In December 2015, ex-Muslim, feminist campaigner Maryam Namazie was heckled and aggressively disrupted by members of Goldsmiths University’s Islamic Society, while giving a talk on blasphemy and apostasy.
After the event, the Islamic Society publicly condemned the organizers for promoting an event that “shocked and horrified” the Muslims who attended, adding that “the university should be a safe space.”
Curiously, Goldsmiths’ Feminist Society also released a statement expressing solidarity with the Islamic Society and condemned the actions of the organizers as well. What was the feminist society’s motive for condemning a fellow feminist and supporting those, who were “horrified” by her speech?
Safe-spaces, trigger-warnings, cultural appropriation, and microaggressions are all terms that we use with increasing frequency – especially at universities. Designed to prevent harm and to inform people of potential unwitting damage, they all have obvious, positive objectives. But any virtue, when carried to an extreme, becomes a vice.
Universities should certainly ensure, that students are free from harassment, discrimination and physical harm on campus. But criticism in general? Emotional distress? How are we supposed to learn critical thinking, if we can’t be criticised or exposed to challenging ideas ourselves?
Political correctness is nothing new, and when applied appropriately, it is a positive force in fighting bigotry. What is new is the idea that people can be traumatized by words and other forms of expression; that we are so fragile, we must be protected from unwelcomed speech lest we ourselves be damaged.
But protection from uncomfortable topics will not prepare us for real life, where we will be confronted with unwelcome language all the time. Moreover, it is well known that the abuse of a tool can have serious consequences for those who need it the most.
A theory on microaggression and moral culture states, that the more progress towards equality and diversity a society makes, the lower the bar for what is considered an offence against equality and inclusion. People become much more sensitive to the inequalities that remain.
This is not bad per se, but it is problematic if the genuine fight against bigotry converges into a state in which being a victim becomes a social asset. Rather than being driven by an honest wish for equality, the fight becomes a tactic for gaining social status. This is victimhood culture.
In a victimhood culture, being a victim equals having a raised moral status. It becomes an incentive to call attention to what is considered deviant behaviour and to attract sympathy from third parties.
Individuals will emphasise and exacerbate their low status of being aggrieved, and they will portray themselves as damaged, disadvantaged, needy, and of course, innocent. It becomes a sort of social control, where accounts of offences are collected and publicised, using minor slights to create an image of there being a larger problem.
The conditions for this form of social control are high levels of diversity and equality and the presence of a third party that is strongly superior, such as legal officials or administrators. These are all present at modern universities.
Victimhood culture also needs a means to gather support for complaints, and this is where social media is an exceptional platform, ideal for gathering huge support in a minimum amount of time.
Though the attitude is far from inherent in everyone, it is a contagious behaviour. When victimhood yields moral status, it becomes a sought after good by all kinds of people. Therefore, those who may have been previously labelled oppressors respond with their own accounts of victimisation.
This is how the terms reversed sexism and reversed racism emerged. With everyone competing for the status of biggest victim, we end up in a state of constant litigation.
The ever-increasing number of university protests, where speakers who are considered too controversial get their talks cancelled on grounds of violation of safe spaces or offence to personal sentiments, are clear signs of victimhood culture.
The incident at Goldsmiths University is but one of many examples. But whom are these protests really protecting?
The flip-side of our decade-long fight against bigotry is the emergence of an intense fear of being labelled a bigot of any kind. Failing to recognize progress, we are unable to zero in on the still existing yet changed problem.
We wallow in our shame of the past and rush to the aid of anyone, who shouts the loudest about being victimized. But this is not a defence of the weak – this is a protection of our own reputation!
If we want to continue to fight bigotry – as we should – we need to keep our eye on the ball. After all, assuming that all minorities are victims by the mere virtue of belonging to a minority is also bigoted!