I’ve received a lot of great, thought-provoking feedback about my recent article on the culture of victimhood. My argument in that post was that many American universities like Yale are descending into a victim culture, in which insults are treated as major, political threats to historically marginalized groups, which require an administrative or legal crackdown.
Victim culture threatens to undermine the important modern achievement of a dignity culture, in which insults are treated as minor, personal affronts to individuals, affronts that should be addressed quietly or even ignored.
And while members of various minority groups at Yale certainly experience a sundry of insults in their daily lives, I doubt that in the aggregate, they are less privileged than, say, a white male born into poverty in rural West Virginia.
But while Yale minority students are undeniably privileged, I would certainly not say the same about most members of minority groups. Robust correlations undeniably exist between race and poverty, due partially to discrimination.
My problem is that the students in the Yale Halloween costume protest video seem to think that their minority status is the only aspect of their identity that matters — that cognitive ability and the fact that they are receiving a top-tier education don’t matter.
Moreover, this is ultimately an empirical question: would people prefer to be members of a minority group while possessing above-average intelligence and above-average educational and economic opportunities? Or would they prefer to be members of a majority group while possessing average or below-average intelligence and having its accompanying economic and educational opportunities?
I suspect most people would prefer the former, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. In fact, my lab will begin investigating this question in the fall. Stay tuned.
Is victim culture unique to college campuses?
Some readers objected to my characterization of victim culture and its associated lack of respect for viewpoint diversity as unique to college campuses. As one commenter put it, “If you think this culture hasn’t permeated every level of business then you have been in academia too long friend. HR in modern companies is a joke and reflects exactly what you write about.”
This commenter makes a fair point, and it’s certainly true that my own experience is primarily in academia. My only reply is that the feedback loop in the private sector is much more direct, so firms have an incentive to keep the nonsense to a minimum. It seems to me that this is less true for universities, but I may be wrong.
Another commenter argued that it was inappropriate to paint this generation (I suppose we’re calling them Millennials?) with a broad brush and that they are in no way unique. Here, I disagree.
The best data we have on this question (to my knowledge) come from the Pew Research Center, which indicates that US millennials report a unique hostility to the concept of free speech. Specifically, they are open to the idea that speech offensive to minority groups should be censored. This hostility is by no means definitive evidence of the victimhood culture thesis, but I think it speaks volumes.
Free speech improves the human condition.
Past generations of protesters — here, I am referring primarily to the civil rights movement and the antiwar protesters of the 1960s — explicitly favored free speech. They did so by necessity, as their left-wing views were in opposition to the views of those in power.
As journalist, activist, and Yale alum Jonathan Rauch has argued in his excellent book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (and elsewhere), freedom of expression has been necessary for the advancement of minority rights; the disadvantaged are more likely to benefit from a free, open, and peaceful exchange of ideas than to be harmed by it.
When self-appointed oracles of social orthodoxy loudly demand that speech be restricted, I can only assume that they (a) know nothing of history, or (b) are more interested in assuring themselves of their own virtue (and broadcasting it as loudly as possible) than they are concerned with the human condition.
I should insert a statement that I omitted from my original post for the sake of brevity: private colleges have every right to restrict speech. Along the same lines, I have every right to tell my children that I will not pay for them to attend such institutions (and yes, this includes both Yale and Liberty University — I’m an equal-opportunity shill for free expression). Public institutions are bound to abide by the First Amendment, so that’s another story. Either way, an institution that blocks the expression of controversial ideas (or allows them to be blocked) is hardly one of “higher education.”
Who should constrain free speech — and when?
Finally, the one question no one has been able to answer in all the discussion on my last piece is as follows: If speech must be constrained, who is to do the constraining? Decades (if not centuries) of jurisprudence and scholarly attention have failed to produce a reasonable answer, which suggests to me that one is not to be found.
Still, we can draw an obvious line: when the speech directly and purposively incites physical violence, it should be prohibited.
Yes, words can cause psychological distress, but this is largely dependent on perception and individual differences and is categorically different from physical aggression. A simple example is instructive: Would you rather be punched in the face or called an ethnic slur?
Neither is pleasant. Both are reprehensible. But only the former should be prohibited.