Woman’s Tears: Victim Culture, Microaggressions, and Feminism

Touch me with noble anger.
And let not women’s weapons, water drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks!
–King Lear

This paper by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning has been making the rounds in libertarian circles.

Their subject is microaggressions; their approach is sociological; their conclusions are provocative. Jonathan Haidt gives a long summary of their argument, Conor Friedersdorf a short one, and McArdle and even shorter one.

The authors give a fairly detailed account of the culture surrounding microaggressions, but the eye-catching part of their argument is a bold claim: that microaggressions (and trigger warnings, and other hot-button aspects of current campus politics) are evidence of a new “moral culture” that is poised to take over Western society.

The account the authors give of this change is suspiciously tidy.

Long ago, they say, society was characterized by a culture of honor, which placed a high value on two personal qualities:

  1. Sensitivity (reacting strongly to minor slights), and
  2. Independence (resolving conflicts on one’s own).

In a culture of honor, if some clutz spills your beer, you kick back your bar stool and pound his face in. Why? Because otherwise people might laugh at you. It doesn’t matter whether or not the guy meant to do it. What matters is making sure people know not to mess with you.

But then things changed, and the culture of honor was replaced by a culture of dignity, which still prevails today. The culture of dignity, also, values two character traits:

  1. Stolidity (shrugging off minor slights), and
  2. Obedience (resolving conflicts with the help of authority figures).

In a culture of dignity, if some clutz spills your beer, you shrug it off, maybe grumble to your friends. And if he keeps doing it, you go through a series of carefully graduated responses: ask him politely to stop, then appeal to the manager, and finally file a harassment charge. Why? Because this kind of coolheaded problem-solving is what it means to be “civilized.”

Now, according to Campbell and Manning, we’re seeing the emergence of a culture of victimization, which combines important features of the two cultures above. Specifically, it values:

  1. Sensitivity, and
  2. Obedience.

In victim culture, as in a culture of honor, people go bananas over small offenses. But they don’t solve their problems with violence. They take their grievances, as in a culture of dignity, to authority figures. You might say they combine the least appealing features of both cultures. They’re as hotheaded as Mafia stooges, flipping out over tiny insults. But they’re also as meek and toadying like Orwellian bureaucrats, running at every provocation to some official Big Brother, eager to denounce their enemies. They lack both bravery and backbone.

There’s a lot I could say about this sociological parable, but for the moment, I have one major question. The culture of honor, as described here, pertains mostly to powerful men. But the warrior kings of ye olden times represented only a small portion of the population. What about everyone else? What about slaves, servants, retainers, children, the elderly? Most importantly, what about women?

I’m no anthropologist, but my understanding is that in honor-based cultures, these people weren’t supposed to solve conflicts on their own. There was a simple reason for this: they had no honor to defend. If someone abused a slave, that wasn’t an offense against the slave. It was an offense against the man who owned the slave. Similar standards applied to the rest of a great man’s dependents: they were expected to take their grievances to the master of the house, who would treat those complaints as offenses against his own reputation and react with due force.

This had interesting implications for women. A high-class woman in, say, medieval France or Homeric Greece did have honor, and she did exhibit the kind of hypersensitivity Campbell and Manning describe. You could argue that she had to be even more sensitive to offenses than a man of similar status, since unaddressed insults could damage not only her status, but her perceived worth. A dishonored man lost respect; a dishonored woman lost everything.

And yet a wronged woman in these cultures was strongly discouraged from taking up a sword and wreaking vengeance on her defamers. Her only recourse was to appeal to male intimates–her brothers, her father, her relatives, her husband, or failing that, some other honorable champion–to defend her reputation for her. She had plenty of battles to fight, if she wanted to keep her good name. But she herself wasn’t allowed to fight them.

Interestingly, Campbell and Manning, in their own paper, give a perfect example of this dynamic in action:

[A]fter an exchange of insults between two men in 1830 Greece led to a knife fight, legal officials asked the victorious fighter, Theodoros, why he cut the other man’s face. Theodoros said that “no man would call his wife and daughters whores and get away with it. His reputation would not allow it.

His reputation. There’s a reason this isn’t an anecdote about women knife-fighting in the street.

What’s more, the culture of dignity described by Campbell and Manning came much later to women than it did to men. Essentially, the transition to this culture boils down to one development: both honor and the obligation to defend honor were stripped from noblemen and disseminated among the whole population. Feudal lords lost their special status. But they were also relieved of the duty to defend their dependents. Honor and force alike were relegated to the state, which doled out honor in the form of rights and managed the use of force through legal systems, armies, and police.

But all this only partially applies to women, who were only very recently granted the kind of rights and protections that a culture of dignity depends on (and still aren’t really granted those rights and protections in equal measure). Even while fiefdoms were giving way to nations, blood feuds were yielding to court battles, and lawyers were usurping the role of armed champions, even when brawling in the streets came to be seen as a mark of low status and a sign of poor character, still there remained one enormous exception to this revolution in civilized behavior. Women, by and large, were still expected to fight their personal battles by proxy, with help of their champions, their protectors, their masters: their men.

All of which goes to say, the moral culture of victimhood that Campbell and Manning describe has historically been the moral culture of women.

That’s one of the interesting things about today’s campus activism. In some ways it resembles the cult of virtue that surrounded women in traditional societies, particularly noble women, who were held to high standards of purity and docility that made them both quick to offend and powerless to confront offenses. The best strategy under such circumstances is to be paranoid about even minor slurs–and then to bewail one’s injured reputation until another person steps in to avenge the insult.

This is the “histrionic” behavior for which women have been mocked ever since–and for which college students are now being mocked today.

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