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How many of those called racist or sexist are actually guilty of racism or sexism? Some are, but what about the others? Why is calling someone a racist or sexist different from calling them a liar or a felon? Why is being called a liar an offence where the burden of proof is with the accuser, whereas being called racist is a disgrace where the target must demonstrate her innocence? It seems to us that, when using a label like racist to disparage somebody who holds views that are dissonant to one’s own, the aura of victimhood is used as a license to offend with impunity, in line with a broad culture shift in western society.
One or two centuries ago, people in the west determined their self-worth as honor or shame. This is still the case in many parts of the world, but the west has since moved from honor to dignity. Our belief in intrinsic and inalienable dignity has blunted the importance of honor and shame, thus enabling us to overcome unproductive disputes. Outcasts are entitled to human dignity, thus overcoming their status as outcasts. Offenders can regain recognition as dignified members of society after correction. Prisoners who have served their sentence are rehabilitated, reintegrated, and resocialised. This is a major accomplishment. As one of the authors has shown in a recent paper, there are glaring differences between western dignity cultures and more “traditional” honor cultures. One of those differences is that social and political conflict in dignity cultures is less likely to escalate and far easier to overcome.
the aura of victimhood is used as a license to offend with impunityHaving swung from honor to dignity, unfortunately the pendulum does not rest. Rather, it is swinging further towards what we call “reverse honor” (others call it a culture of victimhood). Under the guise of hypersensitive offense-taking, the self-worth we once held intrinsic and inalienable is again becoming contestable and anxiety-inducing. Like in the old days of honor culture, self-worth is again understood as an internalised right to respect. No longer content with dignity as a remedy against injustice, people resort to confrontational and resentful tactics reminiscent of honor culture. There is a twist, however. What used to be associated with shame (for example, being marginal) is now taken for virtue. What used to be associated with honor (for example, being privileged) is now associated with shame. This ignores a basic fact: neither is being marginal a guarantee for being right or morally superior, nor is being privileged equivalent to being wrong or morally inferior. What falls by the wayside in this reversal is the quintessentially liberal idea of human dignity regardless of status, class, gender etc.
For a case in point, consider the latest episode of campus activism reaching Britain from South Africa via the United States. Having benefited like no other university from the munificence of Cecil Rhodes, Oxford saw itself confronted with the demand that Rhodes Must Fall. The RMF movement demanded that the legacy of Cecil Rhodes be banished in order to restore Oxford’s relationship with students hailing from countries with a colonial past. A racist historical figure like Cecil Rhodes had to be purged from Oxford to cleanse the image the university has of itself or projects to the world. Given that Rhodes’ white supremacist worldview is incompatible with 21st century values, the movement wanted to extirpate his legacy in full.
Ironically, a poll demonstrated that 54% of Oxford students say that Rhodes should stay. Even “black, minority, and ethnic” (BME) students were divided (48% Rhodes must fall, 45% Rhodes should stay, 7% undecided). 51% of BME students found that taking down Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College would not have changed their student experience. Yet, the movement insisted on this action as one of its chief deliverables.
While students were not that supportive, the RMF movement found resonance with the media. This was due to the fact that those campaigning associated themselves, in sometimes tenuous ways, with the victims of colonialism, racism, and other forms of vicitimisation. The movement thus exemplified the move towards offense taking and the celebration of victimhood. It hardly occurred to the campaigners that an honest dialogue about Rhodes, his highly controversial legacy, and the merits and demerits of censoring history might have been more befitting of Oxford than trying to sanitize the place from anything potentially offensive and unpleasant, such as association with an ambivalent and flawed character like Cecil Rhodes.
Instead, the campaigners demanded the validation of their personal feelings. They claimed to identify with the victims of past injustice, and they claimed to be offended by Rhodes as a symbol of historical wrongs. Hence, they concluded, they must be right. Whoever dared to disagree with them was associated with what they wanted to ostracize. Contrarian views were taken as an affront to their right of respect. (After promising to have an extended dialogue with RMF, Oriel College decided rather quickly that Rhodes would stay, a seeming reversal of their previous position, owing to pressure from alumni, according to The Telegraph.)
In an interesting essay, Lukianoff and Haidt deplore the moral and civic poverty of “catastrophizing” — a self-infantilising attitude whereby common events such as offense occasioned by free speech are hyperbolised into nightmarish trials from which the “victim” might not emerge unscathed. Normally bearable facts of life, such as a statue of Cecil Rhodes in one of Oxford’s lesser known colleges, become just too awful to bear. This attitude contributes to eroding the dynamism and vibrancy that used to characterise liberal dignity societies. All of a sudden, picayune things such as a statue to a once-venerated man overshadows one’s entire existence and hurts so badly as to make an entire university an irretrievably racist and grievously “unsafe space.” Free speech questioning the appropriateness of such hyperbolic claims becomes intolerable, as it is interpreted as adding contemporary injury to historical injustice.
In the name of emotional well-being and therapeutic protection, students demand insulation from ideas and words they might not like In the name of emotional well-being and therapeutic protection, students demand insulation from ideas and words they might not like — with detrimental effects on their education, mental health, and the free speech practices cherished by liberal societies. Whereas dignity culture previously thrived in its ability to rehabilitate both victims and offenders, the move to reverse honor freezes the status of victim and offender in perpetuity. Only one emotion dominates: the outrage of righteous indignation. One can build an entire (and quite lucrative) career on victimhood, internalising “reverse honor” as part of one’s personal identity. Activism in the RMF campaign may be a good preparation for becoming a diversity officer, just like other extracurricular activities can prepare a student for other professional careers.
The elevation of victimhood to the level of celebratory virtue serves as a trump card curtailing debate by allowing the “victim” to make unsubstantiated claims about racism and the like. Victimhood becomes a cloak behind which the dagger hides. It places on the purported offenders the undue burden of proving their innocence in a climate poisoned by those posing as, or speaking on behalf of, victims. There is no better way to lash out with impunity than posing as a victim. Even defensive moves by the alleged offenders (who are often the true victims in this game) will then be interpreted as wanton acts of aggression. Victimhood becomes a source of pride, and disagreement becomes an affront. What is lost in the middle is the ability of citizens in an open and democratic society to engage in vibrant debate, and eventually “agree to disagree,” in ways that do not curtail anybody’s intrinsic and inalienable dignity. Overcoming honor has been one of modernity’s greatest achievements, and a lapse into a culture of victimhood and reverse honor may lead us “back to the future” in terms of prickliness and censoriousness.