Dignity or Victimhood?

Three years ago, in a class on ancient world literature, I asked my students to share their thoughts on the new trend of applying “trigger warnings” to certain literary texts. We were working our way through Ovid’s dizzying Metamorphoses, and a group of students at Columbia University had recently asked for that work to be labeled with a “trigger warning” because of its depictions of rape. I saw this as an opportunity to relate our course content—which often seemed marooned in the past—to contemporary issues.

The discussion did not go well. Almost immediately, one of the stronger students in the class, a bright and assertive young woman, made the following declaration: “Unless you’ve experienced sexual assault, you are in a position of privilege, and you have no right to speak about this issue.”

After a moment of cumbersome silence, a handful of students tried to re-enter the conversation, each prefacing his or her remark with an appeal to anecdotal experience: “Well, I have been assaulted . . .” or “I haven’t been assaulted, but I know someone who has . . .”

Before I fully realized what was happening, victimhood—or personal proximity to victimhood—had become the sole port of entry into the discussion. Paradoxically, those who were able to claim a victim status were now the privileged elite, alone permitted to speak their minds.

That classroom dynamic was an anomaly at the time, but no longer. In the few short years since that class, the condemnatory moral category of “privilege” has become commonplace in academic vernacular, as well as on social media and in the public sphere, where it functions as a tireless engine of outrage and ressentiment.

In just the past year, there have been numerous clashes on college campuses in my corner of the United States, the Pacific Northwest. Last March, conservative feminist philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers was invited by a student group to speak at the law school. Protesters both attempted to block entry to the lecture and shouted Sommers down with chants like “microaggressions are real.” At Linfield College in 2017, a lecture by the psychologist Jordan Peterson was canceled after he tweeted that he would be “violating more safe spaces soon.” His lecture was moved to an off-campus location.

Two far more dramatic conflicts unfolded at Evergreen State College and Reed College. At Evergreen, a leftist evolutionary biologist, Bret Weinstein, sparked student protests when he expressed concern about modifications to Evergreen’s “Day of Absence” event. The Day of Absence, a longstanding tradition at Evergreen, had historically involved employees and students of color voluntarily opting to remove themselves from campus for a day, in order to draw attention to their vital presence in the community. In 2017, the protest event was modified; white students, staff, and faculty were invited to leave campus instead. Weinstein expressed concern to the modification in a letter, writing: “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space . . . and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness . . . The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” This letter ignited days of protest and mayhem at Evergreen, during which Weinstein was told that the campus police could not guarantee his safety and he held his classes off campus in a public park. Weinstein received no support from the administration, and he ultimately resigned.

Beginning in 2016, at nearby Reed College, a student group, Reedies Against Racism, demanded that the college remove all European authors from its hallmark Humanities 110 curriculum and replace them with non-European texts as an act of “reparations.” This group staged a series of continual in-class protests, with a dozen or so students positioning themselves alongside a lecturing professor, silently holding up signs such as “F**k Hum 110” and “We Know Enough About White history.”

When one of the Humanities 110 professors, Lucía Martínez Valdivia, expressed concern about the in-class protests, she was accused of “gaslighting,” racism, and ableism by the student protestors. In December 2016, Valdivia wrote the following comment on a blog:

I teach at Reed. I am intimidated by these students. I am scared to teach courses on race, gender, or sexuality, or even texts that bring these issues up in any way–and I am a gay mixed-race woman. There is a serious problem here and at other SLACs [small liberal arts colleges], and I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in either historicity or objective facts. (They denounce the latter as being a tool of the white cisheteropatriarchy.)

Reed has now significantly overhauled its Humanities 110 curriculum in acquiescence to the student protesters.

These conflicts have all occurred within a two-hour radius of where I currently teach, and I am highlighting each of them in order to argue that there is a pattern here, that these are not isolated incidents, but signs of a new moral paradigm that has emerged, one increasingly visible on college campuses. Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have analyzed the key features of this moral culture in their book The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars (Palgrave 2018). They contrast this “victimhood culture” with two other moral paradigms, honor culture and dignity culture.[1] Honor culture—think of Hamilton and Burr, dueling to the death in an attempt to save face—is characterized by sensitivity to slight, and also a desire to handle conflict personally, rather than through an outside party. Dignity culture, in contrast—think “turn the other cheek”—locates the moral worth of a person in his or her intrinsic dignity, a dignity not dependent on honor and impervious to shame. In this moral culture, personal slights are taken in stride, and in cases of extreme injustice or harm, appeal is made to a higher authority, such as the state, which is supposed to defend human dignity. Victimhood culture combines aspects of the other two paradigms: like honor culture, victimhood culture features a sensitivity to slights and offenses; like dignity culture, it seeks the intervention of a third-party authority to handle conflicts—campus administrators, for example.

The trendy concept of microaggressions is a hallmark of victimhood culture, and also a helpful example of this moral culture’s rapid rise to prominence. Five years ago, microaggressions were a fringe concept; today, they are a central feature in human resource training programs, despite the dearth of empirical evidence to support the efficacy of such programs.

I recently went through a mandatory Title IX training at my university. As part of the training, I had to watch a video about microaggressions, consisting of a montage of interview clips with ominous music playing in the background. I was immediately struck by the sheer expansiveness of what could constitute a microaggression. “They’re hard to even point out,” said one woman, “You know . . . being talked over, being interrupted . . . just all the things that happen at a workplace” (emphasis mine).  Any perceived slight from a member of a group who has claim to victim status constitutes a microaggression, even if that slight is unintentional or a result of miscommunication.

It is worth pointing out that the clashes over victimhood culture are not primarily conflicts between left and right. Increasingly, criticisms of identity politics and victimhood culture are coming from the left, and as these examples show, left- and right-leaning professors alike have been the targets of student outrage. Moreover, right-wing voices regularly critique victimhood culture by appealing to their own perceived victim status—think of men’s right activists, who see themselves as an oppressed majority, or the white supremacists in Charlottesville chanting as if under threat, “You will not replace us.” Even these extremist views appeal to victimhood in an attempt to establish some kind of moral legitimacy.

There are numerous problems with victimhood culture. Many of these have been aptly identified by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their article-cum-book The Coddling of the American Mind. Haidt, a social psychologist, outlines how this way of thinking directly contradicts both ancient wisdom and contemporary clinical practices. Victimhood culture encourages cognitive distortions like emotional reasoning (allowing emotions to dictate one’s reading of reality), catastrophizing (turning “commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters”), and negative filtering (distorting one’s perception by dwelling on negative details). According to Haidt and Lukianoff, these pathological modes of thinking undermine the resilience of young people and heighten anxiety, which has been skyrocketing among college students over the past ten years. A moral discourse that encourages people to take minor and often unintended offenses as deeply personal attacks, as threats to one’s well-being, is a recipe for increased interpersonal conflicts, as well as emotional and mental fragility.

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As a professor at a Christian university, I am particularly interested in the spiritual implications of this new moral culture and how it manifests on campuses. I am concerned that, in a Christian context, victimhood morality too easily masquerades as authentically Christian. But I would argue that this moral paradigm, despite its apparent concern for the marginalized, is ultimately incompatible with a Christ-centered outlook on oneself and the world.

Victimhood culture, in many ways, is a funhouse mirror version of puritanical Christian morality—but without a concept of grace. People are predestined by demography, divided into the sheep and goats, the elect and the damnable according to intersectional identity categories. The original sin of this culture—inherited from the sins of our fathers—is privilege, an inescapable situation one is born into by virtue of one’s sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or religious tradition.

The elect, those who can claim an underprivileged status in one or more of the approved categories, are exempt from certain types of sins, because sin is not personal, but corporate. Whether one is guilty or exempt from the sin of privilege is entirely dependent upon one’s location in the vast nexus of social power structures, vaguely construed. By definition, in victimhood morality, only white people can be racist. Only men can be sexist. Certain religious minorities, like Latter Day Saints, can be insulted and pilloried, but they cannot be on the receiving end of a microaggression, because they are not in a group that has been awarded victim status. Some groups, then, are exempt from sin, while other groups are inescapably and indefinitely mired in it—regardless of the individual’s beliefs, actions, motivations, biases, or internal disposition.

This emphasis on tribal sin, rather than personal sin, cuts against the Christian call to individual repentance and conversion. There would seem to be little value, for example, in the spiritual practice of examining one’s conscience and seeking absolution. Christ admonishes us to attend to the log in our own eye, rather than obsess over the speck in the eye of our neighbor. Victimhood culture, however, encourages perseverating on the “minor faults of others.”[2] As Haidt describes, “microaggression training is . . . instruction in how to detect ever-smaller specks in your neighbor’s eye.”[3]

Salvation, in this paradigm, is located entirely in the human realm. Instead of human justice working in collaboration with divine justice, our hope is a purely sociopolitical redemption. It is up to us to eradicate every hint of inequality and injustice—a project that can never be fully perfected and, in extreme forms, becomes tyrannical. Thus, salvation is always deflected, deferred; transgressions against diversity and equality shift and redefine as an environment becomes more diverse and equitable. The skirmishes on college campuses are perfect examples of the ever-expanding concept of oppression. Concerns about microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces are most pronounced in contexts where high levels of diversity and equality already exist, such as elite, progressive liberal arts colleges.[4] If even benign staples of ordinary small talk—“where are you from?”—can be read as a form of oppression, there is little hope, in this moral culture, that we can be “saved.”

And yet! One could object that Christianity, in fact, does award moral status to a particular group based on social position: the poor. In the pronouncement Libertatis Conscientia (Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation), published in 1986 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church affirms her preferential love for the poor:

Hence also those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a love of preference on the part of the Church, which since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members has not ceased to work for their relief, defense and liberation . . . In addition, through her social doctrine which she strives to apply, she has sought to promote structural changes in society so as to secure conditions of life worthy of the human person.[5]

Does this not signal a harmony between Catholic Social Teaching and victimhood culture?

On one level, it does. Both share an active and vital concern for the well-being of the oppressed, impoverished, and socially marginalized—as well as an attention to social structures that perpetuate this marginalization. But the basis for this concern, from a Christian perspective, is human dignity:

In loving the poor, the Church also witnesses to man's dignity. She clearly affirms that man is worth more for what he is than for what he has. She bears witness to the fact that this dignity cannot be destroyed, whatever the situation of poverty, scorn, rejection or powerlessness to which a human being has been reduced. She shows her solidarity with those who do not count in a society by which they are rejected spiritually and sometimes even physically. She is particularly drawn with maternal affection toward those children who, through human wickedness, will never be brought forth from the womb to the light of day, as also for the elderly, alone and abandoned. The special option for the poor, far from being a sign of particularism or sectarianism, manifests the universality of the Church's being and mission. This option excludes no one. This is the reason why the Church cannot express this option by means of reductive sociological and ideological categories which would make this preference a partisan choice and a source of conflict.[6]

This instruction reveals stark differences between Christian morality and victimhood morality, grounding the former solidly in an understanding of universal human dignity. The Church’s preference for the poor excludes no one on the basis of race, sex, or other identity categories. Because the Church grounds her love for the poor in dignity, rather than intersectionality, she guards herself against the sectarian polarities and tribal politics that are increasingly fragmenting American society. Victimhood culture, rather than ameliorating group tensions, arguably reinscribes them; these tensions become the lens through which every human interaction is refracted. We are thus encouraged not to love our enemies, but to see enmity in our neighbors.

Victimhood morality, rather than helping the poor, arguably draws our attention away. A moral discourse that encourages students and faculty at elite institutions in the richest country in the world to focus myopically on minor affronts is a distraction from real and profound instances of oppression and destitution, which do not always fall neatly in line with the categories of American identity politics. The Christian vision urges judgment toward ourselves and charity toward others. Victimhood morality inverts this, urging judgment toward others, while presuming our own righteousness. Being aware of the poor and underprivileged, and awarding them a special status, is a very Christian idea. But being overly concerned with whether you are the poor, and seeking that status, is not.

A fundamental problem with both honor and victimhood moral cultures is that moral worth is relative, dependent upon something external. A dignity culture, in contrast, asserts an inherent moral worth that “cannot be destroyed.” This view of the self and the world is deeply Christian, a constant spring running through both scripture and tradition. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in a sermon on true humility, describes how humiliation provides an opportunity to cultivate and model a dignified and Christ-like humility. For Bernard, “humiliation” includes verbal slights, insults, berating tongues—something a step beyond microaggressions and stopping short of physical violence: “The victim who determines to accept all of these for God’s sake with a quiet, joyful conscience, cannot properly be said to be humiliated by anyone but himself.”[7] This is the strength of dignity culture; it cultivates a sense of self-worth that cannot be threatened by the ignorance or animosity of others, and fosters an inner resilience and serenity. The person who sees humiliation as an opportunity for magnanimity rather than “rancor” is uniquely able to “possess his own soul.”[8]

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Let me end with a final example—not of victimhood, but dignity. Three years ago, a young white supremacist, Dylann Roof, walked into a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. He killed nine people. In Roof’s first court appearance, family members of the victims were able to confront the murderer for the first time. One by one, they addressed him—mothers of dead sons, daughters of dead mothers, sisters of dead brothers. Each in turn, voices thick with pain, they extended forgiveness to Dylann Roof, and prayed that God would have mercy on him.

This shooting was a horrific and lethal act of racially-motivated violence. The people who died, and the ones who survived them, were cruelly victimized. And yet, from a spiritual perspective, the straightforward victimhood narrative breaks down. Christianity’s preferential option for the poor concerns both material and spiritual forms of poverty—there is starvation of the body, but also privation of the soul. In this dimension, Roof is entirely bereft, utterly destitute. And the family members who forgave him are spiritually rich—and from their abundance, they extended grace to their enemy, to the man who hates them and has murdered those they love. This is dignity culture—and Christian love—at its apex.

What is good about victimhood culture—a concern for the less fortunate, consciousness of one’s plenty—can be found in dignity culture, without the attending spiritual and psychological pathologies.

Christians, and Christian higher education, must maintain a commitment to loving the poor and oppressed, but embracing this new moral culture on an individual and institutional level actually undermines a Christ-centered understanding of charity, justice, and salvation in fundamental ways.

A moral culture rooted in human dignity, with a special concern for the less fortunate, is a far better option—and the more authentically Christian one.

Abigail Favale is a Life and Dignity Writing Fellow with the Notre Dame Office of Human Dignity & Life Initiatives. Life and Dignity Writing Fellows are leading experts who contribute regularly to Church Life Journal on pro-life and human dignity issues. 

Featured Image: Titian, Salome Holding the Head of the Baptist, 1515; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] In Bradley Campbell’s recent lecture at my institution, he said that critics of his work have contested the name “victimhood culture,” suggesting, for example, the more appealing “social justice culture.” But I would argue that the name is appropriate and resist the conflation of this emerging moral culture with social justice. Social justice, rightly understood, is deeply Christian, whereas victimhood culture, as I argue here, is not.

[2] Campbell and Manning, 9.

[3] Qtd. in Campbell and Manning, 9.

[4] Bradley Campbell highlighted this point in his lecture at George Fox University on November 7, 2018.

[5] “Libertatis Consciencia,” §68.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, eds. Honey and Salt: Selected Spiritual Writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (NY: Vintage Spiritual Classics), 151.

[8] Ibid, 150.

Author

Abigail Favale

Abigail Favale is Director of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University, where she teaches seminars in the Great Books. Her first book is the conversion memoir, Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion.

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