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The new political correctness: not a fad, but a deep cultural shift

Ilya Repin, via Wikimedia Commons

October 24, 2017   3 mins


Trigger warnings.


The language of political correctness can appear as baffling as the underlying ideology but it matters. Just one unguarded comment, unintended insult or unpopular opinion and your career in academia, politics or the media can be severely damaged – if not terminated altogether.

If you’re a member of one of the Twitter-using professions, watch your mouth – because it won’t take much for you to be lumped in with the real bigots and abusers (of which there are quite enough already). And don’t think that having the ‘correct’ politics or being a member of a minority will protect you – as Clive Lewis, a hard left, ethnic minority British MP found out last week.

So, what’s going on? Why do minor infringements of social codes (real or perceived) attract such a disproportionate reaction. Is it just an internet-enabled mob-effect, or is there something much deeper going on?

On his Righteous Mind blog, Jonathan Haidt highlights an important new analysis:

“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.”

The Campbell and Manning paper can be read here, but this is Haidt’s summary:

“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.”

The blood feud is one manifestation of honour culture; another, more controlled, manifestation is the practice of duelling. Though honour and dignity cultures have existed side-by-side for centuries, the decline and criminalisation of duelling can be seen as the point at which societies clearly opted for the latter over the former.

Honour culture and victimhood culture are both about status: In an honour system you gain status by displaying your dominance; in a victimhood culture by displaying how put-upon you are.

That was the first transition of moral cultures; what about the second?

“Campbell and Manning describe how [the] 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.”

While dignity culture negates honour culture, victimhood culture inverts it. Honour culture and victimhood culture are both about status: In an honour system you gain status by displaying your dominance; in a victimhood culture by displaying how put-upon you are.

That’s why minor insults are of such importance to both cultures. Not taking offence is to pass up an opportunity to protect or enhance your status (or, in the case of victimhood culture, have it protected or enhanced for you by the powers-that-be).

It’s also why there are bitter arguments between different groups as to who has the greatest claim of victimhood – and, by implication, over who is oppressing whom. Examples include the conflict between transgender activists and the so-called TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists); and the controversy involving “Ex-Muslim” LGBT pride marchers and those claiming that their placards were “Islamophobic”.

Then there’s the rightwing populist backlash – which is not an attempt to refute victim culture, but to co-opt it. For the ‘alt-right’ and others, men and white people are the real victims – a claim that is inadvertently supported every time an idiot activist from the other side presents ‘maleness’ and ‘whiteness’ as a problem, not just sexism and racism.

The honour/ dignity/ victimhood analysis is a useful one. It provides a conceptual map for all of us who believe in the equal and infinite worth of all human beings. Dignity culture is not perfect. Injustices linger and must be dealt with. Nevertheless the gains already made are without parallel in human history.

Dignity culture is worth defending and must be defended against all its enemies – left and right, old and new.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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