September 13, 2015

MEGAN MCARDLE: How Grown-Ups Deal With ‘Microaggressions.’

We used to call this “rudeness,” “slights” or “ignorant remarks.” Mostly, people ignored them. The elevation of microaggressions into a social phenomenon with a specific name and increasingly public redress marks a dramatic social change, and two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, have a fascinating paper exploring what this shift looks like, and what it means. (Jonathan Haidt has provided a very useful CliffsNotes version.)

Western society, they argue, has shifted from an honor culture — in which slights are taken very seriously, and avenged by the one slighted — to a dignity culture, in which personal revenge is discouraged, and justice is outsourced to third parties, primarily the law. The law being a cumbersome beast, people in dignity cultures are encouraged to ignore slights, or negotiate them privately by talking with the offender, rather than seeking some more punitive sanction.

Microagressions mark a transition to a third sort of culture: a victim culture, in which people are once again encouraged to take notice of slights. This sounds a lot like honor culture, doesn’t it? Yes, with two important differences. The first is that while victimhood is shameful in an honor culture — and indeed, the purpose of taking vengeance is frequently to avoid this shame — victim status is actively sought in the new culture, because victimhood is a prerequisite for getting redress. The second is that victim culture encourages people to seek help from third parties, either authorities or the public, rather than seeking satisfaction themselves.

In other words, it’s the Code Duello, but for cowards.

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