Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shame, Blame, Restoration and Victimhood Culture

There has been a swirl of tangentially connected and frustratingly amorphous thoughts going through my mind lately, and I'm going to attempt to better connect them here in the hopes that it will spark a conversation to help me sort them out.

The solidification of these connections started when I read Conor Friedersdorf's Atlantic piece "The Rise of Victimhood Culture." In this piece, Friedersdorf examines an email exchange between two Oberlin college students to illustrate what is being read as the rise of a new cultural consciousness. The email exchange centered around a Hispanic female student who was insulted by a white male student's group email about a soccer club. She accused him of being culturally insensitive by using the word "futbol" and attempting to dismiss the importance of a Latino Heritage Month event by inviting people to play soccer instead. He responded with his own indignation and cited his close relationship with a Costa Rican family as evidence against her claims. 

The exchange was the subject of a recent sociology paper by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning who use it as evidence of a new cultural approach to conflict. As opposed to honor or dignity cultures, Campbell and Manning believe that there is a new culture based on victimhood:
Victimhood cultures emerge in settings, like today’s college campuses, “that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions,” they argue. “Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood ... the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”
Friedersdorf extends this observation to that of the social norms on the internet, particularly in the "blogosphere":
For example, the emergence of “the blogosphere” in the early aughts––something I participated in to some extent–– was rife with examples of conservative, progressive, and libertarian bloggers calling attention to minor slights against their respective ideological groups by mainstream media outlets. In “Fisking” the MSM, the aggrieved seized on these slights, often exaggerating them in the process; tried to garner the support of third parties (an ombudsman, the public at large); cast themselves as victims of unfair treatment; and demonized adversaries.
They did so in hopes of making the case that the small slight that they’d seized upon was actually evidence of a larger, significant injustice to a whole class of people.
This is interesting to me on a personal level because . . . I've done that. I've taken a minor event and written about it in a public outlet in the hopes that it shines light on a bigger issue: when a man saw me mowing my lawn and used it as an opportunity to creepily ask me why my "man" wasn't doing it instead, when the doctor-in-training at my daughter's 9-month appointment asked me "what's up with that?" because her skin is darker than mine, when I stumbled across KKK memorabilia and slave shackles at an ostensibly family-friendly festival. I am no stranger to the format of using a personal anecdote of "microaggression" to point to larger societal ills.

This got me thinking about the rhetorical effectiveness of such an approach. We know that people respond with more empathy to individual stories than they do to collective data. It's why the Ferguson Report bolsters clear statistical evidence of revenue-generating police tactics with personal stories like the one of a woman charged $151 for a single parking violation who ended up paying $550 and still owes $541 seven years later. It's why the picture of the Aylan Kurdi's tiny drowned body sparked more outrage about the Syrian refugee crisis than well-written but distant accounts of the number of refugees. It's why Humans of New York is such a popular site and is so good at raising awareness and support for individuals through Facebook posts.

In many ways, "Victimhood Culture" seems like the natural merging of the feminist slogan "the personal is political" with the ease of sharing made possible through technological advancements and the rise of social media. If the more rhetorically effective way to gain attention for your cause is to hone in on a representative individual, storytelling is a powerful drive of human nature, and online social networks make sharing as easy as clicking a button, then the rise of so many soap boxes makes perfect sense.

It's not then, our desire to share our story and be seen as a victim of a larger ill that is new--we've always done that, haven't we? When wronged, we rage, and the metaphor of the soapbox I just called upon is a testament to how low-tech this desire really is. We've always shared our personal stories (good and bad), but it's the rise of such a large, diverse, and interconnected audience to witness them that is changing the culture.

Two recent stories in particular illustrate this point.

Ahmed and His Clock
On Monday of this week (just four short days ago) Texas high school freshman Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school that was mistaken for a "hoax bomb." The claim is ridiculous, of course, because in order to make a "hoax bomb" one would have to say it was an actual bomb, something Mohamed never did, as he repeatedly told anyone who would listen that it was just a clock that he brought in the hopes of impressing his teachers and help him build a relationship with like-minded tinkerers.

Reading the story broke my heart. This child was handcuffed and led out of school even though the teacher didn't see his clock as enough of a threat to evacuate her classroom. She left the device in her desk and only had him investigated later in the day. Clearly, no one believed this was an actual bomb. Mohamed was traumatized through a dehumanizing (and perhaps unconstitutional) arrest and suspended from school.

The collective public reacted swiftly. By yesterday, the story was making international headlines, and #IStandWithAhmed was trending across social media platforms. Memes were made. The news was spread. People were having none of it.

The Dancing Man
Back in February, a man was body shamed online for daring to dance while fat. The tormentors posted his picture taken without his permission and mocked him, and all anyone looking at the pictures had to go by was the anonymous image.

The collective public once again responded with outrage, and that rage propelled them to band together and find the man, who was later identified as Sean O'Brien.

A Pattern of Response
On the surface, these two stories don't really have much in common. One is a teen subjected to mistreatment at the hands of an authority figure while the other is an adult subjected to bullying from random strangers. Mohamed faced serious legal repercussions (though charges were not filed) and documented punishment in his school record; O'Brien might not have ever known the pictures of him were posted if it hadn't been for the resulting push back. Mohamed and his parents shared their incident publicly to intentionally draw attention to the wrongdoing; O'Brien's mistreatment was avenged on his behalf by internet strangers.

What's interesting to me is that both of these people represent "victims" within "Victimhood Culture" even though only one of them intentionally shared their story in order to present himself as a victim (rightfully, in my opinion). To me, the fact that victims are created even when they're not promoting their own victimhood indicates that the drive for Victimhood Culture does not come (or at least does not come solely) from the person being victimized, but rather comes from the collective public who empathizes with and latches onto their stories. 

The problem with this collective public is that they are prone to irrational acts. Much has been said about the social media mob mentality where people's lives are destroyed when the collective fury snowballs. This kind of public shaming has frequently resulted in lost jobs and death threats, and the individuals in question become instant celebrities who are often held up as a flavor-of-the-week litmus test for particular political stances. 

  I've been in some of those social media shame vortexes. I've been outraged. I've retweeted callouts for racist, sexist, and otherwise abhorrent behavior. But I've tried to do so less because I realized that the motivations weren't always clear. Was I doing this to help the victim? (And was there always a "victim"?) Or was I just jumping on a bandwagon?

Yesterday, when Mohamed's story broke along my social media sites, I shared my outrage. I linked to the story. I shared that I was upset at an educational system that focuses more on making students fit predetermined boxes than finding their skills and helping them grow. I felt justified in helping Ahmed share his story, but I drew the line at leaving comments or reviews on the school's Facebook page, a site that is now filled with shaming. 

And I can't say that I don't think the school deserves it. They've doubled down on their actions and refused to back off the three-day suspension. They're wrong, and the people commenting are pointing out the wrongness. I'm not sure, though, that attacking the school's hallway decorations (almost certainly the work of students) or mocking the credentials of teachers who weren't even involved in the incident does anything to serve the greater cause.

Similarly, many of those outraged about O'Brien took to attacking his bullies. The post that first drew attention to O'Brien's plight was aimed at ridiculing those who took the picture. With little to go on to identify the perpetrators, the mob didn't have anywhere to aim their fury, so they took to building something positive instead.

An online effort to identify O'Brien worked, and shortly after a momentous movement was set into action. Funds were crowdsourced, media outlets got involved, and O'Brien was treated to a giant dance party, introduced to celebrities, and honored through the creation of "I AM DANCING MAN" t-shirts. 

Ahmed's story resulted in a similar outpouring of positive response. Since the story broke, he's been invited to the White House, given scholarships to Space Camp, and granted offers to transfer schools. He's gotten public support from major celebrities and politicians. He's being interviewed on major national news shows and talked about across the world.  

O'Brien and Mohamed illustrate the flipside of internet mob mentality. As much as we want to pile on the "bad" guy, we also want to help out the "good" guy. We want to provide some kind of retribution for the victim, and in a way, the public culpability in "Victimhood Culture" suggests to me a kind of restorative justice. These stories break our hearts and capture our minds, and we feel compelled to do something. More and more, that something seems to involve reaching out to the wronged and trying to make it right.

And it's not only when we see someone who has been wronged by a direct mistreatment at the hands of another. Consider the $1.4 million raised in scholarship money for a group of Brooklyn high schoolers after they were featured in a Humans of New York photo series. Think about the homeless man who was inundated with job offers after a picture of his handwritten resume went viral. There are countless feel-good stories that serve as illustrations as our collective desire to do good. 

But What Does it All Mean?
So why have I been spending so much time thinking about this? What's the problem? People on the internet see someone who has been wronged (either by some specific entity or by being put in an oppressed position overall) and they want to make it right. How could that possibly be a problem?

I don't know. I don't even know that it is. But I know that the intersections of "Victimhood Culture" and the stories of Mohamed and O'Brien have been weighing heavily on my mind.

One thing that I want to figure out is where our collective motivation comes from. Are we truly trying to lift up these wronged individuals or are we trying to assuage some kind of collective guilt? And if we are trying to assuage guilt, does that mean that these individual stories have done the job that Campbell and Manning said they aim to do: demonstrate microaggressions to be representations of a greater, systemic problem?

That's the part I think I have trouble dealing with. Flooding a single homeless man with job offers does nothing to address the social realities that make homelessness an epidemic. Letting Ahmed tour the White House does nothing to address the fact that non-white children across the country are being criminalized in school rooms and piped into a prison industrial complex. Giving O'Brien a dance party does not stop fat shaming from sending thousands of people into spirals of disordered eating and self harm.  

That doesn't mean we shouldn't do these things. We absolutely should try to right wrongs on an individual level. I hope that man finds a job he loves, that Ahmed gets to go to a school that nurtures his talent, and that O'Brien gets to dance as long as he wants. I'm happy that as a society we were able to come together and create a network of support in which those things could happen. I'm happy when my "shares" and comments are part of that network of support. It makes me feel good. 

But I have to wonder, if we really are changing from a culture of dignity or honor to one of victimhood, what are the implications for the individuals identified as victims and for us as their collective protectors and oppressors (sometimes both at the same time)?  What happens to people who never wanted to be held up as these kind of examples but who get sucked into the frenzy? What happens to our sense of collective responsibility for the macro-level problems that aren't being addressed? How much of this is an extension of token exceptionalism that allows us to turn our backs on the harm we're complicit in creating? What happens to dignity and honor as we make these shifts? How can I best operate as someone who tells my stories and values the stories of others?

I don't know any of those answers, but I know that the questions keep coming to my mind.

Photos: lastonein, Robert Couse-Baker

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