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In an OpenDemocracy post published today, Joerg Friedrichs (International Development, Oxford) and Ryan Berg (currently a doctoral student at Brasenose College, Oxford) argue that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford exemplifies the pernicious qualities of an emerging moral culture that honors victimhood, stifles speech, and privileges feelings over facts.

RMF protester

Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Friedrich and Berg’s analysis builds off of an important article by Bradley Campbell (Sociology, UCLA) and Jason Manning (Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia) entitled “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.” Campbell and Manning persuasively argue that we are transitioning from a dignity-based culture to an honor-based one of victimhood. By “dignity” culture they mean one that sees everyone as innately endowed with an unearned and inalienable moral worth. On this scheme, our basic moral equality is assumed, assaults on welfare and property are punished by a central authority, and insults are largely disregarded and thus comparatively rare. This regime replaced the traditional honor culture on which some people have more value than others, personal value could be easily lost through shame and insult, and riposte to offense had to be handled personally—the traditional honor culture.

Cecil Rhodes

“To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

According to Campbell and Manning, the new honor culture of victimhood combines and inverts various aspects of its predecessors. Like a traditional honor culture, victimhood culture is highly stratified and is highly sensitive to insult. However, it elevates victims and demotes non-victims, which traditional honor cultures would find bizarre. Moreover, on it offenses to dignity are properly handled by authorities, not personally, as if they were “material” attacks on person or property (hence “microaggressions” and not the more accurate micro-offenses). These appeals to authority are what makes this honor culture so dangerous to free speech and inquiry. 

For their part, Friedrichs and Berg take no stance on whether the Rhodes statue should fall. What they bemoan is the way RMF activists hijack debate with the imperative of their offense and puritanical zeal. Here’s a teaser:

While students were not that supportive, the RMF movement found resonance with the media. This was due to the fact that those campaigning associated themselves, in sometimes tenuous ways, with the victims of colonialism, racism, and other forms of vicitimisation. The movement thus exemplified the move towards offense taking and the celebration of victimhood. It hardly occurred to the campaigners that an honest dialogue about Rhodes, his highly controversial legacy, and the merits and demerits of censoring history might have been more befitting of Oxford than trying to sanitize the place from anything potentially offensive and unpleasant, such as association with an ambivalent and flawed character like Cecil Rhodes.

I encourage you to read the whole post: “Rhodes must fall: from dignity to honour Values.”