Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Returns to Victimization

One of the most attractive strategies for some pressure groups in the Western world is to achieve status as an Officially Certified Victim (OCV) class. The culture wars are especially prone to this sort of thing. In the quarrel over how to teach biology I have heard many highly educated people I know talk about a rampaging culture of anti-intellectualism, even though the number of jurisdictions where Darwin is subject to skeptical scrutiny is minuscule, with those who support exposing students to such skepticism often losing their seats at the next election. Secularists are fond of depicting themselves as brave "freethinkers" over whom the ignorami run riot with their hostility to truth, science and the American Way. On the other hand, evangelical comic Brad Stine once told The New York Times that "Christians are totally marginalized on television, unless it's a serial killer."

I suspect that the source of this tactic is the increasing rewards to the rest of society perceiving your group as a victim, and that those rewards in turn stem from the massive increase in government, in combination with the increasing skepticism of the merits of Western society in general and American society in particular. The origins of the victimization template and the incentives it provides in the U.S. are easy to understand, because once upon a time there were genuine victims, particularly Southern blacks who in 1965 emerged from roughly 70 years of crippling oppression deriving from white racists having seized control of Southern state governments after Reconstruction and then imposing laws prohibiting interracial commerce.

But efforts to redress this undeniable burden through Big Government – a massive edifice of antidiscrimination laws and enforcement agencies, explicit and later tacit racial quotas – and pressure on private firms to “diversify” their lending, contracting and so on were a bad prescription resulting from misdiagnosis of the problem, which was simply unequal access to education and bans on integrated businesses. And this misdiagnosis has given people a stake in maintaining OCV status, long after the historical circumstances generating the group’s handicaps have ended. Since the EEOC’s powers were substantially expanded in the early 1970s, anti-discrimination lawsuits have increased far more rapidly than the portion of the labor force consisting of those other than white males, even though the most casual perusal of interracial marriage rates, neighborhood tribal diversity and so on makes it clear that racism is a far smaller problem now than in 1965. We thus move from the problem being "racism" as we have always understood that term to being something called "institutional racism," whose elimination has no firm markers to guide us. We have no measures, in other words, for the extent of institutional racism, and thus no way to decide that it has been solved and government efforts to redress it may correspondingly cease.

The rewards to being an OCV also meant tha the oppressed-minority model generated new OCVs, as first "Latinos" (artificial though they were), women and "Asians" eventually had to share the victimization stage with Christians, atheists, Muslims, and Jews, with each demographic subset having pressure groups arguing that they are oppressed by some different conception of Everyone Else.

That governments in the West can now subsidize groups claiming to speak on behalf of OCVs, or can make legal changes increasing the return to being an OCV, has raised the incentive to be so certified. And that attitude has come to dominate all sorts of political pressure, whether imposed on the government or the private sector. The more you can depict your group as the victims of the dominant culture, the greater the reward you are likely to negotiate. An interesting offshoot of this basic approach is the oppressed-majority template. When your group is clearly a large one, and hence the notion that you are a besieged minority is a tough sell, you might depict it as struggling against a minority that has siezed control of the most dominant influences in society – the media, the academy, the entertainment industry and so on.

The returns to victimization are even greater when the ideology of skepticism about the merits of one’s own culture is an important presence in the marketplace of ideas. This then leads decision-makers to force the opponents of OCV certification to fight a presumption of victimization. Minorities, ironically, will ultimately be more successful at playing the OCV game than majorities. The reason is one of free-riding. It is well-known in public-choice theory that small groups tend to get many more benefits per capita than large ones, because the former are better at controlling free-riding. And so this is perhaps why majority groups (in the U.S., “whites” or Christians) so often resort to the oppressed-majority argument. Whether you perceive yourself as an oppressed majority or an oppressed minority, the adjective is much more important than the noun. An implication of this approach would be that even non-tribal pressure groups – those based on ideology, for example – will more and more adopt the victimization approach as they organize political pressure. Another would be that the bigger government redistribution gets, the more important the OCV becomes in Western political debate. That it has become so attractive to paint gaps in the achievements of demographic subsets of the population as best remedied by equalizing outcomes rather than improving opportunities for trade for those subsets will ultimately be seen as a costly but lengthy diversion.


Blogger nross said...

What is wrong with the government? It seems only logical to me that forcing guidlines based on race or gender will create more seperation and more clearly defined differences rather than the desired outcome of equality among all groups causing friction from the majority.

3:46 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

I agree. Left to their own devices, in commerce (where people are red, white, black and brown but the money is all green), in marriage and elsewhere, people can overcome tribe. But when they are constantly told by the state that tribe is responsible for the world around them, they naturally emphasize it much more than they should.

11:04 AM  

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