Here’s a mini quiz. Imagine that you are a 26-year-old graduate student. You invite a semi-famous writer to a writing workshop. Some time during the visit, he kisses you against your will. Do you: (a) tell him to cut it out, and quietly spread the word that he‘s a bit of a jerk? Or do you (b) nurse your grievance for six years and confront him publicly at a writers’ festival, from which he is then forced to withdraw because of #MeToo?
Naturally, I would answer (a). Back when I was in the publishing business, I did answer (a). Never, never would I have contemplated option (b) – not because I was scared, or feared for my career, but because it’s just not that big a deal. So what? That’s life. Move on. I‘ve had dozens of conversations with older women who feel the same way.
But times change, and here comes Junot Diaz, a writer who has been shamed, blamed and shunned for … not much, really. Two other women have complained that he was rude to them, one at a dinner party, and one during a panel discussion, when they confronted him about the misogyny in his work. Scorned ex-lovers are coming out of the woodwork. One of them wrote an online essay about her relationship with him 20 years ago, which she never got over. She blames her training in the patriarchy.
These allegations of misconduct – public rudeness, jilted lovers, and one unwanted kiss – have cost Mr. Diaz dearly. He has been branded in the public eye as a serial abuser. Mr Diaz is a Dominican-American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. He’s now facing investigations into his conduct by his employer, MIT, and by the Pulitzer board, where he has resigned as chairman.
In the short time since the first bracing of #MeToo revelations, the sheer scope and range of what we are now invited to consider “abuse” has widened to include almost anything. NDP parliamentarian Erin Weir is apparently guilty of making people feel uncomfortable, by standing too close to them and failing to read non-verbal cues. Christine Moore, the NDP MP who helped launch the Weir investigation, is now in a she-said, he-said spat with a military vet who claims she sexually harassed him. An investigation has, of course, been ordered. But why? These people are mature adults who had consensual sex and it didn’t work out. Why that should be anybody’s business but their own is an utter mystery.
Don’t misunderstand me. I do not long for the good old days, when Norman Mailer once stabbed his wife and everybody said, “Oh, that’s just Norman.” Yet today, judging by the outrage machine, plenty of people would like to see Mr. Diaz castrated. And that’s ridiculous.
One explanation for the current change in attitudes is the rise of victimhood culture – a trend that’s brilliantly explored in a new book by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. The culture of victimhood, they argue, marks a profound change in what people find offensive and the way they handle their grievances.
Victimhood culture differs greatly from the two other cultures with which we’re most familiar. Honour culture values reputation and bravery. People are expected to respond to insults and aggression or else lose honour. (Think duelling.) Honour culture tends to prevail where the law is not very strong and people have to take care of themselves to be safe. Dignity culture is the culture that prevails in the modern West. It values restraint, resilience and the rule of law. People are expected to ignore insults and slights and play down their misfortunes. I was shaped by dignity culture, as were my peers.
The emerging victimhood culture is in many ways the opposite. It combines a sensitivity to slight with a willingness to appeal to authorities and other third parties to handle conflicts. It highlights rather than plays down the complainants’ victimhood, and encourages them to call attention to their own hardships. Victimhood, the authors write, is “a kind of moral status based on suffering and neediness. And if victimhood is a virtue, privilege is a vice.”
It is victimhood culture that has given rise to microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and all the other apparatus of oppression that frames political discourse on modern campuses. A person’s status is in inverse proportion to his position in the hierarchy (which means that white men are at the bottom).
It was inevitable that victimhood culture would creep into the #MeToo movement. That’s too bad, because I think it’s best to save our real outrage for real victims, of whom there are far too many as it is. Besides, it does women no good to carry a torch for some jerk and blame it on the patriarchy. They should just get over it.