The Rise of Victimhood Culture

A recent scholarly paper on “microaggressions” uses them to chart the ascendance of a new moral code in American life.

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It isn’t honor culture.

“Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response,” scholars write. “But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor.”

But neither is it dignity culture:

“Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”

The culture on display now, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”

It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”

Victimhood cultures emerge in settings that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized our towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions. Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood … the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.

Microaggressions
Victim-hood culture arose because of the rise of social conditions conducive to it and if it prevails it will be because those conditions have prevailed.”  

Those social conditions include the following:

  • Self-help in the form of dueling or fighting is not an option.

  • “The availability of social superiors—especially hierarchical superiors such as legal or private administrators—is conducive to reliance on third parties.”

  • Campaigns aimed at winning over the support of third parties are likeliest to occur in atomized environments, like college campuses, where one cannot rely on members of a family, tribe or clan to automatically take one’s side in a dispute.

  • Since third-parties are likeliest to intervene in disputes that they regard as relatively serious, and disputes where one group is perceived as dominating another are considered serious by virtue of their aggregate relevance to millions of people, victimhood culture is likeliest to arise in settings where there is some diversity and inequality, but whose members are almost equal, since “a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.”

This interesting theory offers a lot of fodder for reflection––indeed, it is broader in scope and more nuanced in its particulars than I’ve been able to convey in this article, and interested readers should read Jonathan Haidt’s treatment for more details.

As I ponder microaggressions as a form of social control in which the aggrieved collect and publicize accounts of intercollective offenses, making the case that relatively minor slights are part of a larger pattern of injustice and that those who suffer them are socially marginalized and deserving of sympathy,” I certainly see their emergence on college campuses, but I wonder about other possible iterations.

For example, the emergence of “the blogosphere” in the early aughts was rife with examples of conservative, progressive, and libertarian bloggers calling attention to minor slights against their respective ideological groups by mainstream media outlets. The aggrieved seized on these slights, often exaggerating them in the process; tried to garner the support of third parties (an ombudsman, the public at large); cast themselves as victims of unfair treatment; and demonized adversaries.

They did so in hopes of making the case that the small slight that they’d seized upon was actually evidence of a larger, significant injustice to a whole class of people.

In the mid-aughts, many restrictionists—many of them working class whites in the Inland Empire—would say that they resented “having to dial one for English” on automated phone lines, or having to hear Spanish spoken while in line at the grocery store. They, too, were emphasizing small slights in hopes of casting themselves as victims while appealing to third parties, like politicians they were lobbying.

 

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