Why do woke activists complain about trivial things?

On 30 May, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Hospital Medicine posted a tweet apologising for having published an article that used the word ‘tribalism’ to refer to disciplinary silos in medicine. A few weeks earlier, the journal’s Twitter account had posted a tweet linking to the article, which said, “#tribalism between specialties can get in the way of getting the job done”. That tweet (now deleted) attracted various irate responses from people who consider ‘tribalism’ to be a racist term. For example, one stated:

A team of non-Indigenous people is not a "tribe". Factionalism among non-Indigenous people is not "tribalism". To use this phrasing disappears actual, living #Indigenous people and cultures, and promotes #racist stereotypes. You can do better, so #DoBetter.

Another stated:

Incredibly harmful in a *medical* context, where tribal peoples are subjected to all varieties of medical trauma when they attempt to secure treatment, due to the white supremacy inherent … within institutions that don't even have the self-reflection skills to recognise that they're perpetuating white supremacy in the system.

Seven hours after posting the original tweet, the journal had already issued an apology. “We want to apologise”, it said. “We used insensitive language that may be hurtful to Indigenous Americans & others. We are learning & committed to doing better. We will retract the article & republish w/ appropriate language, & issue an editorial soon w/ our reflections & lessons learned.” Approximately one month later, the Editor-in-Chief’s own apology came, along with a link to an expurgated version of the relevant article.

Unsurprisingly, the Editor-in-Chief’s tweet was subjected to a hefty ratio – this time from people flabbergasted by his capitulation. One of the replies to his tweet (which also got ratioed) was from a member of the journal’s editorial board. This individual noted:

We know our authors never intended to be hurtful. But that’s a big piece of the teachable moment on microaggressions—intent does not matter nor should it be a part of the response … All it should say: 1. I was wrong. 2. I am sorry. 3. I will do better. 4. Here is how.

There are many other examples of institutions capitulating after activists complained about something utterly trivial. Last year, Professor Greg Patton was giving an online seminar about the use of pause or filler words (like ‘umm’ and ‘err’). He said, “so in China it might be ‘nega, nega, nega, nega.’” However, because ‘nega’ sounds similar to a racial slur, a group of students complained. In a letter to the dean, they described Patton’s use of the term as “hurtful,” adding, “We should not be made to fight for our sense of peace and mental well-being.” Patton was then suspended from teaching the course.

Earlier this year, two Georgetown University law professors were having a private conversation about students’ grades after an online class. However, unbeknownst to them, the video system was still recording. Professor Sellers said, “You know what? I hate to say this. I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are blacks.” Professor Baston nodded in agreement. When the footage got out, the Black Law Students Association wrote an open letter denouncing the two involved. They called for “nothing short of the immediate termination of Professor Sandra Sellers”, as well as a public apology from Batson for “his failure to adequately condemn Sellers’ statements”. The law school’s dean described the footage as “abhorrent”, and both professors ended up resigning.

So why do activists complain about such trivial things – someone using ‘tribalism’ in an academic paper; someone pronouncing a word that sounds like a racial slur; someone nodding in agreement during a private conversation? One obvious reason is that signalling one’s victimhood can be an effective way to manipulate and exert power over others. As Cory Clark notes, we evolved to empathise with the suffering of others, which leaves us open to being exploited by those who would feign suffering to advance their own interests.

In a recent paper, Ekin Ok and colleagues shed light on this phenomenon through a series of studies. They constructed a 10-item scale to measure victimhood signalling. Each item required respondents to say how often they disclose information relating to a particular kind of victimhood (e.g., “Explained how I don’t feel accepted in the society because of my identity”, “Expressed how people like me are underrepresented in the media and leadership”). The authors found that this scale was positively correlated with the Dark Triad personality traits, meaning that individuals who engage in victimhood signalling tend to score higher on narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. They also found that such individuals were more willing to purchase counterfeit shoes, and more likely to cheat in a coin-flip game.

It seems very plausible that people who make frenzied complaints about things like the use of ‘tribalism’ in an academic paper would tend to have Machiavellian personalities. Such individuals presumably enjoy watching others do their bidding; they may get a rush when someone in a position of authority issues a grovelling apology at their behest. However, I suspect there’s slightly more to it than that.

Complaints about trivial things seem to be particularly common at universities and in academia. This may be because those environments attract people with Machiavellian personalities, but it is more plausibly due to the overwhelming left-wing skew of the administration and professoriate. People with left-wing views tend to see the world through the lens of victimisation and oppression. In any conflict, they are most likely to side with the perceived victim. (This is in contrast to conservatives, for whom the pertinent lens is civilisation versus barbarism; and libertarians, for whom it is freedom versus coercion.)

As a result, vexatious complaints made in academic settings tend to be get a more sympathetic hearing than those made in settings where there is slightly more political diversity. But this is only true if the complainers speak in what Arnold Kling calls the “progressive language of politics” – if they refer to “marginalised groups”, or invoke any of the “isms” or “phobias” with which we’re now all so familiar. In fact, research shows that progressives often treat people unequally on the basis of group membership – that is, they tend to favour marginalised groups – whereas conservatives treat people more-or-less the same.

Many complaints over trivial things probably are motivated by the desire to exert power over others. And a few must be motivated by genuine feelings of distress on the part of the complainers. (As Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff note in The Coddling of the American Mind, there has been a trend towards safetyism in American society over the past few decades. This has deprived children of the experiences needed to develop emotional resilience, leaving them less able to deal with events that challenge their beliefs or convictions.) But I suspect there’s a third motivation, which is especially important in academic settings.

I bet that a lot of complainers just want to feel like they’ve accomplished something. Academia is notoriously competitive (partly, as Sayre's law states, “because the stakes are so low”). At the undergraduate level, students who may have been near the top of their high school class are thrust into an environment where everyone is smart, and suddenly they’re just another student trying to scrape by. This leads some of them to develop feelings of inadequacy (a problem that is exacerbated by affirmative action).

Then at the postgraduate level, individuals who’ve spent six years working nights and weekends to complete their dissertation find that it’s virtually impossible to get a job, because there are too many PhDs chasing too few positions. (As Noah Smith points out, the oversupply of PhDs is particularly acute in the humanities, which is indeed where the vast majority of woke activists are recruited.) Note in this context that ‘academic’ is in fact one of the most desired occupations, which makes the frustration of not landing a job all the more disheartening. And if one does land a job, it’s likely to be a temporary or adjunct position with long hours and little job security.

What’s more, being a successful scholar is hard. Getting good grades is no easy feat when there are dozens of other smart kids around. And coming up with interesting ideas to write papers about, let alone getting them published, is more challenging still. As a result, some people look for any opportunity to make a “contribution”. If they can’t bag an A grade or publish in a top journal, then at least they can help move things a little bit further toward “social justice”. And if that means denouncing a journal for publishing an article that featured the word ‘tribalism’, then so be it.

We all get a sense of satisfaction from having accomplished something – whether that’s asking an insightful question in a seminar, or winning a Nobel prize for a scientific discovery. However, not all of us accomplish the same amount. In any domain of human endeavour, the distribution of success tends to be very uneven: some people hoover up all the awards, while others languish in mediocrity. In academia, we know that the distribution of citations is extremely skewed, such that in some disciplines the median paper is cited only once or not at all. (I’m sorry that no-one read your treatise on ‘Textual situationism and neocapitalist rationalism’).

Under these circumstances, the best way for someone who hasn’t achieved very much to feel like they’ve achieved at least something is to complain. “Others might have good grades, impressive journal publications or tenure-track positions, but me – I stood up to white supremacy by calling out problematic language. And in the process, I helped to educate my colleagues about the importance of inclusivity.”

Recent years have witnessed many cases of activists complaining about things that just a few years before would have been seen as entirely unexceptionable. (If you’d complained about a Chinese word sounding like a racial slur in – I don’t know – the year 2000, people would have assumed you were engaging in a practical joke.) There are several possible reasons why activists issue such complaints: they might wish to manipulate or exert power over others; alternatively, they might have experienced genuine distress over the alleged infraction. One additional and perhaps under-appreciated reason is that complaining – especially if one’s complaints find a sympathetic ear – qualifies as an accomplishment.

Image: Georgetown above Key Bridge, 2008

Academia in the Current Year

The philosopher Michael Robillard has written a highly entertaining essay on why he left academia. Here’s an excerpt:

… academics on the left now make their arguments primarily by means of social pressure and stigmatization, intimidation, group struggle sessions, virtue signaling, and online reputational assassination … such folks often do so having fully convinced themselves that they are somehow oppressed victims, scrappy underdogs ‘speaking truth to power’ against impossible odds as part of some revolutionary underground resistance movement

The Oriel College boycott

I wrote a short piece for UnHerd about the boycott of Oriel College, Oxford. Here’s an excerpt:

On Wednesday, The Telegraph reported that more than 150 Oxford dons are boycotting Oriel College as a protest against its decision to keep the statue of Cecil Rhodes. The academics say that “until Oriel makes a credible public commitment to remove the statue”, they will refuse to teach Oriel undergraduates, refuse to assist the college in its outreach work, and refuse to attend lectures sponsored by the college.

Lockdown Sceptics

I’ve written five more short posts since last time. The first notes that deaths in England and Wales have been below the five-year average for 11 of the past 12 weeks. The second notes that excess deaths have been running much lower than official COVID-19 deaths in Europe. The third summarises a study finding that keeping schools open had only a minor impact on the spread of COVID-19 in Sweden. The fourth summarises a study finding that night curfew may have increased the spread of COVID-19 in Greece. The fifth reviews evidence that school closures have hampered students’ learning.

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