Tuesday, November 29th | 5 Kislev 5783

May 9, 2017 11:37 am

Campus Wars and the ‘Culture of Dignity’

avatar by Jon Haber


An “apartheid wall” at Columbia University. Photo: Columbia SJP / Facebook.

Among those covering or participating in the fight against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses, I’ve always been one of the least enthusiastic about turning to college administrators to solve the problems that 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 much time to these problems 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 Students for Justice in Palestine and similar groups 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.

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Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on which issue you’re exploring), protests on campuses in recent years involving “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” (which have now turned into full-scale protests, many involving violence) provided some thoughtful people the chance to explain these phenomena in ways that might shed light on the predicament of pro-Israel students in higher education institutions.

An extraordinary paper titled Microaggression and Moral Culture — written by sociology professors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — sheds important light on the subject by looking at today’s campus unrest through the lens of a changing moral culture.

In the beginning of human societies, according to the authors, 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 within the society — lawmaker and subject alike — agree to follow the rules.

Such agreement can be obtained solely through coercion. But a 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 toward authority like the police or courts without feeling shame at having done so.

The clash between these two cultures comes up frequently in campus 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 “Nakba” 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.

Part I of  a series.

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