A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties.
This definition and a theory of the evolution of such a culture are set out in a 2014 article by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning (reference below) and summarized in detail by Jonathan Haidt (reference below).
Campbell and Manning (p. 715) write that in a victimhood culture:
“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. … 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 because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”
The culture of victimhood is contrasted with the “culture of dignity” that succeeded the “culture of honour” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As summarized by Haidt (for page references and sources cited in the original, see Haidt reference below):
“Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them. … In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. … Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights.
“The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others. … Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor. … When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem. … Failing this, or if the offense is sufficiently severe, people are to go to the police or appeal to the courts. Unlike the honorable, the dignified approve of appeals to third parties and condemn those who “take the law into their own hands.” … The ideal in dignity cultures is thus to use the courts as quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible. The growth of law, order, and commerce in the modern world facilitated the rise of the culture of dignity, which largely supplanted the culture of honor among the middle and upper classes of the West…. But the rise of microaggression complaints suggests a new direction in the evolution of moral culture.
Campbell and Manning conclude (p. 718) that:
“At universities and many other environments within modern America and, increasingly, other Western nations, the clash between dignity and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion: One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound. And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable authority. In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly minor, but in this context even minor offenses – or perceived offenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic. Add to this mix modern communication technologies that make it easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the rise of a victimhood culture.”
Lionel Shriver (2016), Will the Left Survive the Millennials? New York Times, 23 September 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html, accessed 24 September 2016.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied (2016), As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her, The Guardian, 10 September 2016, at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her, accessed 24 September 2016.
Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning (2014), Microaggression and Moral Cultures, Comparative Sociology, Vol.13, No.6, pp.692-726. PDF available at Academia.edu at https://www.academia.edu/10541921/Microaggression_and_Moral_Cultures.
Jonathan Haidt (2016). Victimhood culture explains what is happening at Emory, The Heterodox Academy, 26 March 2016, at http://heterodoxacademy.org/2016/03/26/victimhood-culture-at-emory/, accessed 16 April 2016.
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Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 26 December 2016.
Image: Guardian cartoon for Jonathan Haidt and Nick Halsam (2016), Campuses are places for open minds – not where debate is closed down, The Guardian, 10 April 2016, at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/10/students-censorship-safe-places-platforming-free-speech, accessed 16 April 2016.