Our evolving “problem solving skills”

Is it better to get react to even the smallest offenses, or to limit your anger to those truly grievous matters? Is it better to address the issue yourself, or to outsource the problem to somebody else to deal with it for you?

Depending on how you answer these questions you may fit into either the “Honour” culture, the “Dignity” culture, or the “Victim” culture.

As the paper at this link describes, our Western moral culture has gone through three stages. First there was the “Honour” culture. Then we had the “Dignity” culture. Most recently (and the authors claim we are mid-shift on this one) we are witnessing the rise of the “Victim” culture.

In Honour cultures every minor infraction becomes grounds for a massive response. And the response is directed straight toward the person who committed (or was perceived to have committed) the minor infraction. This paradigm helps explain the ongoing conflicts in various places like the Middle East where the culture is extremely honour-based.

In Dignity cultures two major shifts occurred. First, the bar was significantly raised so that the infraction had to be pretty serious before anybody would start taking action. For the most part we just accepted a little friction as part of having to live with other people. “Water off the back,” and all that. The only time we would rise to action is if the infraction was pretty significant.

Second, because the infraction had to be significant, third-party intervention was sought. I wouldn’t get upset because my neighbour looked at me funny, but I would get upset, and simultaneously call the police, if my neighbour broke into my house.

So in Honour cultures the infractions are minor and the response is between me and the offender.

In Dignity cultures the infractions are major, and the response involves a third party.

Then came the Victim culture. With the Victim culture we get a combination of the extremely low bar associated with the Honour culture, and the appeal to third parties associated with the Dignity culture. So the slightest insensitivity is cause for action, but instead of actually dealing with the person who caused the “harm” in the first place, people will immediately present their case to some third-party.

Which begs the question, “which third party?” In Dignity cultures, the police are brought in because their particular set of skills is needed for the kinds of infractions that will prompt the Dignity culture to call them in the first place, but naturally the police don’t want to be bothered with something along the lines of “that man made an insensitive remark about my skin colour.” Of course we can still count on the police to intervene if that man breaks into your house, regardless of your skin colour or his, but if the police won’t listen to the trivial complaints of the Victim culture, who will?

As the paper describes, we have an almost limitless audience at our fingertips through websitess, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Through digital technology we can air our grievances to an audience of millions, maybe billions (if our cause goes viral). Furthermore, we can collect around us like-minded “victims” so that we can start compiling long lists of “microaggressions” so people can start grasping the breadth of the problem. One microaggression all by itself isn’t a big deal, but dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of them are cause for action!

The term “microaggression” may be new to some of you – heck, my spell checker keeps underlining it, and I double checked the spelling – so what are some examples? From the paper itself…

Saying “You are a credit to your race” or “You are so articulate” to an African American (Sue et al. 2008: 331).

Telling an Asian American that he or she speaks English well (Sue et al. 2008: 331).

Clutching one’s purse when an African American walks onto an elevator (Nadal et al. 2013: 190).

Staring at lesbians or gays expressing affection in public (Boysen 2012: 123).

Correcting a student’s use of “Indigenous” in a paper by changing it from upper- to lowercase (Flaherty 2013).

a mother … telling her son to “stop crying and acting like a little girl” (Microaggressions 2013a).

a lesbian who says, “I don’t date bisexuals. They’re never faithful” (Microaggressions 2013b).

One anonymous Hispanic student calls attention to a white teammate’s microaggressions, which included using the Spanish word “futbol.” “Keep my heritage language out of your mouth,” writes the poster, who vows never to play soccer with whites again (“Futbol, and White People” 2013).

Seriously; I’m not making this up. People are actually getting wound up about these things. With all that’s actually wrong in the world, maybe there are better ways to positively impact the world around us than griping about these kinds of trivialities.

Oops, did I let my bias show?


Here is an interesting, and recent, example. A mother with an infant son wanted to go to the spa, but was told her child could not be on the premises. According to the article,

I just looked at her shocked and she said, ‘Did you want to rebook?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And I walked out.”

Notice how her first course of action was not to ask questions, seek clarification, express her concern to management or anything like that. After all, that would be reminiscent of a Dignity culture; that would have been dignified. Instead,

After posting about her experience on social media, she heard from other mothers who had also been refused, including one woman whose 12-year-old daughter felt responsible for ruining her mother’s day.

You read that right: social media. And the CBC too, it turns out; our nation’s premier news source. The police cannot be bothered with something this trivial, but the CBC apparently can be. As the original paper describes, people in the Victim culture will forego actually dealing with the person who offended them and simply seek resolution through a third party; especially social media (and traditional media too, in this case) because the audience is larger and does not restrict themselves to only serious matters.

And, of course, she is treating this as a human rights issue. You couldn’t get a better case study than this.

Did the spa have reasonable grounds for this act of “discrimination?” I’d say so.

“There’s hot wax, there’s sharp tweezers, there’s a whole bunch of things,” she said.

“Even when you’re doing a pedicure and you clip a nail, like, nails fly. I mean, we’ve had people get nails in their eyes. You know, things happen. It’s a legit safety thing.”

Children also aren’t allowed out of consideration for other clients, who pay to have “a quiet service,” such as a facial or massage, said Jewett.

“We have dimmed lights, we have soft music playing and … I would offend our other clients if somebody had a baby up there crying, or a two-year-old running around.”

I’d wager that if this young mom had come to the spa on a different occasion without her child because she specifically wanted that “quiet service” that so many young moms crave, and if some two-year-old were tearing around the place screaming during that visit, she might just prefer a child-free facility herself. I’m just hazarding a guess here, folks.


Jonathan Haidt (who I have been reading a lot of lately, and I really like what he’s up to) has said of the victim culture on university campuses,

“This makes it impossible to teach. This makes it impossible to have an intellectual community,” … “I’m a liberal Professor and my liberal students scare me.”

We are now seeing the emergence of the a culture that melds the worst of the bloody Honour culture of yesterday with the worst of the digital natives culture of today. Unlike in bygone eras blood may not be shed, but people have been stripped of their dignity, their reputations and sometimes their careers. Real education is impossible. An intellectual community is impossible.

This can only be considered “progress” if the destination is Hell; and I’d say we are right on schedule. My suggestion? Let’s backtrack a bit and return to Dignity. It wasn’t perfect back then either, but clearly we took a wrong turn, culturally.

[And I couldn’t possibly end an article like this without another shameless plug for my book – Arguing with Friends. I think you’ll find the concepts in there sound a lot like those of the Dignity culture, though that wasn’t my frame of reference at the time.]

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