Ethics: May 2006 Archives

I wanted to link to Jesse Walker's column Right-Wing P.C. a while back but didn't get around to it until now [hat tip: Jonathan Adler]. This is a phenomenon that John McWhorter (among others) calls victimology. I've blogged about this several times before, most notably racial victimology, Christian victimology, heterosexual victimology, and even conservative victimology. It's pretty clear to me that this is a basic human default position when someone's real or perceived rights are violated, and virtually any group that identifies itself in a way that can admit to solidarity of some sort could demonstrate it.

Conservatives have at least in their official views regularly decried this sort of thing from the left, but I think it's been present on the right all along. Consider the standard argument against affirmative action on the ground that it discriminates against whites. How many white people who put forth this argument with outrage have really been harmed by affirmative action or are even aware of anyone who has seriously been harmed by it? (That's not to say that there aren't constitutional discrimination issues that you can raise independent of the issue of harm, but see here for my worries about such arguments.) Conservatives have mastered the art of victimhood for the sake of enjoyment without much direction toward progress and sometimes from a false sense of real victimhood to begin with. Are people who think gay sex is immoral really victims because their kids' schools treat the children of gay parents as having a family? So conservative victimology isn't new, but what Walker's column adds is a P.C. element, and I think several of his examples are dead on. I encourage you to read them for yourself.

One thing I think Walker doesn't get quite clear is the nature of the distinction between what might be called victimhood and victimology. Victimology isn't mere complaining about victimhood, because that can be legitimate if the concern is real and if there's some point to complaining, i.e. it's aimed at progress. On the other hand, victimology requires two elements: (1) playing up false victimhood or exaggerating real victimhood beyond its level of seriousness and (2) doing it for the sake of feeling better than others because you can call them names for oppressing you rather than to seek real progress. But this is a human psychological phenomenon, and that makes it more complex. Often there's a legitimate cry of victimhood tainted with victimology. In a fallen world, people are messed up, and we usually don't have fully pure motives for most things. Why shouldn't we expect the same here?

Laurence Thomas has a thoughtful post on one particular assumption in the mindset often associated with what sometimes is called political correctness [note: the post might not load up; if not, then just click in the URL line at the top of your browser and hit the Enter key manually to reload]. This assumption underlies the claim that men have no right to comment on abortion and that white people can have no insight into racial issues. Now I understand the view that people who experience something will have special insight into that experience that others will not have. There are things men just don't understand about what it's like to be a woman, and thus there are insights into womanhood that men will not appreciate as well as women can. There are things about being gay in mainstream American culture that a straight person will not understand. Even though I'm married to a black woman, I will never quite understand what it's like to grow up black in the U.S. That's something that black people can know in a way that I never could. Philosophers call this being epistemically privileged. (For non-philosophers, 'epistemic' just means relating to knowledge.) I have no problem with the thesis that those who have certain experiences are epistemically privileged in exactly the sort of way that this general mindset says is true of people who are gay, Asian American, female, etc.

Now what Laurence questions is not this thesis itself but its use in certain political contexts. For instance, some act as if only women can comment on abortion because men don't have access to what women alone can know from their unique experience. It would then be immoral for white people to comment on racial issues because of their not having experienced any form of racism against them. Laurence particularly wonders why it's mostly experiences of suffering that give this special kind of insight, when it seems that suffering can just as easily blind someone to the truth. For example, people who are seriously abused as children sometimes end up thinking they are worthless people who are to blame for their abuser's actions. He also suggests that political correctness is often just an attempt to get people to cower through accusations of racism, misogyny, heterosexism, or some other crime of thought, and its result is to perpetuate a lack of trust on both sides of the accusation. I think he's pretty much right on his diagnosis of many cases of political correctness (which isn't to say that it's right about all charges of racism, just the p.c. ones).

But there are a few other things going on that I'd like to reflect on for a little bit. Some of this derives from my comment on his post, and some of it is further thought on the issue.

Outlawing Sex

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Eugene Volokh discusses some problematic sexual assault policies at Gettysburg College and Antioch College regarding what counts as consensual sex. The most striking element to me comes toward the end of the post. It looks to me as if Antioch College's sexual assault policy leads to a fascinating infinite regress. Apparently you need explicit verbal agreement to count as consent. Yet they also prohibit non-consensual sexual communication. That means you can't even ask someone verbally if they want to have sex unless they first consent to your question. So you need to ask them if you can ask them a question about sex, but before that you need to ask them if you can ask them if you can ask them a question about sex, and before that you need to ask them if you can ask them if you can ask them if you can ask them a question about sex. That means you could never even get going with asking the question, which means consensual sex is impossible, and thus sex is in effect outlawed. Antioch College is the new Bob Jones University.

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