Shame, Shaming and the Coddling of Victimhood on Campus and Beyond
By James Trevor Jackson
In September of 2015, The Atlantic published an article entitled The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, an NYU social psychologist, and a lawyer who heads an organization advocating for civil rights on American campuses. The article inspired a book by the same title, published in 2018, which describes a sort of designer-styled fragility that is all the rage right now. Discussion of the book’s reception continued in The Atlantic, with a Q&A with one of the Authors in September of 2018, and a more pointed review in October 2018.
I do not think it is quite yet time to put this title down. It promises to have an above-average shelf-life, and thus far, I do not see any reviews that get to what I consider to be the real heart of the matter. As I see it, The Coddling tells the story of a style of empowerment that has made a confident migration from campus to our workplaces, influencing many of our cultural institutions and digital spaces as well. Underneath it all, the book is about shame and shaming as a style of empowerment.
The authors say they began noticing that something strange was happening around 2013. It seems that around that time students began finding their full-voice, trumpeting their brand of victimhood with a new fervor and éclat. Oft-repeated motifs included students demanding that conservative speakers be disinvited from campus for fear over their “safety”, and compelling instructors to modify their curriculum because they made students feel “unsafe” in class. (Typically, an un-tenured instructor will cave-in to such demands, not wishing to derail a career).
There is plenty of evidence that faculty and staff at a growing number of universities are egging students on, eager for points on items such as diversity and inclusion, which, after all, are among the major criteria for which universities are ranked in prestigious publications such as The Times Higher Education World University Rankings. But if liberal students have never been cozier than they are today with administrators (while tuition fees have never been higher) the question remains why there is so much discord elsewhere on campus. According to students, their campuses are a virtual minefield of rapists, racists and language so incendiary that an afternoon lecture is bound to cause a case of PTSD if not properly censored. Today’s administrators, it seems, could not agree more wholeheartedly. At many institutions, they are implementing the students’ demands as quickly they are being made.
The book chronicles “the Rise of Safetyism”, a disquieting trend in which even casual language is inflicting ‘violence’. While the book is a major contribution to a growing concern, I think there is more to the story. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that encouraging students to celebrate weakness instead of cultivating strength could have disastrous consequences for the students personally, as well as serious consequences for the communities they interact with after graduation. Fair enough. In reading it, however, I wonder if this could all be some sort of gigantic hoax. I find no precedent in human history where such collective limp-wristendess is worn as a badge of honor by an entire generation of young people.
While the cry of willful enfeeblement rings loud and alarmingly clear, much remains muted in the telling thus far. Most pressing, I think, is the need for a closer examination of the underlying nature of the power being produced – and clearly this is an issue involving power. Nothing can convince me that the collective enfeeblement we see on campus today should be taken at face value. (Take a look at some Youtube videos of campus rallies. These are no milksops).
In my reading, the change that Haidt and Lukianoff refer to has a lot to do with a growing sense of aplomb in wielding a certain style of empowerment. Underneath it all, what we are seeing on campus right now is all about the growing power of shame and shaming. A glance through the portfolio of new campus mandates supports this conclusion. It is a laundry list of items dripping with a desire to sully anyone who opposes their worldview. Their goal, beyond the new office spaces and policy changes, is clearly the enactment of a humiliating retribution, aimed directly at the digits of the oppressors.
Haidt and Lukianoff do not ignore shame as a factor in their book. The subject is mentioned at least a dozen times. Rightfully, it is juxtaposed next to a description of Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay on “Repressive Tolerance”. This essay argues that since the right is intolerant, the left should not tolerate their intolerance, which effectively means silencing the right so that only the left has a voice. (You might want to read that last sentence over again. A great deal of contemporary “critical race theory” is based on it). The essay, and everything it represents, has been getting a lot of play on campus lately. Marcuse concludes:
It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise, and that liberation of the Damned of the Earth presupposes suppression not only of their old but also of their new masters.
In other words, in the New World Order to come, only the left has civil rights. The right is silenced.
Shaming is about lowering the target’s social status, and of course there is no better way to do that than with “the withdrawal of civil rights” from an entire class of people (read white males) for their systemic oppression of just about anyone else. In practice, the Campus Marcuseans have lately been using shame with real acumen to cultivate silence, and silence, from the standpoint of critical race theory, is the appropriate state for all that lack the requisite intersectionality which now determines whose voice should be heard and whose is not welcome.
Nevertheless, despite acknowledging both Marcuse and the element of shame and shaming he promotes, The Coddling seems to give today’s malingering students the benefit of the doubt, that is, that they are actually sincere in the trepidations they feel walking across a campus fraught with dangers; as if they needed nothing more than a push across the street, like a child on their first day of kindergarten, in order to set them on the right path to developing a little backbone.
The controlling idea behind Safetyism, as Haidt and Lukianoff describe it, is that students demand changes because something frightens them. Besides disinviting unpopular speakers and pressuring instructors with their course content, anything that may be interpreted as “hostility against disempowered social groups” or creating an “unsafe environment” is fair game, and the circle of what is considered fair game in those two spheres is ever-widening.
The authors make the point that habitually avoiding opposition is a poor lifestyle choice in the long run, and leads to mental health issues (not to mention incompetence). An excellent point, but I think in making it they missed an even larger issue. For me, it seems fairly obvious that many students, perhaps most, are not really frightened of the speakers and instructors they disagree with, but are only saying they are in order to get their way and win the argument. It seems clear to me that they are claiming fear to an overly-receptive administration in order to expand their circle of power.
The authors seem to have made the choice not to dwell on this glaring likelihood. Perhaps they felt it would strike a more confrontational tone than they wished, and they had other (if not bigger) fish to fry. There is usually a benefit to avoiding a confrontation, and in this case, the perceived benefit might have been that it enabled them to focus on a broader range of really bad logic associated with the Campus Marcuseans, without directly confronting them.
Granted, The Coddling would be a much different book if such a confrontation was given the center stage it probably deserves. It would displace the emphasis on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which co-author Greg Lukianoff has some expertise with. I have no doubt of his sincerity when recommending CBT. Valid points are made concerning fear of opposing ideas as a lifestyle choice, which if sincere, CBT would likely have dramatic effects upon.
In such a case, we could simply roll up to campus with a van full of some friendly CBT therapists, equipped with yoga mats to roll out onto the new therapeutic spaces that are popping up everywhere on campus. After a few sessions, our New Marcuseans would undoubtedly be transformed, mentally and physically prepared to brace for the rigors of truth-finding that higher education has long been known for….Clearly this not in the cards.
The same week in 2015 that the Atlantic published The Coddling, it also published a review of another article (also turned into a book) critical of contemporary campus culture. The Rise of Victimhood Culture (September 11, 2015) spoke of an academic journal article entitled Microaggression and Moral Cultures (2014) by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. These authors frame the trend on campus less charitably that the Coddling does, describing a cultural shift favoring what they term “victimhood status” over the competing values of honor or dignity.
Honor, dignity and victimhood cultures differ largely in how personal power is developed, maintained and transacted. For Campbell and Manning, how a person handles the small slights that comprise Microaggression framework depends a great deal on how they have been brought up. In a dignity culture, individuals tend to ‘suck it up’ when slighted or offended, favoring the ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’ ethic that many Americans, particularly of a previous generation, grew up with. Honor cultures are more sensitive to insult and prone to seek violent redress (settling things with swords or dueling pistols, for example).
Victimhood cultures, in contrast, seek authority from others in the community to fight their battles for them. The authors describe it as “campaigning for support from third parties and emphasizing one’s own oppression”. The synergy between our becoddled undergrads of recent years, and the administrators all too eager to prove themselves the champion of their cause, are a clear mirror of victimhood culture as described by Campbell and Manning.
The dependency they seek to codify in new regulations begins to make sense in Campbell and Manning’s reading when we consider the balance of power they wish to overturn. By involving third party authority figures, they seek not only to flip the polarity of the power relations, lowering the power of their detractors and elevating their own, but also to publicize the flip, very often with the effect of saddling the perceived offender with official sanctions and loss of reputation. Not only is personal power on the line, but symbolic power as well — symbolic power that is generated by an authority figure, such as a university administration, and therefore more easily replicated to other individuals and other areas of campus life and, increasingly beyond campus.
To be able to call others racist, sexist or un-inclusive, and to have the backing of a University administration is, to many students, clearly a power worth feigning helplessness for. That this is precisely the structure of shame and shaming that should not go unnoticed.
Are We Turning Into a Shame, or a Shaming Culture?
In 1946, Ruth Benedict wrote her seminal work about Japanese culture in the wake of World War II. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, she described what she saw as the defining difference between American and Japanese culture encapsulated in the terms shame culture and guilt culture. In a guilt culture, personal conduct is governed by an internal monitor which judges our own behavior according to our internalized sense of right and wrong. Conversely, in a shame culture our sense of right and wrong is reliant on the collective opinions of a community. Since its publication, differing viewpoints abound concerning the admixtures of shame and guilt in East and West, but nevertheless Chrysanthemum remains a foundational text, and a typical starting point, in discussions about shame and guilt in western and eastern cultures.
The same elements appear in Campbell and Manning’s formulation above, though they have organized cultural distinctions into thirds rather than cut them in half. It is safe to say that a dignity culture can be subsumed under guilt (with its internal monitor to judge right and wrong). Honor stands as a sort of hybrid in which self-esteem is personally generated but requires a third party as a witness. As for victimhood culture, it relies heavily on shame, with a third party authority figure required to allocate and codify the shaming for the helpless victim.
This inspires a question. If the campus drama continues to spread to other arenas, does this mean that we becoming a shame culture? Probably not. In the words of one blogger:
A shame culture like Japan or like Great Britain will be organized around a uniform code of good conduct. It wants to produce social harmony, cooperation, comity and polite behavior. Shame cultures abhor drama and especially public drama. They do not make a habit of shaming people because they believe that people should be given the opportunity to recognize their own failures and to correct them by themselves.
By this measure, we have clearly missed the mark on becoming a shame culture, based on the level of campus drama alone. Further, victimhood culture seems to be more transfixed on the pleasures of shaming than it is on shame in the Confucianist sense.
With dignity we seek to empower ourselves through a strong, internal sense of self-esteem which personal slights, such as microaggressions, cannot shake loose. Honor relies on the opinion of others, but any response to an affront is generally consigned to our own agency rather than to a third party authority figure. Victimhood, in contrast, relies not so much on shame as it does on shaming in the sense that a victim requires a third party to champion their cause and rectify any damage by bestowing shame and censure upon the perpetrator on their behalf.
In light of these distinctions, I think the transformation we may headed towards is not a shame culture in the sense that Ruth Benedict suggested, but a shaming culture – certainly nothing to compare to the dignity of Japan’s ancient, Confucianist roots. Japan does not weaponize shame in the manner that is so fashionable on campus today. The Japanese do not claim weakness in order to borrow strength from an authority figure. (It is likely that they would think it shameful to do so).
Our new-fangled shaming culture, however, is one in which public humiliation, or the fear of it, is used to gain power and to take power away from others by publicizing others conduct as unacceptable to the changing norms. A shaming culture is consistent with everything we see on campus, as well as in social media. Hashtag activism, for instance, often relies on a callout culture, which is fairly synonymous with a shaming culture, seeking to disempower offenders of an ever-growing litany, largely through the threat of public humiliation, though the third party is more abstract.
Shelby Steele, the great nemesis of The Atlantic’s former staff writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, identifies shame as an ailment reaching far beyond our university campuses. In Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (2015) he traces our current malaise back to an earlier period of social upheaval. “Our identity…was stigmatized in the 1960s as racist, sexist, and imperialistic. The very legitimacy of our democratic society demanded that America be reimagined in the reverse of this stigmatization.”
Clearly, it is such a reimagining that is still sought by many of today’s undergraduates. Are we to dissolve our national heritage in the vat of ignominy being prepared on campus as we speak, letting the New Intelligentsia lead the way for a generation or two, at least until our cultural institutions have been properly cleansed of the disgraceful white privilege that is so offensive to so many? And if such a proposal seems outlandish, then what suggestions could be made of a more conservative bent, when any suggestions emanating from outside the safe spaces are largely unwelcome, and conservatism seems to be what attracts the greatest desire for shaming to begin with?