Since Jason Manning and I first started writing about victimhood culture, we’ve been interested in the culture’s spread beyond the campus left where it began and where it appears in its most extreme form. What’s especially interesting, as we discuss in our book, is that aspects of the new culture end up being adopted not just by mainstream liberals out of sympathy for the campus left, but also by those on the right who see themselves as staunch opponents of the emergent culture.
What social psychologists call competitive victimhood occurs when two sides of a conflict argue over who has been victimized the most. This occurs in a variety of contexts, and it is unsurprising, in a victimhood culture where victimhood acts as a kind of moral status and campus activists accuse their opponents of privilege, that those so accused would seek to point out their own status as victims. In 2014, for example, Tal Fortgang, a conservative student at Princeton, wrote an article documenting the hardships his family had endured. He framed this as a response to injunctions to “check your privilege,” and after pointing to examples of family members who were shot, or who fled the Nazis, he sarcastically said, “Maybe that’s my privilege.”
In this manner those on the right may end up mimicking campus activists in pointing to their own victimhood as conferring credibility and moral authority, even if their embrace of victimhood isn’t entirely serious. Fortgang did not display other aspects of victimhood culture, such as extreme sensitivity to slight or the demand that administrators and other authorities step in to do something. But other right-wing opponents of victimhood culture may do so.
Consider, for example, a recent National Review article by Frederick M. Hess called “When College Presidents Mistake Lib-splaining for Conservative Outreach.” The title — which Hess might not be responsible for — uses the neologism lib-splaining as a variation on new victimhood culture offenses such as mansplaining, whitesplaining, and straightsplaining, implying that it’s some kind of offense for a liberal to explain something to a conservative. The implication is the same — members of oppressor groups should take care when talking to members of victim groups — only in this formulation liberals are the oppressors and conservatives are the victims. Hess’s complaint is that Occidental College’s president, Jonathan Veitch, as part of an outreach to a conservative group on campus, encouraged them to read Russel Kirk’s Conservative Mind and met with them frequently to discuss it. To many people this might sound like a model of engagement across ideological lines, a model of respect for viewpoint diversity that Heterodox Academy and others advocate. Veitch tried to direct the students toward more intellectual works and encourage them to bring in higher quality conservative speakers. He didn’t try to propagandize. But Hess portrays this as “ideological regulation,” and while noting that The Conservative Mind is a seminal conservative text, complains that it “is also a ponderous, orotund volume first published in 1953 and spanning more than 500 pages.” “Even a thoughtful college student,” he says, “might not regard it as a particularly enjoyable extracurricular read.” Perhaps there’s more to the story than this. College presidents actually have denigrated conservative groups and have violated their free speech rights in recent years. But if Veitch has a history of doing so, Hess doesn’t say. Instead, he complains about lib-splaining, and it seems that any kind of conversation at all with the group, any attempt to guide the students toward better work, would be deemed offensive.
Also consider one more recent complaint. Conservative and libertarian students at Duke are asking the university administration to condemn Professor Nancy MacLean’s remark that many libertarians “seem to be on the autism spectrum — you know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have difficult human relationships sometimes.” In the complaints we see many of the same tendencies we typically see from outraged leftists. There’s the rephrasing of things to say things MacLean didn’t actually say, such as the author of the report at Campus Reform saying that MacLean speculated “that support for individual liberty might actually be the result of a mental disorder.” There’s the misunderstanding of statistical averages, as when an outraged student says “just because you are a libertarian doesn’t mean you are autistic and just because you are autistic doesn’t mean you lack empathy.” What you don’t see is any reference to actual evidence. Surely neurodiversity correlates with political beliefs, but those who are outraged act as if it is self-evident that what MacLean said is false.
We have reason to believe it might be true, though. Writing in the libertarian magazine Reason in 2010, science journalist Ronald Bailey summarized some of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work on libertarians. This part is especially relevant here:
“Some of the more intriguing results reported in this study involve the Empathizer-Systemizer scale. The scale measures the tendency to empathize, defined as ‘the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion,’ and to systemize, or ‘the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.’ Libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing — and they scored a lot higher. The authors go on to suggest that systemizing is ‘characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism.'”
MacLean was criticizing libertarians, and it can be hard to avoid taking offense when your critics try to explain your views. It sounds offensive — maybe it’s even intended to offend — and your first instinct isn’t to find out what might be true about it. But maybe it should be. Maybe the pursuit of truth should be a student’s primary goal. If libertarians and conservatives adopt the practice of complaining to authorities whenever they’re offended, and of taking offense so easily, it will threaten the survival of the university as a place of free inquiry and debate just as these things do when they come from the left.
This piece first appeared at The Victimhood Report, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s shared blog. Read more of their work here.