Honor, Dignity, Victimization, and Power

October 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Credit: Franck Prevel/Getty Images

It doesn’t take much to offend people these days. Sometimes, it doesn’t take anything at all. This is what Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue in their paper, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.”

Campbell and Manning cull their definition of what constitutes a microaggression from Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. Microaggressions are:

The brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.[1]

Two things are especially notable in Wing Sue’s definition. First, microaggressions can be either “intentional or unintentional.” What counts is not what a sender intends, but what a receiver perceives.  Second, words like “indignities,” “hostile,” and “derogatory” in Wing Sue’s definition cast microaggressions in a vocabulary of victimization.  Microaggressions, no matter how pint-sized they may seem, are really part of a broader caste system that relentlessly oppresses certain groups of people.  The cry of those who perceive themselves as having been microaggressed, then, is really the cry of those who have been systemically victimized by this system and its cultural and socioeconomic assumptions.

Interestingly, Campbell and Manning argue that, for all the complaining that the microaggressed may do about being victimized, our newfound concern with microaggressions actually encourages a culture of victimization rather than discouraging it:

Victimization [is] a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization … We might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim … has risen to new heights.

In an article for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf cites one example of a blossoming culture of victimization in an exchange between two students at Oberlin College. In the exchange, a white student invites a Hispanic student to a game of fútbol who takes offense at the invitation, writing on an Oberlin blog devoted to calling out microaggressions:

Who said it was ok for you to say futbol? … White students appropriating the Spanish language, dropping it in when convenient, never ok. Keep my heritage language out your mouth![2]

A big blow up and a public shaming over a single word. Welcome to the world of microaggressions.

Of course, things were not always this way. Before there was a culture of victimization, Campbell and Manning point out that there was a culture or honor.  In this culture:

One must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing … Because insulting others helps establish one’s reputation for bravery, honorable people are verbally aggressive and quick to insult others.

After a culture of honor came a culture of dignity, where:

People are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others … Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is commendable to have a “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults.

Though vestiges of these cultures of honor and dignity remain (compare Campbell and Manning’s definition of a culture of honor with some of the things Donald Trump has said in his presidential campaign and you’ll quickly realize that even though honor culture is on the decline, it is certainly not dead), they are quickly losing ground to a culture of victimization.

But why?

The answer seems to be “power.” Victimization, in our culture, can often be the fastest track to status and power, just as, in previous ages, honor and dignity were inroads to influence. For instance, in recent clashes over same-sex marriage, many in favor of the institution claim discrimination and victimization while many against same-sex marriage claim discrimination and victimization as well. Both groups hope that, by portraying themselves as aggrieved, oppressed, and victimized, they can engender sympathy and, ultimately, the upper hand in this debate. In other words, both sides are hoping to gain cultural capital, or power, by means of their own victimization.

Certainly, not all instances – indeed, not even most instances – of victimization represent grabs for power.  One thinks of those who are sexually assaulted or emotionally abused.  Such tragic examples of victimization have nothing to do with power.  Rather, they represent grave injustices and deserve our prayers, our sympathy, and our action.  But in cases of microaggressions and similar self-declared cries of victimization, for all their claims of powerlessness, they often turn out to be nothing more than cynical means of leveraging power.

It is here that we find that, for all of their differences, the cultural systems of honor, dignity, and victimization hold something in common: they are all means to an end of power. And this is where all of these systems run into trouble.

In His ministry, Jesus sometimes fought for honor, sometimes upheld human dignity, and sometimes embraced victimization. But His goal was not that of gaining power. When Jesus fought for honor, it was the honor of God Himself for which Jesus fought, refusing to allow the religious elites of His day to honor God with their lips while blaspheming Him in their hearts (cf. Matthew 15:8). When Jesus upheld dignity, it was the dignity of the ridiculed and marginalized He championed, like the time He rescued a woman caught in adultery from being stoned (cf. John 8:2-11). And when Jesus allowed Himself to be victimized on a cross, He did so not as a backdoor to power, but in order to ransom us from our sin (cf. Mark 10:45). Jesus, it turns out, picked up on elements from each of these cultures without endorsing the shared goal of all of these cultures. He used honor, dignity, and victimization as ways to love people rather than dominate them.

Like Jesus, His followers should feel free to fight for honor, uphold human dignity, and even see themselves, in some instances, as victimized. But none of these cultural constructs, in the economy of Christ, should be methodically used as mere means to power. Rather, they are to be used to love others.

So for whose honor will you fight? And whose dignity will you champion? And how can your victimization lead to someone else’s restoration? Rather than eschewing these cultural constructs altogether, let’s use them differently. Let’s use them for love.  For when we use these things for love, even if we do not gain power culturally, we exercise power spiritually.  And that’s a better kind of power anyway.

__________________________________________

[1] Bradley Campbell & Jason Manning, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” Comparative Psychology 13 (2014): 692-726.

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” The Atlantic (9.11.2015).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. 2015 In Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 4, 2016 at 5:23 am

    […] the racial spectrum.  Trumped up charges of racism in the form of the newly minted category of “microaggression” do not help, but neither do denials that racism is real and consequential.  Religiously, we are […]

    Reply

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