Right at the beginning of his column in yesterday’s New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks makes it clear that he isn’t in the habit of reflexively accepting pessimistic claims about society’s trajectory. “Back in 1993,” he writes, “the misanthropic art critic Robert Hughes published a grumpy, entertaining book called ‘Culture of Complaint,’ in which he predicted that America was doomed to become increasingly an ‘infantilized culture’ of victimhood. It was a rant against what he saw as a grievance industry appearing all across the political spectrum.”
At the time, Brooks “enjoyed the book” but didn’t buy its central premise. Now, he writes, his viewpoint has changed: “Unfortunately, the intervening two decades have made Mr. Hughes look prophetic and me look naïve.” In other words: Yes, we are mired in a victimhood culture.
Brooks isn’t alone in thinking this. There’s a great deal of caterwauling at the moment about how everyone — particularly students, and particularly minority students — is just too damn sensitive. Society is devolving into a game of offense one-upmanship, people argue, and it’s gumming up the works of what had been a more vibrant and honest discourse.
Like any claim of big, important social change, the idea that we have shifted into something called “victimhood culture” — implying that five or ten or 20 years ago we had some other sort of culture — requires evidence if we’re going to take it seriously. And I’d argue that over and over again, the victimhood-culture narrative is presented as fact, skipping over any rigorous presentation and evaluation of evidence.
Brooks’s column is a great example. Let’s look at the two paragraphs in which Brooks supports his thesis that a victimhood culture has emerged, and then break down each piece of evidence (bolding mine), other than the one that he says we can “laugh off”:
“Victimhood culture” has now been identified as a widening phenomenon by mainstream sociologists. And it is impossible to miss the obvious examples all around us. We can laugh off some of them, for example, the argument that the design of a Starbucks cup is evidence of a secularist war on Christmas. Others, however, are more ominous.
On campuses, activists interpret ordinary interactions as “microaggressions” and set up “safe spaces” to protect students from certain forms of speech. And presidential candidates on both the left and the right routinely motivate supporters by declaring that they are under attack by immigrants or wealthy people.
“‘Victimhood culture’ has now been identified as a widening phenomenon by mainstream sociologists”: Here, Brooks is referring to a single paper published in Comparative Sociology in 2014 in which the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argued (all emphasis theirs) that we are witnessing “the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.” A chunk of the evidence they use to support this idea is the existence of a handful of blogs — most of which are currently dormant — dedicated to anonymously chronicling microaggressions (more on those shortly).
As I argued in my critique of the paper, it’s unclear why the existence of ultralow-stakes blog posts where people vent about frustrating interactions should be taken as signs that society is beginning to adopt a new, distinct set of mores pertaining to interpersonal relations and conflict management. And zooming out, it’s a bit of a stretch for Brooks to say that the idea of victimhood culture has been “identified as a widening phenomenon by mainstream sociologists.” “Two sociologists” would be more accurate — other than that paper itself, Google Scholar returns zero relevant hits on “victimhood culture” since the Campbell and Manning paper was published (which, to be fair, doesn’t preclude the possibility that more papers on the subject are currently in the works). The paper did get some attention from Jonathan Haidt and Conor Friedersdorf, both of whom have written at length on these issues, but that doesn’t mean that a broader slice of sociology as a discipline has accepted Campbell and Manning’s narrative.
“[A]ctivists interpret ordinary interactions as “microaggressions”: Plenty of people have made fun of the word microaggression for being silly-sounding, which, fair enough. But it’s not a complicated concept: It just means an instance in which someone says something that isn’t explicitly racist or discriminatory in the “traditional” sense, but which a member of a minority group finds offensive. A classic — albeit slightly extreme — example is a white person telling a black person “You’re a credit to your race,” or something like that.
It’s hard to take seriously the argument that these incidents don’t occur, so it’s unclear what Brooks is saying here. Maybe he means that in some cases people interpret as offensive remarks that a hypothetical “reasonable observer” — even one who is also a member of the same group as the offended party — would agree isn’t, in fact, offensive? Surely that happens; surely it’s always been the case that there are people who are a bit too sensitive. How is this new? Are people really more sensitive than they were before — say, back when they were trying to pass a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, or during the peak of Bill O’Reilly raising the alarm about the “war on Christmas”? Brooks doesn’t bother providing any evidence; instead, his sentence reads as though he expects readers to see that loaded term “microaggressions” and nod knowingly without really thinking this through.
“[A]ctivists … set up ‘safe spaces’ to protect students from certain forms of speech”: Again, it’s unclear what Brooks means. Originally, the concept of a “safe space” meant a place where people could discuss a difficult issue openly without fear of judgment. If you’re someone dealing with coming out as gay, or grappling with being sexually assaulted, this is a really important concept. Sometimes you’ll see “LGBT safe space” or “LGBT safe zone” stickers on the doors of professors or academic advisers — this is just a sign that kids should feel comfortable talking about these issues in those places.
It is absolutely the case that here and there, campus activists have hijacked this important concept and posited the highly questionable theory that they will be harmed by the mere presence of an offensive speaker on their campus, and will therefore “feel unsafe” if, say, Emily Yoffe comes to argue that there’s a connection between binge-drinking and rape (Yoffe reports that she was in fact shut out of one speaking engagement for this reason). This is silly, but it isn’t new; Americans of all ages have a long and not-particularly-proud history of telling pollsters that they think certain forms of offensive speech — what constitutes “offensive speech” varies with the years, of course — should be banned by the government. Just because the terminology is different doesn’t mean we should treat the impulse as novel, or as any more worthy of alarm today than it was in 1980 or 1960 or 1940. There also just isn’t much concrete evidence that this sort of “safe space” is all that common of an occurrence — it pops up anecdotally and should be countered when it does, but every day countless college students debate difficult issues. It’s more common that a random student will make an argument about a “safe space” than that one will actually be set up in response to a controversial speaker, though the latter has happened now and then.
“And presidential candidates on both the left and the right routinely motivate supporters by declaring that they are under attack by immigrants or wealthy people”: You could drop this into any column about American politics published at any point in the last 150 years or so and it would fit. It has no bearing on anything.
One common theme Science of Us has returned to over and over again is that when it comes to overheated claims about “young people,” normal standards of evidence seem to fly out the window. Yes, Brooks’s column is ostensibly about America on the whole, but it’s telling that his scant handful of evidence comes mostly from campus-activist language, or a paper about campus-activist language. This clearly fits into the broader genre of kids-these-days punditry.
There are definitely interesting stories to be told about actual, real-life free-speech debates on campuses, and the language activists use, and whether in some instances it is simply better to let people be offended than to consider regulating certain forms of speech. The problem is that the texture and the nuance of these stories gets drowned out when pundits overinflate things, when they point to supposedly epochal shifts in society that just don’t seem to actually be happening — or at least not anywhere near on the scale their proclamations would have us believe.