In Tablet, Claire Lehmann discusses the sudden rise to powerful influence of cultural taboos forbidding criticism of recognized victim groups and the ability of members of such groups to wall off cultural items and artifacts from access by outsiders.
Perhaps the most famous American case occurred in the fall of 2015, when Co-Master of Yale Silliman College Erika Christakis responded with an email of her own to an admonitory pre-Halloween email from the Intercultural Affairs Council â€” a group of administrators from the cultural centers, Chaplainâ€™s Office and other campus organizations â€” sent to the undergraduate student body warning against wearing Halloween costumes which could be interpreted as belittling or offensive: no sombreros, no blackface, no turbans, arguing in favor of freedom of undergraduate expression. The campus exploded with protests. University officials, including Christakis’s Co-Master husband, were confronted by screaming, hysterical mobs and, despite Yale’s famous Woodward Report affirming Freedom of Speech and some two-faced expressions of support from Yale President Salovey, both Christakis left on “temporary” sabbaticals never ever to return. A modest and polite demurral to an implicit ban on cultural appropriation sufficed to get two prominent Yale administrators and professors run clean out of town.
In 2016, a flare-up exploded over author Lionel Shriverâ€™s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festivalâ€”where she infamously wore a sombrero hat while delivering her speech about freedom in fiction writing. …
In 2013, GQ listed The Human Stain as one of the best books of the 21st century. Arguably, such a book could not be written today, and would almost certainly cause a firestorm if published. Thatâ€™s a pretty sharp turnaround in sensibility in a very short period of time.
The context surrounding the drama at the Brisbane Writers Festival is important for understanding why it happened. Abdel-Magied migrated to Australia at the age of two and, from a relatively young age, entered the public sphere as a â€œmodel minority.â€ She was an articulate activist and an accomplished student (becoming an engineer and memoir writer) who appeared capable of promoting a modern, sophisticated image of an urban Muslim-Australian. For her activism, she was showered with awards and publicly funded appointments, and given international trips for the express purpose of promoting Australia abroad. Yet for all her accomplishments, accolades, money, and travel opportunitiesâ€”or perhaps in exchange for themâ€”the young woman was stuck with the felt identity of a victim. This apparent feeling of victimhood was so strong that she interpreted arguments for creative license in art to be â€œlay[ing] the foundation for genocide.â€
Many peopleâ€”both then and nowâ€”find it hard to understand how such complaints can come from a place of good faith. Activists like Abdel-Magied seem unwilling to empathize with those who may genuinely want to show appreciation for cultures which are not their own, or writers who genuinely want to empathize with those who are different or marginalized, or simply to reach beyond a single layer or caste of the multicultural societies in which they live, an ambition for which writers and thinkers have historically been applauded.
What also seems odd is that activists like Abdel-Magied rarely appear to attempt to persuade others to engage with the foreign cultures they are purportedly defending in more sensitive or better-informed ways. Rather, their complaints have a hectoring, absolutist quality, focusing on the disrespect and lack of deference that white people have shown them. Listening to these complaints, it is difficult to come away with the view that they are about anything other than exercises in power. While being an effective social-media activist, Abdel-Magied is not a particularly good writer, which means identity-as-victim is therefore valuable currency at a writers festival. If literature is not reducible to identity, and representation is not a group property, then her own claim to literary significance would be a dubious one.
It is by considering the power dynamics at play that the logic of cultural appropriation starts to become clear. In a culture that increasingly rewards victimhood with status, in the form of op-ed space, speaking events, awards, book deals, general deference, and critical approbation, identity has become a very valuable form of currency. It makes sense that people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to get some. Expressing offense over a white person wearing a sombrero hat might seem ridiculous on its faceâ€”but for those who live inside these sententiously moralistic bubbles, it may be both a felt injury and a rational strategic choice.
Complaints about cultural appropriation are not really complaints, they are demands. When Abdel-Magied walked out on Shriver, it was not because of her insensitivity, it was because of her defiance: her refusal to kowtow to the orthodoxies written up by her moral betters, from which Abdel-Magiedâ€™s own claims to significance and social status are derived.
In their newly released book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the moral sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today, which they give the shorthand labels of dignity, honor, and victimhood. A dignity culture, which has been the dominant moral culture of Western middle classes for some time, has a set of moral values that promotes the idea of moral equality and was crystallized in Martin Luther King Jr.â€™s vision that people ought to be judged according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Victimhood culture departs from dignity culture in several important ways. Moral worth is in large part defined by the color of oneâ€™s skin, or at least oneâ€™s membership in a fixed identity group: i.e., women, people of color, LGBTIQ, Muslims, or indigenous peoples. Such groups are sacred, and a lack of deference to them is seen as a sign of deviance. The reverse is true for those who belong to groups that are considered historical oppressors: whites, males, straight people, Zionists. Anyone belonging to an â€œoppressorâ€ group is stained by their privilege, or â€œwhiteness,â€ and is cast onto the moral scrapheap.
In a recent interview in the online magazine which I edit, Quillette, I asked Campbell and Manning what they thought about cultural appropriation. They explained that they found such complaints baffling, like everybody else, but that they also â€œillustrate victimhood culture quite well.â€ One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about â€œone social group harming another.â€