The Spectral Evidence Of Microaggressions: When Championing The Victim Runs Awry
I was listening recently to a conversation between Professors Tyler Cowen and Jonathan Haidt, which touched on the recent trend at some U.S. colleges towards what has been described as a "Victimhood Culture", involving calling out authorities to police behavior that is described as microaggressions against various races and other historically disfavored groups of people. The trend is to assign blame even where the offensive behavior is not out of intent, but mere ignorance or bad manners, and to claim victim status over the most trivial nature of slights, including in some instances the food that is served in the college cafeterias. Haidt has written an article about this trend, which references a more extensive paper by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.
According to the paper, as Haidt summarizes:
"We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.
Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind."
Haidt made another interesting observation in the discussion about how academia has become a mono-culture in the past 30 years:
"[T]he ’90s is the decade where everything flips. At the start of the 1990s, the overall left‑right ratio of the academy, taking all departments, was two to one, just twice as many people on the left as right. That’s fine, that’s not a problem. But by 2005, it had gone to five to one, five people on the left for every one on the right. Those people on the right are mostly engineering, nursing, things like that. If you look at the core — the humanities and the social sciences, other than economics, it’s closer to 10 to 1 or 20 to 1.
In other words, right‑wing, or libertarian, or social conservative voices have basically vanished between 1995 and 2005. This has made us unfunctional, but it’s in the social sciences and humanities where the sacred value has become social justice and the protection of victims. That’s the division. One university of the sciences still pursues truth, the other university in the social sciences and humanities pursues social justice."
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Let's examine this situation through the Lenses of Wisdom.
Looking through the Fractal Lens first this time, both Nassim Taleb and Mark Buchanan have observed organizations that seem outwardly to be stable mono-cultures that lack political diversity are "fragile" in Taleb's lexicon, or subject to extreme dislocations that can often appear suddenly. As this article summarizes:
"According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton, appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to the stability of a nation. In their essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Calm Before the Storm,” Taleb and Treverton argue that what you see is not what you get when it comes to the apparent “stability” of the political system of a given country.
They argue that countries with relatively decentralized governments and a wide variety of political expression such as Italy or the U.S. are actually quite strong politically despite the perception of conflict and lack of national cohesion. The corollary to this is that a strong central government and the lack of political diversity you see in countries such as Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Venezuela and China actually makes these countries more fragile."
In his book, Ubiquity, Buchanan discusses the seemingly unexpected onset of World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union as other examples of seemingly stable systems coming apart at a moment's notice. In terms of the rice pile or sand pile model of complexity theory, it is the very height and size of the pile itself that can lead to a small event triggering an avalanche.
According to Haidt's description of the academic environment at many U.S. colleges in the 2000s, they resemble mono-cultures that lack political diversity. If we apply the sand-pile or rice pile model of complexity theory, we see piles of similar rhetoric that have not been challenged (and thereby reduced) in years. It is not surprising that seeming small event of students complaining could cause fractures or dislocations that threaten the integrity of the academic environment itself. This is what ultimately concerns Haidt (and others): that demands for social justice are destroying the pursuit of knowledge that traditionally underpinned higher education. Thus, although the complaints themselves may be trivial, the consequences and the reactions are not. In effect, the ideals of the mono-culture are being turned inward upon itself in a litany of accusations.
But where might we have seen this kind of self-destructive reaction in a mono-culture in the past? An academic setting is not really analogous to an entire country or countries. It is, however, analogous to a small community of like-minded individuals that hold strong beliefs about justice, such as that which existed in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th Century. In that society, people adhered to strong beliefs about the omnipresence of spiritual agents, both positive and negative. From the Wikipedia entry:
"In 17th-century Colonial America, the supernatural was considered part of everyday life; many people believed that Satan was present and active on Earth. This concept emerged in Europe during the fifteenth century and spread with the later colonization of North America Colonies. Peasants used a kind of witchcraft to invoke particular charms for farming and agriculture. Over time, the idea of white magic transformed into dark magic and became associated with demons and evil spirits. From 1560 to 1670, witchcraft persecutions became common as superstitions became associated with the devil.
In Against Modern Sadducism (1668), Joseph Glanvill claimed that he could prove the existence of witches and ghosts of the supernatural realm. Glanvill wrote about the "denial of the bodily resurrection, and the [supernatural] spirits." In his treatise, he claimed that ingenious men should believe in witches and apparitions; if they doubted the reality of spirits, they not only denied demons, but also the almighty God. Glanvill wanted to prove that the supernatural could not be denied; those who did deny apparitions were considered heretics for it also disproved their beliefs in angels. Works by men such as Glanvill and Cotton Mather tried to prove that "demons were alive."
Like the situation on some American campuses today, the Salem hysteria was set up by beliefs that originated and were propagated by the leadership:
"Cotton Mather, a [Boston] minister, was a prolific publisher of pamphlets and a firm believer in witchcraft. In his book Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689), Mather describes his "oracular observations" and how "stupendous witchcraft" had affected the children of Boston mason John Goodwin."
But the immediate and direct impetus -- the grain of sand or rice that started the avalanche -- came not from the leadership, but from some of the persons with the lowest status -- children, or the equivalent of students in the college setting.
"In Salem Village, in February 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece, respectively, of Reverend Samuel Parris, began to have fits described as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect" by John Hale, the minister of the nearby town of Beverly. The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions . . .
The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. A doctor, historically assumed to be William Griggs, could find no physical evidence of any ailment. Other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviors. When Lawson preached in the Salem Village meetinghouse, he was interrupted several times by outbursts of the afflicted."
What followed was a series of arrests, prosecutions and punishments of alleged wrongdoers that included executions. What was interesting for comparison purposes is the flimsy nature of the evidence by which these convictions were obtained and the startling lack of proof of actual intent to harm.
"Much, but not all, of the evidence used against the accused was spectral evidence, or the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition or the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. The theological dispute that ensued about the use of this evidence centered on whether a person had to give permission to the Devil for his/her shape to be used to afflict. Opponents claimed that the Devil was able to use anyone's shape to afflict people, but the Court contended that the Devil could not use a person's shape without that person's permission; therefore, when the afflicted claimed to see the apparition of a specific person, that was accepted as evidence that the accused had been complicit with the Devil."
Here, the modern Devil at issue is racism, sexism or other discriminatory behavior against historically disfavored groups. The evidence -- microaggressions -- is similar to spectral evidence in an important way: namely, there is no requirement of intent by the alleged aggressor. Rather, it is sufficient that the alleged victim simply report that he or she was harmed by the spectre or feeling of a racist, sexist or other discriminatory interpretation of an act, whether or not there was actually any such intention. In addition, the evidence is highly public and easily reported. In the seventeenth century, a simple public statement by the victim sufficed. Today, publication on an internet board or otherwise is the preferred mode of communication.
Interestingly enough, it is academic leadership in both eras who intervened to stem the tide of accusations. In the 17th Century, the President of Harvard College was Increase Mather, the father of Cotton Mather, Cotton being one of the leaders who had egged on the investigations. In 1692, Increase Mather published Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits. In it, he repeated his caution about the reliance on spectral evidence, stating "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned". Unfortunately for many of the accused, they had already been prosecuted and punished by then.
Today, Increase Mather's most recent successor, President Drew Faust, has been more timely in trying to quell the accusatorial environment. In a talk given at the beginning of the academic year, she urged students to consider "risking forgiveness" and upholding the values of free speech over taking offense where none may have been intended:
"As we contemplate the year to come and the range of challenges before us, let us remember that building a community of genuine inclusion and belonging is a critical dimension of that work. And let us acknowledge that such work is not easy. There are many individuals who have arrived here this past week—and no doubt many already here—who have little understanding of the cultures, origins, and expectations of roommates, classmates, and section mates, of colleagues different from themselves. Perhaps they worry that if they reach out, they will display their ignorance; that ignorance will be perceived as insensitivity. Can we strive to educate rather than isolate and condemn? Can we together turn what we might leap to label a microaggression into teachable moments? Can we explain why phrases like “off the reservation” or words like “lynching” have a different and powerful resonance for individuals who hear them within a heritage of violence and oppression? Can we make our lives together the subject for inquiry and exploration and understanding in something of the same spirit with which we approach our academic purposes?
In a conversation about these issues among the deans this summer, Dean Jim Ryan of the Graduate School of Education urged that we strive to be what he called “generous listeners.” That is in my view the presupposition for real learning. The University is an institution committed to free speech—yours and everyone else’s. In the course of the year to come, that freedom is likely to produce some utterances that we deplore. And there will be times we must speak out against them. But we are likely far more often to encounter good intentions gone awry; mistakes and misunderstandings that are an inevitable part of this experiment in diversity we at Harvard are so committed to defend—in the courts, in the public discourse, and in our lives together.
Listen hard, listen generously, risk making a mistake, risk being made uncomfortable, risk forgiveness. Learn from one another."
The jury is still out as to whether President Faust's overtures will carry the day, although the public reactions seem to favor her position. The Fractal Lens clearly shows, however, that a dislocation in the monolithic institutions of college campuses has occurred.
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Shifting gears to the Mimetic Lens, Haidt, Campbell and Manning posit that a new Culture of Victimhood has recently emerged from a Culture of Dignity of the 19th and 20th Centuries, which itself emerged from a Culture of Honor. But Haidt may not have ever looked through the Mimetic Lens as discussed in the interview with Tyler Cowen:
"COWEN: I’ve done one of these dialogs with Peter Thiel, and he’s a big fan of René Girard, and his theory of sacrificial violence. Do you have an opinion?
HAIDT: No, many people have emailed me about him, and I know I need to read him, I think he’s vaguely Durkheimian.
HAIDT: So if he’s Durkheimian, then I’m in favor of him. By that I just mean — I don’t want to sound too academic and obscure here — just that if you look at what humans are doing, so much of what we do is weird and inexplicable. But after you read Durkheim, you see, oh, we’re trying to form communities.
We’re trying to form moral communities that will give order, punish deviants, allow us to work together. So if that’s what’s Girard’s about, then I would agree with it."
The view through the Mimetic Lens is that the idea that victims are to be exulted is not something new, but something that is at least 2000 years old. In effect, Haidt, Campbell and Manning are looking through too narrow a frame. Nietzsche was clear about this, because exultation of victims was one of his principal criticisms of how Christianity has affected the development of the Western societies.
As the Mimetic Lens reveals and as discussed in this post, claims to victimhood -- whether justified or unjustified -- have been driving institutional action throughout the 20th Century. It has been used by both democratic and totalitarian regimes to justify action in support of a cause or a political theory.
Yet the paradox of championing the victim is that as soon as it as used not as a shield but as a sword, or justification for "official" action by an authority, it adopts the archaic sacred mode of identifying scapegoats to be exorcised or eliminated. In the Girardian view, the formal accuser Is invariably the stand-in for the Devil who first calls out and then attempts to persecute or goad authorities into persecute the scapegoat:
"Girard has little patience for the literal mythological interpretation of Satan as the red, horned creature. According to Girard, the concept of Satan and the Devil is what it etymologically expresses: the opponent, the accuser. And, in this sense, Satan is the scapegoating mechanism itself (or, perhaps more precisely, the accusing process); that is, the psychological processes in which human beings are caught up by the lynching mob, and eventually succumb to its influence and participate in the collective violence against the scapegoat."
Thus, the Mimetic Lens shows us that the new microaggression culture actually seeks to create a new form of an archaic sacred structure, where the accusers first claim victimhood and then go on the attack against alleged perpetrators by cajoling the authorities into action -- much like the hysterical victims of witchcraft in colonial Salem went after various scapegoats by cajoling authorities with spectral evidence.
This structure is also notably a Mimetic opposite of the "Just World" Culture critiqued in the last post. The only difference is the identification of the victims and scapegoats, who are essentially reversed because the narratives themselves are mimetic rivals.
President Faust actually expressed what a culture of upholding the victim should be focused upon, which is that dialogue and forgiveness are the values for which we should be striving, not accusations and exorcising or attempting to silence offending scapegoats -- which is actually a paradoxical perversion of the ideal. It is typically described as "complete intolerance of any perceived intolerance."
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Finally, looking through the Prospecting Lens, we see the use of System 1 heuristics to turn the narrative of Microaggression Theory, which can be useful to explain some things about society some of the time, into an overarching narrative and litmus test that explains everything all the time.
Microaggression Theory is over 45 years old now and has had time to be accepted, developed, expanded and taught in many academic circles. As Haidt observes, the critics of such a theory have been in decline. Most notably, it is exactly the type of "theory of everything" that tends to attract younger people looking for pat answers to how the world works. There is also a tendency to equate unintended slights with the most virulent forms of racism.
The key System 1 heuristics at work here include:
THE NARRATIVE FALLACY. In our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we often create flawed explanatory stories of the past that shape our views of the world and expectations of the future. We assign larger roles to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck or happenstance.
Microaggression Theory is a very convenient narrative that relies on well-documented discriminations of the past. Rather than requiring intent, it assumes intent through the nature of the statement or act itself, even if ambiguous.
TRUSTING EXPERT INTUITION. “We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true. The associative machine is set to suppress doubt and to evoke ideas and information that are compatible with the currently dominant story.” Kahneman is skeptical of experts because they often overlook what they do not know.
The paradox of Microagression culture is that the experts at issue are the professors that teach at these colleges, who are the same persons who are now concerned that their rights of free speech are being eroded by accusations of MIcroaggressions. After 45 years, they have succeeded, which now leads to the undesirable outcome that President Faust and others are now trying to dampen and renegotiate.
THEORY-INDUCED BLINDNESS. “Once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing,”
The underlying explanation of Microaggression theory is always the same -- institutionalized discrimination. The alternative explanations put forth by President Faust, which include ignorance, mistakes and misunderstandings, are discounted in favor of the overriding narrative.
COHERENT STORIES (ASSOCIATIVE COHERENCE). To make sense of the world we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. We make associations between events, circumstances, and regular occurrences. The more these events fit into our stories the more normal they seem. Things that don’t occur as expected take us by surprise. To fit those surprises into our world we tell ourselves new stories to make them fit. We say, “Everything happens for a purpose,” “God did it,” “That person acted out of character,” or “That was so weird it can’t be random chance.” Abnormalities, anomalies, and incongruities in daily living beg for coherent explanations. Often those explanations involve assuming intention and causality.
We see this with the Microaggression theory when people go out of their way to find explanations for things to fit the theory. In some circumstances, as noted in the article referenced at the top, students have even complained about the names of food served in their cafeterias.
CONFIRMATION BIAS. This is the tendency to search for and find confirming evidence for a belief while overlooking counter examples. “Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information." System 1 fills in ambiguity with automatic guesses and interpretations that fit our stories. It rarely considers other interpretations. When System 1 makes a mistake System 2 jumps in to slow us down and consider alternative explanations. “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy."
Microaggresssions are a one-way ratchet. Nobody is keeping track of microfriendliness or random acts of kindness on the same ledger for the same actors. Yet without such data, any conclusions that are drawn from the speech or acts at issue must clearly be skewed, as they are based on cherry-picking data by definition.
THE LAW OF SMALL NUMBERS. Our brains have a difficult time with statistics. Small samples are more prone to extreme outcomes than large samples, but we tend to lend the outcomes of small samples more credence than statistics warrant. System 1 is impressed with the outcome of small samples but shouldn’t be. Small samples are not representative of large samples. Large samples are more precise.
It is one thing if there is a pattern of behaviors involving many data points from the same actors. But the kinds of microaggressions that are now being catalogued are often isolated incidents from which little can be drawn in the way of conclusions.
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The goal of Microagression Theory was never to create an accusatorial or prosecutorial culture. As explained by one of its principal proponents, the goal was simply to improve awareness and manners -- to avoid offending people unnecessarily and make the world a little bit nicer. Note that he agrees that many if not most such acts are committed unconsciously -- that is, without any intent to harm.
But like many good ideas, this one seems to have gone wrong. Whenever intent can be implied and guilt can be assessed without it, we are not creating a more enlightened and ennobled society, but merely another archaic ordered (authoritarian) society that merely operates by different rules and identifies different scapegoats than its equally stultified predecessors.
Let's not let our System 1 minds fool us again with a conveniently attractive narrative as a poor substitute for System 2 thinking that President Faust urges: "Listen hard, listen generously, risk making a mistake, risk being made uncomfortable, risk forgiveness. Learn from one another."
Because we've seen the accusatorial plot before, with its spectral evidence and scapegoats, and we know how it ends.
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I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.