Culture of Dignity

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Culture Wars

Among those covering or participating in the fight against BDS and similar propaganda campaigns on college campuses, I’ve always been one of the least enthusiastic for the tactic of turning to college administrators to solve the problems supporters of Israel (and Jews in general) face at more and more schools.

Perhaps this reflects my preference for political vs. legal/administrative solutions to what are ultimately political problems.  Or perhaps it is based on the fear that if we legitimize tactics that involve seeking protection from authority for a dozen legitimate grievances, it will set a precedent that allows our foes to demand similar redress for hundreds of invented ones (all in the name of “fairness,” of course).

Those who dedicate far more time to these problems than I have pointed out that when Jewish students experience harassment and even violence, turning to those morally and legally obliged to see to their safety is not just appropriate, but required.  And given that SJP et al are going to demand that they be treated as victims needing protection regardless of what we do, our actual behavior is going to have no impact on their misuse of the tools we might turn to for appropriate purposes.

Having long ago conceded all of those completely valid points, all I have left to ponder is why those appeals to authority continue to make me feel a little queasy.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on which issue you’re exploring), recent protests on campuses over “micro-agressions,” “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” (which have turned into full-scale protests in recent weeks) provided some thoughtful people the chance to explain phenomena which might shed light on the predicament of pro-Israel students in higher ed institutions.

This blog entry discusses a paper recently published in the journal Comparative Sociology (the original paper is behind a paywall, although I was able to find it through a search of the Academic OneFile database, available from most public libraries) which views current campus unrest through the lens of a changing moral culture.

In the beginning, there was honor.  Or, more specifically, the “Culture of Honor” in which strength and resistance to domination are considered the highest moral values.  Within such cultures, small slights (even verbal insults) warrant extreme reaction, up to and including violence – which explains the popularity of things like vendettas and duels within honor-based societies.  And because independence must be maintained at all cost, turning to authorities to solve differences is seen as a sign of weakness, and thus a lack of virtue.

As societies become larger and more complex, this complexity could be managed only if everyone agreed (or was forced) to live by rules (called laws).  And while such law-based societies require a class of people empowered to create, interpret and enforce those laws, they also require that everyone living with in the society (lawmaker and subject alike) agree to follow the rules.

Such agreement can be obtained solely through coercion.  But a much more efficient way to make a law-based society function is to get those living under one to agree to replace their honor-based moral code with a new code based on something else.  For example, the societies most of us inhabit today could be described as having left the Culture of Honor behind and replaced it with a Culture of Dignity.

Unlike honor cultures, those who inhabit a Culture of Dignity do not live their lives simmering over small or perceived slights.  In fact, they are ready to brush off things like verbal insults or turn to the wider society to shun those who refuse to live by a code which requires everyone to treat one another with respect.

Now there may be instances when words (which children in a Culture of Dignity are taught will never hurt them) are replaced with sticks and stones (or knives and guns).  But at this point those inhabiting a Culture of Dignity will willingly turn towards authority (like the police or courts) without feeling shame at having done so.

The clash between these two cultures comes up frequently in discussions of Middle East politics to explain why, for example, Palestinians would let their children, grandchildren (and soon great-grandchildren) rot in hope of eventually winning revenge for a “Nakbah” of their own making.  But in the context of this discussion, we need to look at the Culture of Dignity as being challenged not just from the past (by existing honor cultures) but by something new – a Culture of Victimhood, the subject I will turn to next.

Next – Culture of Victimhood

Series NavigationCulture of Victimhood >>

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