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Culture war games: the dangerous allure of victimhood

The Dark Side of Empathy
By Paul Bloom

The outrage that comes from empathy drives some of our most powerful punitive desires. It’s not an accident that so many statutes are named for dead girls—as in Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and Caylee’s Law—and no surprise that there is now enthusiasm for “Kate’s Law.” The high incarceration rate in the United States, and our continued enthusiasm for the death penalty, is in part the product of fear and anger, but is also driven by the consumption of detailed stories of victims’ suffering.

Everyone appreciates that fear and hate can motivate ugly choices; we should be mindful that our most tender sentiments can do the same.

Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account
By Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning

What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity…. At universities and many other environments within modern America and, increasingly, other Western nations, the clash between dignity and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion: One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound. And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable authority. In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly minor, but in this context even minor offenses – or perceived offenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic. Add to this mix modern communication technologies that make it easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the rise of a victimhood culture.

Where Did Colleges Go Wrong?
By Hara Estroff Marano

[Hara Estroff Marano]: You said that the student concerns that lead them to condemn microaggressions or ask for trigger warnings keep them in a state of constant outrage. One thing we know is that crazy-seeming behavior tends to have a purpose. What is the value of staying in a state of outrage?

[Jonathan Haidt]: Moral judgment is not about finding the truth; it is more about broadcasting the kind of person you are to people that you want to like you. You might call it moral posturing. Getting angry about microaggressions shows that you are championing victims. In a victimhood subculture, the only way to achieve status is to either be a victim or defend victims. It’s enfeebling. When victimhood becomes your identity you will be weak for the rest of your life. Marty Seligman has been talking about this for decades. This is a good way to make people learn helplessness.

How Grown-Ups Deal With ‘Microaggressions’
By Megan McArdle

Complaints about microaggressions can be used to stop complaints about microaggressions. There is no logical resting place for these disputes; it’s microaggressions all the way down. And in the process, they make impossible demands on members of the ever-shrinking majority: to know everything about every possible victim group, to never inadvertently appropriate any part of any culture in ways a member doesn’t like, or misunderstand something, or make an innocent remark that reads very differently to someone with a different experience. Which will, of course, only hasten the scramble for members of the majority to gain themselves some sort of victim status that can protect them from sanction.

The Fraying Of America
By Robert Hughes

Since our newfound sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero, the white American male starts bawling for victim status too. Hence the rise of cult therapies teaching that we are all the victims of our parents, that whatever our folly, venality or outright thuggishness, we are not to be blamed for it, since we come from “dysfunctional families.” The ether is jammed with confessional shows in which a parade of citizens and their role models, from LaToya Jackson to Roseanne Arnold, rise to denounce the sins of their parents. The cult of the abused Inner Child has a very important use in modern America: it tells you that nothing is your fault, that personal grievance transcends political utterance.

The dangerous allure of victim politics
By Jamie Bartlett

Politics is about disagreement, argument and debate. Feelings, especially those relating to victimhood, cannot really be argued with, debated or questioned – ‘only meekly accepted’, as Buruma put it. Arguing over degrees of victimhood replaces moral reasoning, since victims aren’t always right. This can be used as justification for bad behaviour. Consider the recent case of the Goldsmiths Equalities Officer, Bahar Mustafa. She asked white people not to attend an event for black and ethnic minority students. I understand the thinking – although disagree – which was to create space for minority groups where social inequality is temporarily suspended, thereby enabling them to speak out on issues which might be difficult to do in other settings. When defending this decision, she argued that she could not be racist or sexist to white men, as she is a BAME woman. Bahar identified herself as a victim. Not personally, but by virtue of her historic status as a member of a victim group. As a victim, eternally and forever a victim, she couldn’t victimise others, especially people who are not victims, like white men. But if only those who claim to feel victimised that can truly speak about it, politics stops being a world of equals people and ideas. That leads toward a world of self-censorship and hecklers’ vetoes.

The Coddling of the American Mind
By Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control. One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought.

The Real Reason We Need to Stop Trying to Protect Everyone’s Feelings
By Ryan Holiday

Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals.

What also separates us is our capacity for empathy. But how empathetic the speech we decide to use is choice for each one of us to make. Some of us are crass, some of us are considerate. Some of us find humor in everything, some of us do not. It’s important too—but those of us that believe it and live our lives by a certain sensitivity cannot bully other people into doing so too. That sort of defeats the purpose.

Obama on liberal college students who want to be “coddled”: “That’s not the way we learn”
By Libby Nelson

… he went on to give his opinion about what’s been called the “new political correctness” on college campuses:

It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

The Attack on Truth
By Lee McIntyre

The real enemy is not ignorance, doubt, or even disbelief. It is false knowledge. When we profess to know something even in the face of absent or contradicting evidence, that is when we stop looking for the truth. If we are ignorant, perhaps we will be motivated to learn. If we are skeptical, we can continue to search for answers. If we disbelieve, maybe others can convince us. And perhaps even if we are honestly wrong, and put forward a proposition that is open to refutation, we may learn something when our earlier belief is overthrown.

But when we choose to insulate ourselves from new ideas or evidence because we think that we already know what is true, that is when we are most likely to believe a falsehood.

The Age Of Cult Politics
By Nick Cohen

In political as in religious cults, believers must be insulated against doubts. The most effective method is to blacken the outside world, and make alternative sources of information appear like the Devil’s seductions that tempt the godly into darkness. As Professors Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth put it in their study of political sectarianism: “There is only one truth — that espoused by the cult. Competing explanations are not merely inaccurate but degenerate”.

The initiated can never see sceptics as just foolish or misguided, let alone as reasonable people asking legitimate questions. To maintain the unity of the faithful they must be damned as malicious. The outside world is no longer a place where sensible people test their theories. It is a contaminated space, a land full of traps, set by enemies, who mean you only harm. Paranoia and hypersensitivity follow.

Why we must fight for free speech for people we loathe
By Brendan O’Neill

Freedom entails allowing everyone to speak, and trusting the audience to decide which ideas are good and which are bad. The new ‘backlash against censorship’ doesn’t do this. It’s actually a cry for privileged speech not free speech – ‘Let this person speak because what she says is important. Those other people? Whose ideas aren’t important? I don’t really care about them.’ In privileging some speakers’ rights over others, these new ‘free speech’ campaigners empty freedom of speech of its profound, democratic value: which is as a means of permitting the expression of all ideas – every idea on Earth – in the name of enlightening and enlivening the public sphere and creating a healthy clash of beliefs in which we, the public, are the judges. A true devotee of freedom of speech says, ‘Let everyone speak, because it is important that all sides are heard and that the public has the right to use their moral muscles and decide who they trust and who they don’t’. The new, partial campaigners for friends’ speech effectively say, ‘Let my friend speak. She is interesting. She will tell the public what they need to hear.’ These are profoundly different positions, the former built on liberty and humanism, the latter motored by a desire to protect oneself, and oneself alone, from censorship. The former is free speech; the latter ‘me speech’.

Art and argument protects us, not censorship
By Terri Murray

Political liberalism is based on the belief that no human being is infallible, thus none is in a position to censor the free expression of any idea, no matter how offensive or unpopular it may be. This sets up a single standard for all, so that ideas can be “tested” against the merits of other views.

This is not a “Western ideology” but a fair framework within which any ideology can be freely discussed and pursued, as well as criticised and rejected. By contrast, censoring dissent forecloses debate and limits opportunities to learn from new evidence, and allows only personal self-righteousness and cultural stagnation. The “respect” it garners for the status quo is more akin to fear than to esteem. The prevailing beliefs are not held because they have won the competition with alternatives, but because alternatives have been silenced.

Salaita’s ‘Why I Was Fired’ Article Puts Civility in the Spotlight
By Alex Morey

While FIRE takes no position on Salaita’s character or his political opinions, we have said repeatedly that calls for campus civility, whether formalized in university policies or informally demanded by campus administrators, are problematic.

First, these requirements often restrict speech deemed “psychologically abusive” or “rude” by another student or faculty member. Because these determinations are made subjectively by the listener, civility policies are extremely susceptible to abuse. This is particularly true in the age of concerns over “microaggressions” which, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh explained, “can lead to a ‘hostile learning environment,’ which UC — and the federal government — views as legally actionable. This is stuff you could get disciplined or fired for, especially if you aren’t a tenured faculty member.”

The second problem with civility mandates is that they discourage robust, passionate debate on the most important issues of our day. As Justice William Douglas wrote in the landmark case Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), uncivil speech is precisely the kind of speech that can make the biggest impact:

[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.

Free speech in an age of identity politics
By Kenan Malik

The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

Let yourself be offended — it’s good for you
By Brendan O’Neill

The reason it’s good to give offence is because every technological and social leap forward in history began with offence, with blasphemy, with some brave soul ridiculing the beliefs of the puffed-up. The reason all you students can live such clever, cushioned lives in this lovely if illiberal university is because earlier generations gave offence. They offended against the idea that women were too visceral to be trusted with the right to vote. They offended against the idea that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. And by committing these blasphemies, they improved our understanding of the world and made life better for everyone.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “All great truths begin as blasphemies”.

If you Safe Space yourself from offence, from those who hate your worldview, you become dogmatic. You never test your ideas, or yourself, and you become shallow and shrill. Subjecting ourselves to public criticism and ridicule and offence is the only way we can grow intellectually and spiritually. In the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman, “The energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow”.

If you hide yourself from opposition, Safe Space yourself from ridicule, you become stupid. Censorship is the mother of cretinism.

Bobby Jindal Announces Violent Games/Movies To Blame For All Those Mass Shootings
By Timothy Geigner

Keep in mind, for all the hand-wringing over violent video games, the average age of the average gamer is going up and currently stands at something like “probably balding or in mid-management by now.” For youths that find themselves playing games meant for adults, that’s strictly a parenting issue, not a culture issue (for all the reasons described for violent movies above). And, regardless, there’s nothing even remotely close to a scientific consensus that violent video games have any negative effect on children at all. In fact, many studies indicate there is no link between gaming and violence at all.

So what is this? Well, it’s a politician employing the aftermath of tragedy to gain support, headlines, and attention so as to better compete with a god damned reality show host in a presidential election cycle. And if that doesn’t make you sick, no amount of violence in movies or games will either.

Are Violent Video Games Digital Poison?
By Ronald Bailey

… as Ferguson and his colleagues point out, “Coupled with a steady decline in youth violence by nearly 90 percent during the years in which video games soared in popularity, data is beginning to converge to suggest that perhaps there may be more productive avenues to consider when investigating youth’s involvement with media rather than to focus on the moral issue of violent content.” Even the APA task force acknowledged that “insufficient evidence exists about whether the link extends to criminal violence or delinquency.” If the playing of video games is not clearly causing any social problems, why does some large portion of professional psychologists feel the need to fuel a moral panic concerning them?

“The motives (for the APA or individual social psychologists) are fairly straightforward,” Ferguson suggests in an email: “It’s identifying a problem psychologists will run in to ‘fix.'” He adds: “The APA is a professional guild that is meant to promote the profession of psychology. It’s to their advantage to identify ‘problems.’ This will result in more grant money, more newspaper headlines, more professional prestige, more accolades from child welfare groups etc.” The bottom line: “We shouldn’t mistake them as purveyors of objective fact.”

Can video games cause violence? (And will your age influence your answer?)
By Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

As long as video games have existed, people have thought about and studied their effect on behavior. But 30 years of research hasn’t fully answered the question of whether playing games causes harm, and people still have conflicting opinions about the topic. Two experts can look at the same data and draw the opposite conclusion, so Dr. Ferguson wanted to understand what factors affect their opinions.

His study analyzes the opinions of 109 clinicians who work with children and families to see whether they agree that video games are a problem for society, including whether they cause youth violence. Overall, there is no agreement – only 39.5 percent of clinicians think playing video games causes violent behavior.

Most of the clinicians surveyed who have a hostile view towards video games are older, and the majority of those surveyed are not gamers, reporting that they played zero hours of video games a week in the last six months. Dr. Ferguson said there is a generational effect at play.

“Older people who are parents or grandparents don’t tend to use new media, such as video games, and they often only see clips of its worst examples, so they believe there is some potential to cause harm. The young people who use the new media don’t buy into this, but no one listens to them because they’re kids.

The results also revealed that clinicians with a negative view of young people were more likely to think video games are harmful. According to Dr. Ferguson, adults tend to believe they were more respectful and well behaved as children than the next generation – a myth that repeats itself every generation.

“As people get older, the culture changes and they feel it slipping away from them,” said Dr. Ferguson. “Comic books, rock music and video games are the sorts of new media that older people don’t feel part of when they emerge, and that can skew their opinions.”

How to defend the arts using liberal values
By Nick Cohen

I don’t know what conditions produce art worth seeing. But I do know what doesn’t. The low- level hysteria around so many sexual, ethnic and political questions. The conformism of liberal culture. The inability to tolerate alternative points of view, let alone show them neutrally in the service of building a convincing character or narrative.

Left unchecked these forces will produce work which is as ‘appropriate’ as a 1950s’ country house drama or a sentimental Victorian novel – and just as forgettable.

If the people in this hall want, as I am sure you do, to produce work that is slightly better than that, you are going to have to learn how defend the arts with liberal values.

The first step is easy to recommend and hard to follow. I know it is difficult when you fear Islamists may kill you, or the police won’t protect you, or demonstrators may close you down, or the government may accuse you of promoting terrorism. Nevertheless your automatic response to a demand that you change or pull a work for anything other than artistic reasons, should be:


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