Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

War on Christmas

The allure of victimhood, even during the holiday season.

Ours is an era fraught with urgent social problems. Take, for example, acronym/abbreviation* abuse. We live in a society in which people feel free to toss around phrases like "ATM Machine" and "PIN Number," which, of course, translate into "Automated Teller Machine Machine" and "Personal Identification Number Number." And don't get me started on misguided pluralizations like "RBIs" and "POWs"...

That's why it's such a relief to find out that at least one of the truly pressing crises of our time appears to be on the road to resolution. According to recent reports, the "War on Christmas" may be in its final throes, and contrary to the fears of many, Christmas is winning.

In fact, one of the groups that has lobbied most vocally on this issue, the American Family Association, faced a challenge this year even finding a Public Retail Enemy #1 to boycott. Indeed, only 8 stores remain on their 2010 "Companies against Christmas" list, headed by Dick's Sporting Goods. And what was Dick's heinous crime? An on-line collection referred to generically as the "Holiday Shop," which failed to make use of Christmas-specific nomenclature.

Oh, wait a minute... scratch that... Dick's has announced that as of November 28th, they'll be rolling out their "Christmas 2010" advertising campaign. And already today, on their official website, the "Holiday Store" is no more.

Phew. Boycott averted. Make that just 7 stores left to raise arms together in the increasingly lonely offensive being mounted against all that is righteous and good.

The psychology underlying belief in this so-called "War on Christmas" is an interesting one. After all, even a few years ago when there were still dozens of retailers on the AFA's naughty list, the United States remained a country in which more than 10% of the calendar year is marked by the ubiquity of Christmas music on the radio airwaves, Santa at the shopping mall, and Christmas decorations in every town center.

I mean, it's not even Thanksgiving, and yet last weekend as I waited in line at a crowded Barnes & Noble, my fellow customers and I passed the time listening to piped in Christmas carols and looking at Christmas-tree-adorned gift cards. And to think, all of this at one of the AFA's remaining anti-Christmas villains! Apparently, it takes something on the order of a mid-November manger scene to stay out of the AFA's crosshairs.

Taking a step back, this whole notion of the "War on Christmas" reflects an interesting psychology underlying victimhood. Ever notice that people get pretty territorial when it comes to their own group's role as victims? I've heard many Jews bristle at the application of the term "Holocaust" to other examples of genocide. Same goes for the resistance of some African-Americans to recognize, say, the current same-sex marriage movement as a matter of civil rights. It seems that we often view victimization as a zero-sum game: more for you means less for me.

Now keep in mind, I'm not equating feelings about genocide, slavery, or institutionalized racism to the Christmas debate. But these examples certainly illustrate how defensive we can be when thinking about our own group's misfortunes. And in recent years, we've reached the point where the traditionally empowered majority wants to stake its claim to a piece of this victimhood pie as well.  Woe is me, just as much as it is you, the argument seems to go.

Whether due to the election of a person of color to White House, the imminent demographic projections of a United States with more non-White than White residents, or any of a range of other cultural factors, even the White Christian American majority has become more vocal in its claims to be the target of bias (or "reverse racism" as you often hear it called). In fact, in recent survey data, Harvard Business School psychologist Michael Norton and I have found that substantial numbers of White Americans now believe that anti-White bias is a bigger societal problem in the U.S. than anti-Black bias.

This all ties into to the origins of the "War on Christmas" idea. It's an effort–this time employed by factions of the majority group–to say, hey, you may think you've got problems, but so do we! By claiming victim status, we not only draw attention to our priorities and preferences, but we also give ourselves a ready-made excuse the next time we want to oppose or refute a claim of bias by other groups. As in, tough luck; we all get the short end of the stick sometimes, so deal with it.

Sure, in previous years some companies went overboard in their efforts at inclusion: I mean, really, why call it a holiday tree when we all know it's a Christmas tree? But still, what is there about a generic "Happy Holidays" that could possibly offend anyone? Or would, in any way, infringe upon people's ability to enjoy Christmas? In the past few years, have there really been that many conversations ending with, "Kids, I'm sorry to say we can't have Christmas this year–the grocery store receipt only says Wishing You a Happy Holiday Season"?

Of course not. Freedom of religion or the right to celebrate as you see fit have never been the issues here. After all, for years my family (and millions of others who don't celebrate Christmas) have had perfectly joyous celebrations of our own winter holidays without having the names of those occasions spelled out for us in store mailers, billboards, and websites.

You see, if this movement were really about restoring the importance and meaning of Christmas, then who in their right minds would ever couch it in the parlance of religious "war"? Nothing like a good military allusion to conjure up the true spirit of Christmas, right?

No, the "War on Christmas" has never been about religious freedom, individual rights, or even the supposed scourge of political correctness. Rather, it's just an attempt to get attention, jockey for victimhood, and make sure that other groups aren't passing yours by. The ability to celebrate as you and your loved ones wish to celebrate has never been at issue–unless your family had a tradition of meeting for Midnight Mass at Dick's Sporting Goods.

And this year, even that might be back on the negotiating table.

 

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Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

 

* Hats off to D. Barch for the quick abbreviation/acronym tutorial.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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