“I’m a man. Men have got another thing….they got waddya call, a carnival instinctuals.”
Remember Archie Bunker? The lovable bigot in All in the Family TV series who was suspicious of blacks, Hispanics, “commies”, gays, hippies, Jews, Catholics, “women’s libbers” and Polish-Americans? Imagine his response if someone told Bunker to “check his privilege”. Even more amusing, imagine if someone tried to cast Bunker as a victim!
Donald Trump is the identity politics candidate for frustrated people in America. “Make America Great Again” proclaims their lost prestige, their lost primacy, their lost entitlement. Trump is the “Saviour of Forgotten Men”, the guy Sinclair Lewis wrote of in his 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. Last November, the time was ripe for revenge. White men were Trump’s strongest backers. White women supported him too, primarily seniors, Evangelicals and white women without college degrees.
Since that election, everyone has dissected the entrails. Shocked and in a bid to come to understanding, I re-read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the Tea Party bible. I started paying closer attention to sociologists. I really wanted to get what was happening here!
Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, says Republicans offered a vision of good and evil that activated voter fear. Democrats, instead, appealed to reason. Trump supporters are afraid of how the world is changing. Trump promised to turn back the clock.
It was that simple.
Was it that simple? I’m not convinced.
Another sociologist to pay attention to is Michael Kimmel, author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Kimmel labels the perceived marginalization of white males–being passed over in favour of minorities and women and immigrants–as “aggrieved entitlement.” These men are humiliated and respond with violence. Think school shootings by middle-class white male students, white supremacist surges, and sadly, the recent massacre in Las Vegas.
The origin of the word ‘humiliate’ means to ‘bring low’. Shame and humiliation are a reaction to perceived threat and underlie violent behaviour. Remember when Osama bin Laden blamed the West’s humiliation of Muslims as the trigger for terrorism? Same rationale.
Another sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild, spent the five years before the last U.S. election immersed in the strongly Tea-Party-facing community around Lake Charles, Louisiana. In her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, she tries to unpack the great paradox: Red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, lower school enrollment, more industrial pollution – yet they want less government. Louisiana, with its oil industry and chemical alley, has great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters.
“Crazy redneck.” “White trash.” “Ignorant Southern Bible-thumper.” The people Hochschild interviewed couldn’t recognize themselves in the way others saw them. They felt like strangers in their own land. So, they looked to other sources of honour: faith, work and the Tea Party. They resented others cutting in line ahead of them yet dreaded joining the parade of ‘poor me’s.’
With the help of sociologists, we have a better idea of how we got this place. So what now?
Polarities are widening. Journalists are reporting on growing divisions between red states and blue cities. Pressure on those seen as oppressors to ‘check their privilege’ has backfired; there is no kinder society emerging. People talk of sympathy fatigue. We are seeing an escalation in violence and bigotry directed at immigrants and minorities in America. The demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia were angry white men and unlike protests by bigots in the 1960s, these men didn’t bother to wear hoods to hide their faces.
Bravado and self-reliance aren’t fading either. This one minute video, Freedom’s Safest Place: You Haven’t Met America, posted by the National Rifle Association gives us a window into this thinking. Be a man and take things into your own hands. It’s a throwback to an honour code where men had a duty to protect and defend. Authority and the rule of law can’t be relied on.
At the same time, Haidt warns, there is a new moral culture emerging—a culture of victimhood. It’s poised to overtake the prevailing moral culture in the West, a culture of dignity. This is a big deal.
If you want to dive deep, check out an academic article by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, Microaggression and Moral Cultures. Here’s the skinny: Increasingly people are raising awareness of injustice, even the minutia of injustice, portraying themselves as oppressed by the powerful, calling attention to their status as victims. Fingers are publicly pointed at the privileged and blameworthy (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter response to 2016 all-white Oscars lineup). Privilege is the opposite of victimhood. Calls to ‘check your privilege’ shame the privileged within a victimhood culture, just as cowards might be shamed in an honour culture (think gangs). Experts call this a culture of victimhood “because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honour cultures, has risen to new heights”.
Victimhood confers status. So, weirdly, even those labeled as oppressors are now claiming to be victims. Why are you feeling bad for them, you should feel bad for me! White supremacists and neo-Nazis marched on the University of Virginia campus chanting slogans: “You will not replace us” and “White Lives Matter”. Men criticized as sexist defend themselves as victims of reverse sexism. People criticized as being unsympathetic emphasize their own experiences as victims (e.g. my Irish descendants fled the potato famine; as a professional woman, I had to fight my way up the corporate ladder). Everyone is now claiming to be a victim! “It’s NOT my fault!” And, Trump is fanning the flames with tweets portraying the alt-right as victims of an unfair media and white Americans as victims of Mexican and Chinese workers or immigrant terrorists.
It’s already hard enough. Those people Hochschild interviewed in Louisiana were mistrustful of outsiders. They were predisposed to their own views. They were self-reliant. The last thing they wanted was to be seen as victims.
Trump promised the forgotten he would restore lost honour. Turning angry white men into victims isn’t restoring their honour or their dignity. Trump has replaced pride with self-pity. He’s turning these Americans upside-down!
Increasingly, Haidt observes, the West’s prevailing culture of dignity is giving way to a culture of victimhood. This emerging culture condones calling attention to oneself as long as one is calling attention to one’s hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths. This isn’t empowering. And, it’s doing little to increase empathy or achieve justice. In fact, it’s shutting down dialogue and ramping up shaming and blaming. It’s making America weaker.
Compassion unfolds when your resonance with someone’s distress leads you to actually do something to help. Right now, our capacity for compassion seems blunted by the shrill cries of “victimhood”. We’re in a state of moral confusion and growing anguish, suggests Haidt, in this clash between victimhood and dignity cultures.
What can we do? This September, my husband and I had the good fortune to be in Rome on a day when the Pope was in residence at the Vatican. He’s utterly delightful to watch. His sense of humour is unmistakable, even amidst the mayhem of security, media and clamouring hordes.
This summer, Pope Francis placed a sign on the door to his apartment which read:
Violators are subject to a syndrome of always feeling like a victim and the consequent reduction of your sense of humour and capacity to solve problems…
To become the best of yourself, you must focus on your own potential and not on your limits, so stop complaining and act to change your life for the better.”
This blog is my commitment to evade victimhood. Recognizing our voice and our power, tempered with compassion, is going to become increasingly important to counter unhinged reactions to polarizing threats. Would you hang this sign on your door? Could you hang it on the President’s too? Thanks for that!
Donna Kennedy-Glans, October 12th 2017