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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Changing Culture and its Consequences

 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.


Unknown said...

This post is excellent. I look forward to future posts regarding this issue. In part, it explains the cultural and societal phenomena of post-Renaissance America.

Shelterdog said...

Interesting. But I would add that, while this describes our perspective in the US, it doesn’t necessarily apply to other parts of the world. For example, while Ralph Waldo Emerson was setting the table for rationalism, that still plays a major part in our society, Dostoevsky was advocating the opposite: what makes us truly human is our irrationality. Or, as I recall, he said that if someone demands that you agree that 2+2 equals 4, we will demand that 2+2=5. That’s what—he suggested— makes us truly human. This might account for why we have so much trouble dealing with Russia, even today.
Likewise, I doubt the categories you discuss apply to even the most prosperous countries in Asia, where Confucian culture still plays a strong role. When reading the newspapers in Singapore a couple of decades ago, they repeatedly commented that the USA’s shortcoming was an excess of individualism, whereas “Asian values” promote a balance between respecting the rights of the individual, the family, and the community.
This is not to disagree with your comments, but it’s also important to consider that their relevance may depend on whether we’re only discussing behavior and attitudes predominantly in the white population of the USA and Western Europe, or something larger than that.

Energyflow said...

The three seem to be a progression of sorts. I think people adjust naturally to their environment. Clearly a primitive and brutal life activates different instincts than a more comfortable one. And a very comfortable one is then decadent, returning full circle. Let us use a sports or martial arts perspdctive or yoga. Self control and anger are in dian tien or navel center. Anger is seen as bad, insane even. In yoga, Christian concepts perhaps one mihght emphasize bhakti( devotion) or love, heart centredness. Old testament was perhaps eye for eye pre moses as local tribes each had own Gods and police were nonexistent, rathr elders, males of adult seniority, landholders, made up authority. Law was practical, religious tradition, moral codes. In the post modern era where religion and morality, fundamental belief has been reduced to individual speculation, there is little to bind the whole society together. People form then groups who find common ground fluidly, based on mutual felings of respect, which was previously completely lost for their elder' s worldview(60s) and groups confront each other on that basis. As their trust is minimal, being mutually unintelligible morally, they treat the other groups members as animals, not worthy of respect. The loss of a basic religious concept, therefore means a loss of humanity. The post religious concept was rationalism, nationalism, the state. We have gone beyond that as you have often noted. Obviously the 60s loss of family centred society also meant a general rise of atheism casually. Education brings skepticism. Children have little respect as schools contradict parental guidance, ideals and TV, now internet information allow children to know vastly more than parents on every subject immediately. Essentially society can only become so complex before decadence sets in. Anonymity, alienation, cynicism alllead to decay. The 80 year cycle is one but in this larger case we must note the larger cycle of rise and fall of civilizations. Rome, like Plymouth was a village. From simple devout wilderness settlers to global or regional power with lost internal identity has a clear road map, repeated in many cultures. Perhaps America as a concept is in its declining phase. Perhaps like Russia, a reorganization without half its land and troops abroad will save its core. A rationalistic America and a conservative religious one could emerge. If the rationalist one is based solely on power abroad, but uses printed debt to secure it and a rich oligarchy then it cannot last. The middle class, working class with stable incomes and family lives is the basis of stable democratic governments. As in Rome when farmers were conscripted, lost their land, lived in slums after returning from war or tilled the soil as servants we now see less independence of the individual as debt encroaches, military and security state grows along with general corruption. So honor code returns as dignity code or rule of law declines( police take money from drivers, swat teams raid houses, facebook bans users of one side without redress, others do as they please, courts treat wealthy better). Generally people must live and work together to feel empathy regardless of class, color, religion. As people gradually sort themselves out over decades in the states perhaps the conditions for permanent separation occur if not war.

Energyflow said...


Culture creates unwritten rules in any country. When in Rome do as the Romans do... or Texas or NYC or Iowa. Once the USSR collapsed conflicts erupted on borders and mafias commandeered the markets. If the national guard is permanently tationed in the capitol, protected with barbed wire due to one unruly protest mob, basically unarmed middle class, relatively harmless then this shows great moral weakness, feelings of guilt by those in power, due to general corruption( lobbyism, revolving door politics, lack of contact with common man). A serious revolt would certainly bring a panic of martial law, dictatorship and a true insurgency and separatism. Like a marriage on its last legs, when people drift apart due to lack of communications , basic respect of mutual values then it takes little to dissolve it. Our culture is from Western Europe and America is the edge of it, like Russia. Things move faster on the edge as culture, rules are more fluid. Magna Carta nearly 1000 years, constitution 200 and already " just a ##### piece of paper". Going back to more primitive basic great power picture with more local moral concepts and legal structures decentralized from Washington, Brussels is not the end of civilization anymore than not finding a coke and google in Shenzhen while on a business trip is. We have gotten too used to uniformity while differences and local strengths help give people and groups identity, sense of deeper meaning as not just a cog in a machine.

Bozon said...

Great highly informative essay and references.
I have been reading Sowell, Intellectuals and Race, Chapter 6 Liberalism and Multiculturalism, which also helps, especially re the transformation of liberalism to put into perspective the discussion here re Changing Culture and its Consequences. His Ch 4 Internal Responses To Disparities is also to be recommended in this discussion.
All the best

erik f storlie said...

The link between honor culture and victim culture is alarming. Must we return to a time when men like Hamilton and Burr will duel to the death, even though at the top of the political heap in the democracy of their time. A problem when the left will now define speech it doesn't like as "violence," justifying actual violence in return.

Unknown said...

Excellent, of course. History is more cyclical than most people want to believe, but history and human nature go hand-in-hand due to the complexity of human nature. It is easy to see the honor culture as primitive and barbarous, but just remember that

(1) the human family has much the same structure as a wolf pack (which explains why we have pet dogs)

(2) if we do not have family we find surrogates that offer and demand much the same (gangs, military platoons, business firms)

(3) the cycle is one of lapse of habits that go in and out of fashion as parts of human society get neglected, which explains how the honor culture has its resurgence.

Honor culture and dignity culture have very different responses to grievances from economic hardship to outright repression. Not part of an honor culture, I cannot understand why people want their own arsenals and speak so often of the Second Amendment when neglecting the others (like the First). Then again, maybe Donald Trump has found that it never fully disappeared and has found ways in which to revive it, only to show its inadequacy. It is easy to refute intellectually, but to do that one needs to cultivate, use, and respect the rational processes.

Bozon said...

Here are a few thoughts.

What was once thought of, mostly by white Westerners, as enlightenment liberalism,

whether it involved white supremacy 19th C science and pseudo science, or later multiculturalist equalitarian white liberalism where racial differences were seen as nurture not nature,

was all that had held the globalist LIEO understanding together from a moral perspective.

With the rise of racial and ethnic self determination, forces also heavily sponsored, almost uniquely sponsored by the white Wilsonian and Fabian West, Western white supremacy, and then Western enlightenment liberalism were left without foundations for understanding or cooperation between races and civilizations, leaving only animosities and false histories Western liberalism itself sponsored, such as that the West was responsible for the backwardness of the Rest, a view it still acknowledges to be true and for which it accepts misplaced responsibility.

All the best

Bozon said...

I have to say that you have deeply misunderstood the Old European order in this passage below, certainly for Western Europe:

"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."

It is hard to unpack all the ways you are misled here.
While there is an element of truth, it misses the connections throughout the societies back then.
The Great Chain of Being has been one way of putting it. That idea has been dropped entirely from accounts such as yours.

All the best