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The Rise of Victimhood Culture (detail of book cover)

Honor, Dignity, Victim
A Tale of Three Moral Cultures

Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have produced the first systematic theoretical analysis of the moral culture of “victimhood” emerging on university campuses. Central to their interesting and thought-provoking investigation is the claim that moral cultures tend to take one of three forms: honor cultures, dignity cultures and victim cultures.

Honor cultures emerge when a centralized state authority is not present or not legitimate and when people are extremely materially vulnerable. Under these conditions, people will take offense very easily, grow quickly fearful, and engage in higher rates of defensive, pre-emptive aggression as well as vigilante justice in order to settle their disputes. In the worst-case scenario, this pre-emptive aggression can develop into bloody feuds enveloping whole families, gangs or lineages. Physical bravery, deferential respect to the powerful and an unwillingness to appear weak and vulnerable consequently become paramount values.

Citing Steven Pinker, Donald Black, and others,1 Campbell and Manning then suggest that slowly over the last 500 years, state authority (police, courts and jails) has come to supplant vigilante justice as a powerful and reasonably fair system of adjudicating disputes regardless of their severity. Societies over the last 500 years have not only become more reliant on state authority to resolve disputes, but also materially wealthier due to machine technology and market economies, relatively more equitable in terms of the distribution of resources, power and prestige, as well as more diverse due to the formal legal rights and benefits extended to women and minorities.

In a dignity culture, people in this more modern form of society may resort to legal authority when disputes and wrongdoings are sufficiently severe, but otherwise they will make efforts to privately resolve disputes in a non-violent manner. In such a society, all citizens are assumed to have a sense of dignity and self-restraint, and everyone is expected to, at least at first, give the benefit of the doubt to a disputant to see if a conflict can be resolved peacefully. However, Campbell and Manning contend that when state authority begins to exert monopolizing control over a population of increasingly diverse, legally “equal” people, a victim culture may emerge.

Victim cultures share in common with honor cultures the sensitivity to slights or insults, but whereas those in an honor culture might try to retaliate (physically or otherwise), people in a victim culture will instead appeal to a powerful, omnipresent state/legal authority. Classic examples are Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia. In contrast to honor cultures that expect victims to be strong and stern enough to defend themselves, and dignity cultures that expect victims to be calm and charitable when in a dispute or disagreement, victim cultures emphasize how complainants are emotionally or physically fragile, vulnerable, and weak. In order to have high status in a victim culture, one must perfect and dramatize a personal “narrative of suffering.”2 Confidently espousing one’s own weakness, frailty, and suffering might seem, perhaps, dishonorable or shameful from an honor culture perspective, or gratuitous and self-absorbed from a dignity culture perspective.

Campbell and Manning find this victim culture emerging anew in Western society, particularly on university campuses and especially on elite ivy-league schools. These places contain all of the components necessary for a victim culture to arise: (1) campuses tend to be racially/ethnically diverse (relative to other institutions in society), (2) an ethic of equal treatment under a shared identity (“student”) is emphasized, (3) students tend to come from relatively comfortable middle-class backgrounds, and (4) universities are largely run by powerful administrative bureaucracies prone to stretching their authority (in the form of Title IX offices, student conduct offices, or multicultural/diversity offices, for example). These administrative bureaucracies serve as “state”-like authorities on university campuses, justifying their existence through the allegedly necessary enforcement of speech codes, dress codes, sex codes, etc. And, indeed, this administrative bureaucracy grows larger by the year—over the last half decade or so, faculty and student enrollment has increased by about 50 percent, while administrative staff has increased a staggering 240 percent.3

Victim Culture’s Discontents

As sociologists, Campbell and Manning are interested not only in the correlates and structure of “victim culture,” but also in the consequences of the spread of this culture’s influence. They point out early in the first chapter that seeking out offense in order to complain to third parties and garner support was actually, up until recently, considered a distinctly unusual and non-normative way to handle minor frustrations. For adults, the authors argue, mainstream modern American society has expected a degree of thick skin, restraint, and a willingness to charitably interpret the intentions of others (dignity culture).

By contrast, contemporary victim culture narratives assert that institutions in the West are cesspools of white supremacist, patriarchal, transphobic, exploitive oppression, and therefore anyone who is perceived to be “in power” (the usual culprit is heterosexual white males) must therefore be benefitting from or perpetuating systems of heterosexist white supremacist misogynist fascism. But here is the twist: anyone who takes offense or considers themselves “harmed” in some way by those in power, and who is bold enough to complain to authorities about it, is therefore a messenger of emancipatory justice. As Campbell and Manning explain the process: “People identified as victims thus receive recognition, support, and protection. In these settings victimhood becomes increasingly attractive” (106). To take offense ever more easily is to demonstrate a righteous eagerness to vanquish evil.

As a result, according to Campbell and Manning, people in victim cultures engage in competitive victimhood displays. They will relay true, semi-true, and sometimes completely fabricated “atrocity stories,” about how people and institutions (whites, men, media, government, family, education and so on) in Western society are so brutally bigoted that they must be destroyed or re-made. These extraordinary, comprehensively hopeless claims easily invite extremism, and as the fervor boils over, it becomes difficult to “distinguish between rumors and realities.” And given the urgent implications of living in a sexist, racist, fascist society, “no one is interested in this distinction” (10).

Campbell and Manning argue that victim cultures produce “crybullies” who find ever-more subtle ways to become offended and morally outraged. The more seemingly innocuous the behavior, the more important it is for crybullies to be offended by it—being offended by extremely minor behaviors or words demonstrates how “educated,” “insightful,” or “woke” one is to hetero-sexist patriarchal white supremacy. The more easily offended a person can get, the more knowledgeable they must be about oppression and bigotry. And if a member of a victim culture is not the one who found offense at something but instead simply wants to foment outrage, they can engage in what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt call “vindictive protectiveness.”4

Vindictive protectiveness involves supporting the complainant (no “evidence” needed because it is axiomatic that the West is brutally oppressive) with encouragement and resources, while attempting to take the job or tarnish the reputation of the accused person. If the accused is disgraced, their reputation destroyed, and their job lost, the offended person has won a great victory against Western oppression. Of course, this vindictive protectiveness and competitive victimhood quickly turns into a “purity spiral” where members of victim cultures accuse one another of being racist, sexist, transphobic bigots in order to appear even more victimized or vulnerable and therefore more deserving of support and resources than their peers.

Following Jonathan Haidt’s work on the topic, Campbell and Manning point out that victim cultures may produce higher rates of mental illness by encouraging members to magnify negative interpretations of social encounters, assume sinister intent in others, and by labeling entire groups of people such as whites or males as white supremacist or toxically masculine. Victim cultures confer status based on how hostile, paranoid, and cynical members are capable of being. In this way, victim cultures might initiate mental illness symptomology, or exacerbate underlying depressive and anxiety disorders.5

Victim Culture’s Future

Campbell and Manning find that victim culture is relatively less common among poor women and minorities; indeed, the most prominent bastions of victim culture are elite university campuses such as Oberlin, Brown, Yale, Claremont McKenna, or Occidental College. They note that, for example, the median family income at Middlebury College, where student protestors recently shut down a speaker they deemed a racist, sexist, anti-gay fascist, is $240,000, almost five times as much as the average US family. On this account, middle and upper-middle class women and minorities, with their own aspirations to elite positions, might be using claims of victimization to garner legal/bureaucratic support and resources in an attempt to secure a valuable advantage over the wealthy white males they see as dominating positions of power.

Much victim culture, as a result, is not so much a critique of oppression and bigotry as it is a critique of white men and a valorization of those who are not white men. In support of such a contention, Campbell and Manning cite instances of victim culture members insisting that only whites can be racist (minorities can never be racist because they are not in power), only men can be sexist (women can’t be sexist, as their existence is a constant struggle for survival against male violence and exploitation), and that the oppressed cannot act unlawfully (because the oppressed are merely seeking protection and safety). Campbell and Manning provide a mountain of interesting examples, such as the UC Berkeley assistant professor of education who argued that whiteness is intrinsically violent, or the Oklahoma high school teacher who said that “To be white is to be racist, period” (90).

These kinds of direct attacks on whites, males, and anyone else deemed privileged or powerful spark a process that Campbell and Manning refer to as “opposition leading to imitation.” Attacking whites or males for the sin of being white or male produces a backlash of identity politics whereby white nationalists and truly misogynistic groups join forces in combating perceived threats to their identity. As a consequence, people on the political Right begin mimicking the victim culture of their adversaries, claiming that being white or male is now a victimized identity in need of rallied support.

Once whites, males, and anyone else perceived to have power comes to see themselves as being victimized by social justice warriors they become motivated to investigate the veracity of victim culture ideology. The fact that, for example, people categorized as “Asian” in the US Census actually have higher per capita incomes than Whites, undermines the notion that whites uniformly benefit from a “white privilege” rooted in the oppression of minorities. When victim culture’s narrative of suffering becomes so ideological that it begins to reveal itself as inaccurate, more reasonable and legitimate claims of discrimination and inequality might be doubted or ignored. In this way, victim culture can become so enamored with its own suffering that its clearly gratuitous demonization of groups perceived as powerful leads normal people to be unduly skeptical of actual, legitimate claims of inequality and abuses of power.

Consequently, Campbell and Manning do not have a terribly optimistic view of the future. They remark that, “the vilification of whites and males might lead to greater support for those who champion the superiority of these groups,” and that “it is likely that the influence of white identity politics is beginning to grow and will continue to gain in popularity as victimhood expands” (159). And, expand it will. Due to victim culture being more common at prestigious private and Ivy League universities, students indoctrinated into victim cultures are likely to join and shape the occupations they eventually enter, including influential jobs in media, medicine, law, and politics. Also, in a very incisive point, Campbell and Manning note that upwardly mobile young parents who want their children to go to good universities might feel pressured to adopt the values of victim culture. Such widespread adoption of victim culture by parents hoping to assimilate their children into the middle class would further the culture’s general spread among the population.

An Important Work at an Important Time

Campbell and Manning understand that their efforts to analyze victim culture will be critiqued by members of victim cultures as racist, sexist, transphobic, and so on. They say that, while this would otherwise deter them from wading into this area of research, such accusations are actually a standard, expected reaction from members of victim cultures. Understanding this, Campbell and Manning trudge forward and continue exploring the phenomenon, fully aware that regardless of their conclusions, many will treat the very attempt at inquiry as racist, sexist, and all the rest.

Campbell and Manning are only interested in providing an honest and careful sociological account of a newly emerging moral culture. Though the book may at times seem polemical, the reality is that the subject matter is itself polemical, and Campbell and Manning do a good job of stating their scientific intent. In the first chapter, for example, they insist that their analysis, “does not imply that any particular victim sought out or enjoys whatever status victimhood conveys. It does not imply that this status outweighs other disadvantages they might have. And it does not imply that anyone’s grievances are illegitimate or that those who point out their marginality are being dishonest” (24).

The Rise of Victimhood Culture (book cover)

This book is an important addition to the sociology of morality in its documentation of the contours of a newly emerging moral culture. It is worth considering, though, whether this “victim culture” is really something new, or if it is simply the result of a new generation adopting the vexatious litigation common of Americans for at least the last 40 years. People seem to sue, or threaten to sue, everyone for everything and this behavior is very similar to the tendencies Campbell and Manning find in victim culture. Victim culture might really be just a variant of honor culture that emerges in a relatively materially comfortable, strong-state social system.

Lastly, while victim culture’s insistence on the presence of constant horrific abuses of power is over-drawn and clearly strategically exaggerated, it may still be a unique historical case of a culture ostensibly motivated to reduce abuse and inequality. By Campbell’s and Manning’s own admission, neither honor cultures nor dignity cultures are so concerned with equality and fairness. On a Nietzschean account, this empathic orientation is a result of the far Left’s increasingly secular interpretation of Christianity’s obsession with a tortured messiah. Christianity was, for Nietzsche, a “slave morality,” which regarded suffering and weakness as virtuous—such a view is typified in the Christian aphorism that the meek shall inherit the earth. Through this lens, victim culture is a secularizing strain of Christianity. This line of analysis is noticeably absent from Campbell’s and Manning’s work, though this omission is small given the otherwise careful nuance of the book. END

About the Author

Kevin McCaffree is assistant professor of sociology at Indiana-Purdue University (Ft. Wayne), where he teaches criminology and sociology of religion. His theoretical and empirical work has appeared in a diverse array of academic outlets including Journal of Drug and Alcohol Review, Handbook of Contemporary Sociological Theory, and Religion, Brain and Behavior. He is currently co-editor with Jonathan H. Turner of Evolutionary Analysis in the Social Sciences.

References
  1. Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking; Black, Donald. 2011. Moral Time. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Schwyzer, Hugo. 2006. “‘Narratives of Suffering Overcome’: Admissions Essays and a Lamentable Trend.” History News Network, November 27.
  3. Ginsberg, Benjamin. 2011. The Fall of the Faculty. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Lukianoff, George, and Jonathan Haidt. 2015. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic, 316 (2), 42–52.
  5. Lilienfeld, Scott O. 2017. “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence.” Perspectives on psychological science, 12(1), 138–169.

11 Comments

  1. 123elle says:

    I get it, Mr. McCaffree: you are really PO’ed at those immoderate adversaries of yours. Your own demographic is being pushed from hegemony across many (not all) fronts. And this will continue. But your piece skews obsessive and defensive — just what you accuse the Others of being. Your own POV gallops over every inch of this terrain.

    College students are passionate and inexperienced, for the most part. They are feeling their way toward resolution of some truly valid issues and a path forward in a fast-evolving society. Yes, they are easy to misrepresent and demonize by cherry-picking their most extreme, risible behaviors and stances. But most will moderate, with time; they will also help bring about some much-needed changes. I’m saying it will all settle out, so settle down a bit.

    • Greg Esres says:

      You could make your point without being snarky.

    • David Kalal says:

      123elle – Nicely put! I thought the snark was acceptable. Students and universities have been vilified for decades, often by casting a narrow light on the most extreme, outrageous examples and generalizing to the whole.

  2. John Bell says:

    We see this in the climate wars, it is the same thing, the rich countries are the white male oppressors, the UN is the third party, and the poor, politically corrupt countries are the “victims” who want the UN to be Robin Hood, go steal money from the USA and give it to the poor countries, taking a hefty percentage for themselves along the way. No need to make it if you can take it.

  3. Solomon Kleinsmith says:

    You left out the 4th: the vast majority of people.

  4. Barbara Harwood says:

    Most people can find something in their background that would place them in a position of minority even if it is not visible. Simply identifying with a minority is enough. By playing the race card too often, it will inevitably be trumped.

  5. reeree says:

    This is not a book review. It’s a restating of the premise of a book, and the reviewer’s agreement with it. Unfortunately, the premise is not science, and pointing to scientists such as Pinker (who has some quite unscientific reasoning in his publications), doesn’t make this a scientific analysis. I’m disappointed Skeptic would publish such review. The premise is ideologically motivated, and easy to use common garden variety logic to critique it.

  6. skeptonomist says:

    There is clearly some truth in the arguments of the book – for example some students carry their “feelings” to extremes. But how important is this “victimhood” culture overall? How much power does it have and how dangerous might it be? Things are still being controlled by same old power structure except for some rather isolated instances.

  7. Loren Petrich says:

    Whether justified or not, calling oneself a victim has been around for centuries. Consider the Christian and Muslim cult of martyrdom, people who died for their religion. Consider the US Declaration of Independence, which made it seem like Britain’s North American colonies were victims of King George III. Or numerous examples more recently.

    Most recently, at least in the US, it’s not just the left that is big on victimhood, it’s the right also. Consider Rush Limbaugh, someone who never tires of getting worked up over this bit and that of alleged liberal perfidy. During the Clinton years, he portrayed the Clintons as left-wing ogres and enemies of the American people.

    The right wing likes to talk about “responsibility”, presumably meaning that everything bad that one suffers is one’s fault and that one must meekly and quietly suffer in silence. Not something that right-wingers themselves do, it seems.

  8. js says:

    This piece is a microaggresion against me…I feel faint….someone get me a glass of cruelty-free organic llama milk and a gluten-free pasta salad quick….

  9. OldNasssau67 says:

    As a Jew, I find the notion of “white male power” risible. I wonder if white male Mormons, GLBT’s, Amish, Arab (the Shishim case), Armenian (Judge Francis Lowell, Boston, 1909), and other ostracized white group members also laugh. To the self-declared ‘minority’ victims, any group not sharing their lineage appears monolithic.

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