I grew up in rural Kentucky, where the process of becoming a man meant gaining toughness, shedding weakness, and learning how to take care of yourself and others. This was simply understood, not just by fathers and sons but also by mothers and teachers. In one grade-school incident, I got into a playground fight with another boy and knocked him to the ground. As the teacher rushed up to separate us, she demanded to know what happened. “He said I hit like a girl,” I told her. “Is this true?” She asked my friend. Rubbing his face, he nodded. “Well then, you deserved it,” she said. And that was that.
I thought of that minor playground scrap — and many others like it — when reading through Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s brilliant new paper, “Microaggression and Moral Culture.” (The full article costs $30.00, but Jonathan Haidt has written an excellent summary on his website). Campbell and Manning contend that we’re in the midst of a key cultural change. Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, we lived in an “honor culture,” “where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own.” And while the honor culture tended to be somewhat violent — dueling is a classic response to an aggrieved sense of honor — it also carried with it an inherent limitation: Because personal insults required a personal response, people were more likely to count the cost of confrontation.
As western civilization built an elaborate rule of law, “dignity culture” replaced honor culture. In a dignity culture, in Haidt’s words, people “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 southern culture of my childhood was a hybrid, where honor was earned. Violence was certainly possible in this culture, but all parties would appeal to authority when life or limb hung in the balance. The bottom line was that you either ignored minor transgressions or you learned to step up, personally, to deal with offense.
The honor and dignity cultures, however, face new competition from an insidious development: victim culture. In victim culture, 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.” This is the culture of the micro-aggression, where people literally seek out opportunities to be offended. Once “victimized,” a person gains power — but not through any personal risk. Indeed, it is the victim’s hypersensitivity and fragility that makes them politically and socially strong.
In victim culture, a person cultivates their sense of weakness and fragility, actively retarding the process of growing up.
Not only is this mindset destabilizing — there is high incentive for conflict, with little to no personal risk to balance the desire for vengeance — it’s unmanly. In victim culture, a person cultivates their sense of weakness and fragility, actively retarding the process of growing up. There is zero incentive to mature, because maturity can actually decrease your power and influence.
#share#While I don’t mean to say that women haven’t traditionally gone through the process of becoming tougher — of building thicker skins and handling conflicts directly — developing toughness used to be a defining male characteristic. We were to put aside the childish weakness and vulnerability of our early years and work out our conflicts man-to-man, the better to deploy them judiciously since we knew their price. The concept of appealing for help because one’s “feelings were hurt” was frankly bizarre.
Raising boys to be whiny victims isn’t exactly new. When I first moved to the Northeast in the mid-1990s I noticed that many of the boys raised by the liberal elite weren’t “men” in any sense I could recognize. They were whiny, petulant, hypersensitive, and incapable of either physical self-defense or even the most rudimentary tasks of manual labor. I thought they were so self-evidently off-putting that their cultural influence would be limited. I was wrong.
I’d underestimated the allure of victim status — the ease with which one can achieve power and sympathy all at once. Victim status is so desirable that it’s constantly faked and exaggerated, and claims that one is not a victim are met with indignation. It’s almost amusing, for example, to see wealthy kids at America’s most elite colleges — among the most privileged children in world history — compete to claim the most horrifying story of upset and oppression.
#related#At the time, my schoolyard tussle wasn’t that significant — just another day in the life of a boy growing up in the South. My response to my friend wasn’t right, but it wasn’t a big deal, and no one treated it as such. Today, it would change my life in all the wrong ways. At most present-day American schools, both of us would be punished for violating zero-tolerance policies on violence, and the reference to “hitting like a girl” would cause an uproar over gender discrimination, mandatory counseling, and possible expulsion.
The only proper response to this sorry state of affairs is to confront the crybabies until they man up or shut up. No more yielding to the utter nonsense of social media shame campaigns, hand-wringing deans of students, or idiotic, politically correct corporate press releases. There are real victims out there, and real victims need actual men to stand in their defense.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.