers grew up in appear to be crumbling.
Campbell and Manning define societies based upon a certain kind of culture relating to how people--especially strangers--treat one another, and how they resolve disputes. They begin with honor culture, which dominated western society during the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and which is still strong in certain parts of the world (such as the Middle East) and in certain corners of American society (such as urban gangs or in Appalachia.) Within honor culture, people--especially, but not exclusively men--customarily respond violently to insults, and demonstrate their worth through a willingness to engage in mortal combat. Such insults can be verbal, but they can also consist merely in failing to receive some payment, preferment or show of respect which one feels to be his due. They might also include an unwanted advance towards a wife, daughter, or sister. I explored in Politics and War how European politics from 1559 through 1659 were dominated by the aristocracy and its values, which monarchs in various states successively tried and failed to bring under control. The great aristocrats routinely resorted to violence to press claims of all kinds, and walked around with armed retainers to emphasize this point. They recognized no legal higher authority, and foreign monarchs often dealt with them as allies and equals.
Aristocracy and the honor culture began to lose ground in the late seventeenth century, I would argue, and were no longer supreme in most of Western Europe and the United States by the end of the 18th. What Campbell and Manning call Dignity Culture--which was definitely associated with the rising middle class--replaced them. Self-control emerged as a critical part of Dignity Culture, and middle-class people in particular (including members of racial and ethnic minorities) now made it a point of pride to ignore verbal slights. More importantly, the legal process replaced violence as the approved means of settling disputes, and in a related development, elections replaced heredity (and periodic civil wars) as the means of distributing political power. The American Civil War was among other things a battle between honor culture, represented by the white south, and dignity culture, represented by the North--and the North's victory gave dignity culture a boost all over the country for a long time. Dignity culture makes particular demands upon people living within it. They must try to show respect for strangers, and they must downplay various aspects of their identity, including their ethnic or racial origin and their religion, in favor of citizenship, which unites us all and provides us with relatively safe and legal means to resolve disputes. On the other hand, dignity culture promises equality to anyone willing to obey its rules. The civil rights movement as it developed from 1909 until about 1967 essentially claimed the benefits of dignity culture for black Americans who were trying to play by its rules, and the passage of the civil rights acts of 1964-5 suggested that they had won that battle. As it turned out, however, that moment coincided with the beginning of a long-term move against dignity culture throughout western society.
Dignity culture and the modern state both also claimed to value the supremacy of reason, which had explicitly been the foundation of the new American state in 1789. The 1960s rebellion struck at the supremacy of reason, and it began among young people at the University of California at Berkeley, as I have often noted, and in other universities around the country. The Berkeley students had gotten where they were--an amazingly favored position, as I have pointed out here many times--by obeying the rules, but many of them were evidently sick of doing so. They resorted almost at once to illegal building occupations and later to various forms of violent protests. Meanwhile, powerful economic interests also resented the tyranny of reason, which had forced them to give much of their income to the government to buy public goods. It did not help matters that faulty reasoning had led the US government into the Vietnam War. A long, steady decline of respect for both political and intellectual authority had begun.
Victimhood culture, the authors argue, emerged quite suddenly on college campuses in 2013--a point that a number of other observers have made as well. (I saw evidence of its emergence in 2012-13, at Williams College, my last year in a formal academic position. I had not seen it on the same campus i 2007-8.) They associate it with the concept of "microaggression," verbal slights based on gender, race, or sexual orientation, which many now argue are equivalent to actual violence. Once again, as in the 1960s, students have resorted to violent demonstrations on some campuses to stop speakers they regard as hurtful from making appearances. Violence is not, however, the approved response of victimhood culture, which prefers either to "cancel" or shun offenders, or to subject them to some re-education in the form of diversity training. Microaggression is not the only crime under the new victimhood culture. Others include "cultural appropriation," "slut shaming," and any unwanted touching.
Campbell and Manning acknowledge some similarities between victimhood culture and honor culture. I think they could have gone much further down this path. Victimhood culture resembles honor culture insofar as it is based upon membership in a group. In honor culture aristocrats (or Crips and Bloods, or Hatfields and McCoys) respond violently to any slight that does not show them the respect to which they are due. In the same way, activists among minorities, women, LGBTs and a few other groups respond with emotional violence to anything they perceive as disrespectful of their group. A claim of sexual assault on campus has become a protest against a whole "rape culture" claimed to prevail there, and some activists do not want to submit such claims to the established legal process--an artifact of dignity culture--because they cannot trust it to vindicate their honor. Meanwhile, academics from these groups (as Plumrose and Lindsay show) have come to treat the whole enterprise of western civilization as an insult to their group, because they see it as a claim to the superiority of straight white males. Questions of social policy, they claim, cannot be solved through the exercise of impartial reason, which they regard as a sham. They must be solved so as to vindicate the honor of the affected group.
Another attack on dignity culture is coming from the right. It is inherent in the whole gun rights movement, a demand to reserve the right to settle even lethal disputes on one's own, without the help of higher authority. Narcissism can be interpreted as an obsessive sense of honor, and Donald Trump's insistence that everything he ever said or did receive endless praise was another assault on dignity culture. Such a sense of honor might even lie beyond the widespread refusal to accept the results of the election. Dignity culture is, one might argue, the culture of centrism, and like centrism, it is under attack.
I intend to explore these questions further in other posts, though certainly not necessarily next week. Meanwhile I will close on a very broad historical point. Just as the supremacy of dignity culture played a key role in the construction of the society into which I was born, the undermining of dignity culture will have profound consequences as well, which could even include the collapse of our political order. All three of the cultures Campbell and Manning identified represent powerful aspects of human nature. Their balance is critical to humanity's future.