Morally speaking, our new culture has divided us into victims and perpetrators. Gone is the presupposition that we are people of good will who might have offended. Gone is the moral injunction to turn the other cheek.
You might not be a criminal. You might not have committed a macroaggression, but unless you can find a way into the class of victims, you are surely guilty of something.
Jonathan Haidt describes the cultural transformation. I quote him at length (via Jonah Goldberg) to take slight issue with him:
I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.
Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.
By this reasoning, a culture of dignity is morphing into an honor culture. But what, after all does that mean? Don't honor and dignity belong to the same class of moral virtues?
This point struck me, because serious thinkers in the not-so-distant past have defined a clear distinction between shame and guilt cultures. Not honor and dignity cultures, but shame and guilt cultures. Among them, Ruth Benedict in her wonderful book: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.
I wrote about shame and guilt cultures in my book Saving Face. I offered many salient points about the distinction in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.
In part, it’s about multicultural diversity. Proponents of the honor culture meme believe that if someone says he is acting to restore his honor he is acting to restore his honor. If you believe that each culture can define its moral concepts as it pleases, and thus that there are no universal rules, you might make the argument. I find it untenable.
In some cultures, classed by these authors as honor cultures, people murder their children because they believe that that is the way to restore family honor. Do you really believe that there is something honorable in such an action?
These forms of punishment are not characteristic of shame cultures, or honor cultures or dignity cultures. They belong to guilt cultures. In a shame culture the price for transgression is ostracism. In a guilt culture, the price for transgression is death or mutilation. Excessive sensitivity to dishonorable behavior, to the point where one makes it a criminal activity, is the hallmark of a guilt culture.
I hate to go all universal on you, but murdering your daughter because she held hands with a boy does not restore your honor. It is disgraceful behavior and labels you as a moral degenerate. Any culture that condones such practices is a moral monstrosity.
To take the case discussed in the text quoted above, the current mania over microaggressions and trigger warnings is an effort to criminalize slights that are often unintentional. It’s like saying that inappropriate touching is equivalent to felonious rape.
If you do not see the difference, try this out. An attorney is in court addressing a jury in a rape trial. He declares that the defendant deserves to do 10 to 20 in Dannemora because… he touched her inappropriately. Does that describe what happened? Is anyone dumb enough to believe that? Unfortunately, some people are.
What do we gain when we turn slights and insults, inadvertent or advertent, into crimes?
The new culture that is currently trying to take over America is a guilt culture. It divides the world into criminals and victims. If you do not belong to a privileged victim class, you are guilty, whether you committed a crime or not.
Once you feel sufficiently guilty, they will tell you that you can assuage your guilt by paying off the debt you incurred by committing the crime, or by belonging to a class of people that oppressed and exploited the victim class.
Now, you owe them something. That something might be reparations; it might be government largesse and redistribution; it might be affirmative action. In effect, this massive guilt trip is an effort to extort money and perhaps even respect. (In a shame culture, these are earned by the way you conduct yourself.)
Does it bespeak a culture of honor? Assuming that you understand the concept of honor, it does not.
There is no honor in making yourself completely dependent on the moods and whims of other people. There is no honor in blaming your failures on others. There is no honor in refusing to take responsibility for your errors or your successes. And there is no honor in embracing a notion of victimhood that makes you a ward of the state, that consigns you to perpetual childishness.
Come to think of it, there is no dignity in such an attitude either.
In a shame culture people value their honor and their dignity. They do not blame others for their problems. They take responsibility and work to overcome whatever obstacles lie in their path. When they are wrong they never shift the blame. In a culture is based on apology people never blame others for their failings.
In a guilt culture, honor and dignity take a back seat to the need to divide the world between criminals and victims. Once this is done the guilt culture will assert that justice-- the punishment of all criminals and the redistribution of their ill-gotten gains to their victims—is the only way to restore the social order that they have been working so hard to undermine.
It’s unfortunate that the modern thinkers who are defining the culture shift do not understand the basic differences between shame and guilt cultures.