Joyce activated, issue 17

The uneasy co-existence of dignity and victimhood culture means laws and mores are shaped around the assumption that most people are following one moral code, when in fact many are following another.

Joyce activated, issue 17

Welcome back after the summer break! If you follow me on Twitter (@hjoycegender), you’ll have seen me asking for thoughts on Drag Queen Story Time—well, I’ve never received such a big response to anything, and it will take some time even to read all the replies. So that’s for a future edition, and in this one I’m going to return to the rise of victimhood culture, the new value system in which victims gain elevated moral standing.

If you haven’t already read issue 13, in which I introduced it, alongside the older honour and dignity culture, and issue 16, where I discussed the three systems’ upsides and downsides, you might want to do so now.

In issue 16 I suggested that individuals would be wise to “mix and match” aspects of the three cultures: to cultivate self-reliance (honour), to practise self-control and stoicism (dignity), and to remember that life circumstances may bestow or deny the trappings of high status in both systems. But the three cultures’ uneasy co-existence is now causing a different sort of mix and match, in which laws and mores are shaped around the assumption that most people are following one moral code, when in fact many are following another.

If you look at company rulebooks and employment law, what you will see was written, by and large, by people who spent their entire careers within dignity culture. Their main aim—to be “fair”; to create a level playing field, together with enforcement mechanisms—is comprehensible through the lens of dignity culture. But you can also see the start of an understanding of a fundamental problem with that culture—that its virtues (such as self-control and perseverance) and rewards (such as titles and promotions) are harder to access for some than for others through no fault of their own.

So in their broad sweep, these rules and laws ban discrimination, harassment and bullying (this would make little sense within honour culture, where might is right). But they also include accommodations for specific needs: maternity leave, disability adjustments and so on. The HR function is then intended to hold the ring: to treat everyone broadly equally but also to make sure women aren’t sexually harassed or fired for being pregnant, that ethnic minorities aren’t passed over for promotion and that disabled people receive the support they need to work like everyone else. When it fails to do so, people can turn to the courts.

Obviously this is an idealised version of HR and employment law, and both often fall short. But there is a bigger problem: both can work only if everyone, or at least nearly everyone, sees things in a similar way. They fit a world where dignity culture rules: where everyone tries their hardest, admires success, and wants to be physically and mentally well. In this world, junior employees want to work their way up the corporate ladder, just as their elders did. They respond to the same sort of incentives and seek the same sorts of rewards as their seniors, such as promotion, fancy job titles and corner offices.

The result is laws and rules that lean against abuse of power, not abuse of process. They’re all based on an unwritten, unspoken assumption that nobody would claim to be disabled, or to have suffered discrimination or harassment, for cynical reasons such as revenge or financial gain. Which seems odd, really: surely you would have to think people were idiots not to realise that they will alter their behaviour in response to incentives?

But once you understand that they were written from within dignity culture, they make more sense. The unacknowledged idea underlying these systems of laws and rules is that nobody would falsely claim to be disabled or to have been victimised because that would lower their status—that is, they would have to choose to demean themselves.

This is the nasty side of the older honour and dignity cultures, within which the strong and successful are, albeit in different ways, valorised. It means expecting, probably unconsciously, that women will be deterred from making false allegations of sexual harassment or assault—even if doing so might enable them to get a payout, or revenge against a hated colleague—because if they are believed they will be seen as “damaged goods”. It means thinking nobody would falsely claim to suffer from anxiety or depression in order to get paid time off, because they wouldn’t want to be thought of as “weak” or “mentally defective”. This sort of victim-blaming is the flipside of valorising strength and ruthlessness (honour) or even self-control and self-reliance (dignity).

I don’t think the people who framed, or those who work to uphold, these laws and rules, really think like this. I think they feel genuine compassion for people who have been victimised, or whose personal circumstances mean they require special accommodations. What I’m saying is that I don’t think they realise the extent to which these laws and rules rely on older, stigmatising ideas about what is praiseworthy and what is demeaning to keep people honest, and that as a result they wrote laws that are easy to abuse.

Especially now that ideas about what is praiseworthy and what is demeaning are changing. Growing numbers of people, particularly younger ones, now live within a culture in which victims, far from being blamed, gain status. The result goes way beyond destigmatisation, or even unforeseen (but frankly foreseeable) abuse of process. When victimhood is valorised, you can expect to get many more people who regard and present themselves as victims.

In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss three examples where I see this happening. My first is the enormous increase in the number of university students seeking special accommodations for relatively minor mental-health conditions. I was alerted to this by a fascinating article entitled “The Parent Trap” on philosopher Kathleen Stock’s Substack, which examines the perverse incentives and unintended consequences of rules requiring “reasonable adjustments” in university courses for students with disabilities.

This trend has played out at extraordinary speed. To quote Kathleen: “Between 2010 and 2019 there was a sixfold increase in the numbers of students disclosing mental health conditions to universities; and in roughly the same time period, a 450% increase in disclosure of mental health conditions when applying to UCAS. In my own experience of teaching, up to a third of students in any given seminar or lecture can have a recorded mental health condition, with required adjustments set out accordingly.” This is victimhood culture, if not quite in the sense of valorising claims of mental ill-health, at least in the sense of rewarding them.

I don’t think the way mental-health problems used to be handled was good either. If you stigmatise anxiety, say, or depression, there will still be people who suffer from them, with an extra serving of shame and self-hatred on top. Many people will hide their struggles, rather than seek help. But as we’re seeing now, if you reward claims of mental ill-health—and I think it’s undeniable that in universities that’s exactly what’s happening—you’ll get more of them. This is one of the central insights of economics: that people respond to incentives.

And this won’t be merely a matter of people faking distress: more people will genuinely have mental-health conditions. That’s partly because even thinking about being stressed or anxious can make you so. These labels can lead to negative rumination (a good therapist will teach sufferers how to turn their thoughts outwards instead, but I don’t think the universities colluding with this self-labelling are offering anything of the sort). Someone who’s going through a rough patch and receives a mental-health diagnosis may end up regarding it as a permanent feature of their psyche. Humans have a remarkable tendency to live up or down to expectations.

But the biggest problem, as Kathleen explains, is that the adjustments intended to allow vulnerable students to avoid situations where they might struggle and fail also deprive them of precisely the sorts of learning experiences that can promote good mental health. Indeed, the sheer number of students requiring adjustments means that all students are increasingly being denied these experiences. If a large chunk of your students mustn’t be called on to answer questions during tutorials, or asked to stick to deadlines, or forced to do high-stakes exams, then questions, deadlines and exams become untenable.

The result is that more and more young people are being deprived of opportunities to learn two of life’s most important mental-health lessons: that they can push themselves to succeed; and that they will sometimes fail but then go on to pick themselves up and try again.

My second example, concerning procedures for tackling rape and sexual assault on American campuses, goes further: it creates not just victims, but perpetrators. I first came across this issue in a brilliant three-part series by Emily Yoffe in the Atlantic in 2017. (That link takes you to the first of them; you can click through to the other two near the top.)

As Yoffe explains, under rules first introduced under Barack Obama that cover all universities and colleges receiving federal funding, accusations of sexual assault must be treated from the start as if they are true. The result hands immense power to anyone willing to make an accusation—to claim victim status—and can destroy the lives of those they accuse.

When Yoffe was writing, it was already clear that these rules drove a coach and horses through due process. Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s federal education secretary, rescinded them, but under Joe Biden, they have been reinstated.

This is one area where I think Republicans are firmly on the right side, and where too little attention is given to the harms Democrats cause (obviously I think gender medicine is another). Perhaps the issue wasn’t front of mind for many of those who voted for Trump, or who vote Republican more generally. But I don’t think it’s electorally harmless, either. As if destroying lives on the basis of unsupported allegations wasn’t enough, these rules create a commissar class of unaccountable, well-paid bureaucrats, with anyone who complains called an “ist” or “phobe” (racist, sexist, homophobe—you get the idea). This sort of thing doesn’t tend to go down well with voters.

When I first read Yoffe’s articles, what I remember noticing was just how unconcerned these rules were with the truth. That’s obviously not ideal when it comes to an anti-crime policy: without truth there can be no justice, and the connection between punishment and deterrence is weakened too. But I’m now noticing how they valorise claims of victimhood.

The way they work, it’s the person who alleges wrongdoing first who sees their version of what happened granted canonical status. The person they accuse automatically starts off on the back foot, assumed to be a perpetrator. Yoffe describes some formally symmetric cases—ones where both people in a sexual encounter were equally drunk or otherwise incapacitated, and where even the initial description of what happened suggests that both are equally responsible, or indeed irresponsible. But still the accuser is protected and the accused is blamed. This, of course, encourages getting your allegations in first as a precaution. By declaring yourself a victim, you gain the status of truth-teller.

I don’t know whether the people who wrote and administer these rules realise how bad they are but don’t care; or whether they truly think that no one would ever lie about being sexually victimised. In favour of the latter interpretation are silly slogans like “believe all women” (I don’t believe all of any group). These make sense only if you think everyone is determined to do everything they can to present themselves as a winner at life, and so will never make false complaints. That was always a silly assumption. But now that loser status comes with major perks, it’s hugely dangerous.

My third example is a personal one. I’ve occasionally been asked in interviews how it feels to attract the sort of vitriol I experience—to be called a Nazi, a genocidaire and so on. I answer honestly: I don’t go looking for the abuse (I mute liberally on Twitter and long ago restricted my notifications and DMs to mutual follows); and when I do come across it, it doesn’t bother me, because when I think extremely poorly of someone, I don’t care what they think of me. (And I absolutely despise people who make light of the horrors of Nazism by comparing it to noticing that biological sex is binary, immutable and consequential.)

But that’s not what interviewers want to hear. They want me to emote about how horrific it is to be abused the way I am, and how awful I feel. And I guess some people in my situation would feel awful, quite reasonably. If I’d been bullied as a child or had poor mental health, then I probably would too. But I think it’s better, as in morally praiseworthy, to harden yourself against this sort of bile, if you possibly can. And I’m lucky enough to be able to.

The sensible point those interviewers are driving at is that the people abusing me are doing something wrong and awful. They think that describing the horrific impact is how they will get that point across to readers. Unfortunately, I think it’s also what the abusers want. The only possible reasons people can have for vilifying me are that they genuinely think I’m as bad as Hitler, or that they’re lying bullies. Either way, I think they’d be delighted to be told that they got to me, and disappointed to hear that they haven’t.

And so I think that expressing my lack of concern will, in the long run, help reduce the attacks on me and on others in similar situations. But I’m also aware that I’m passing up the opportunity to gain status within victimhood culture. This is a truly dreadful dynamic—one which encourages bullying by rewarding its victims for giving the bullies the response they want, and discourages the most emotionally healthy response to it, namely robust disdain.

Subscribe to Helen Joyce

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.