Culture War: Victimhood Vs. Honor and Dignity

Bradley Campbell writes insightfully at Quillette The Free Speech Crisis Is Worse than People Think  Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

A new moral culture

If you were a time traveler from 10 years ago—maybe even five years ago—you’d probably have trouble following some of that. What’s a microaggression? What’s woke? And how could a New York Times op-ed lead to that kind of uproar on campus? But if you’ve been around, and if you’ve been following the happenings on American college campuses, you’re familiar by now with conflicts like this and the new moral terminology guiding the campus activists. In the last few years we’ve seen professors such as Nicholas Christakis at Yale and Brett Weinstein at Evergreen State College surrounded by angry, cursing students, with Christakis and his wife, Erika Christakis, soon leaving their positions as the masters of one of Yale’s residential colleges and Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, leaving Evergreen entirely. We’ve heard about microaggressions, said to be small slights that over time do great harm to disadvantaged groups; trigger warnings, which some students demand before they are exposed to course material that might be disturbing; and safe spaces, where people can go to be free of ideas that challenge leftist identity politics. We’ve heard claims that speech that offends campus activists is actually violence, and we’ve seen activists use actual violence to stop it —and to defend this as self-defense—when administrators fail to do so.

These are all signs of a new moral culture. In our book The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, Jason Manning and I discuss how a new culture of victimhood differs from cultures of honor and dignity, and we discuss how the new culture threatens the mission of the university.

In honor cultures men want to appear formidable. A reputation for bravery, for being willing and capable of handling conflicts through violence, is important. In a society like the pre-Civil War American South, for example, a gentleman who allowed himself or his family members to be injured or insulted might be thought a coward, someone with no honor, and lose his social standing. To avoid this, men sometimes fought duels. In honor cultures men are sensitive even to minor slights, but they handle such offenses themselves, possibly with violence.

In dignity cultures, though, people have worth regardless of their reputations. Because an insult doesn’t take away your worth, your dignity, you can ignore others’ insults. For serious injuries you can go to the police or use the courts. In dignity cultures, then, people aren’t as sensitive to slights—they’re encouraged to have thick skins—and they’re not as likely to handle offenses themselves, certainly not violently—they’re encouraged to appeal to the proper authorities.


But the new culture of victimhood combines sensitivity to slight with appeal to authority. Those who embrace it see themselves as fighting oppression, and even minor offenses can be worthy of attention and action. Slights, insults, and sometimes even arguments or evidence might further victimize an oppressed group, and authorities must deal with them. You could call this social justice culture since those who embrace it are pursuing a vision of social justice. But we call it victimhood culture because being recognized as a victim of oppression now confers a kind of moral status, in much the same way that being recognized for bravery did in honor cultures.

Like dignity culture, though, victimhood culture is a moral culture. Moral concerns and moral emotions inspire the campus activists. Their behaviors might appear immoral to those who don’t share their moral assumptions, but it would be a mistake to think the activists see it that way, or to think they’re in some way hypocritical or insincere. Recognizing their moral concerns helps us understand better what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt call vindictive protectiveness, whereby activists are simultaneously protective toward some people and vindictive toward others. This is not a contradiction, but rather a consequence of seeing the world through the lens of oppression. Just as in an honor culture people show respect for the honorable and disdain toward the cowardly, in a victimhood culture people have empathy for victims of oppression and wrath toward their oppressors.

The optimistic critics are right about a lot, but their optimism seems like wishful thinking. The “grievance studies” that Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian targeted are still entrenched in the universities, and those sympathetic to the fields simply dismissed the hoax as pointing to the vulnerabilities of peer review generally. Meanwhile, people come up with novel ways to undermine the norms of scholarship in the name of social justice.

grievance studies

And what about free speech and academic freedom? The recent attacks on Abrams at Sarah Lawrence College, and the initial failure of the college president to condemn them and support Abrams, are as egregious as any of the others, especially considering the actual content of his op-ed.

What about microaggressions? The term has continued to spread. Just in 2018 are some of the ways administrators have continued to fly off the rails a bit:

  • The National Science Foundation gave a grant to researchers at Iowa State University to study microaggressions in engineering programs.
  • The University of Utah placed posters of microaggression statements around campus to raise awareness.
  • At the University of Buffalo, microaggressions were the theme of the bullying prevention center’s annual conference.
  • At Harvard University’s School of Public Health, students are now asked on course evaluation forms about microaggressions. Last Spring, in 43 of the 138 courses evaluated, at least one student reported hearing “verbal or nonverbal slights/insults.” Administrators said they were investigating the seven professors whose courses received three or more such reports.

And even while activists and administrators concern themselves with possible minor slights against those they perceive as victims, they engage in or tolerate insults and hate speech directed toward those they perceive as oppressors. There was the professor who said that a white college student tortured and killed by the North Koreans for allegedly stealing a poster “got what he deserved,” and that he was just like the other “young, white, clueless, rich males” she teaches. Another professor from Rutgers wrote on Facebook, “I now hate white people.” And after a group of Stanford students put “no crackers” on their community’s residential bus, a staff member defended them, saying, “I hope we have no crackers here.”

What’s more, victimhood culture is already spreading beyond the universities, making the case for pessimism even stronger. Corporations and government agencies, even NASA, have begun doing their own microaggression training. In Multnomah County, Oregon, a recent contract between the county and the municipal workers union guaranteed that “the County and union won’t tolerate any form of ‘microaggression.’” And the Times recently hired Sarah Jeong to its editorial board despite her history of tweeting slurs against whites and men—things like “#CancelWhitePeople” and “White men are bullshit,” the kind of things that are common among campus activists but were not previously part of the mainstream. And while the Times did distance itself from the tweets, writers at Vox and other left-of-center outlets defended them. Ezra Klein, for example, said tweets like “#CancelWhitePeople” are simply calls for people to challenge the dominant power structure. And Zack Beauchamp says that “White men are bullshit” is a way of pointing out the existence of a power structure favoring white men.

Of course, the danger of pessimism is that it leads to despair, which isn’t really warranted either. For one thing, none of us have a crystal ball. The critical optimists could be right. Maybe things will turn around. Or maybe our efforts are ultimately doomed, but are helping preserve the academy for a little while longer. For all the problems with universities, they’re still doing a lot of good. The natural sciences continue on, not yet wholly captured by the identitarian Left, and as bad as the attacks on scholarship and free speech are in the social sciences and humanities, they aren’t all pervasive. The randomness of the attacks is part of the problem, making them difficult to avoid even if one tries to comply with the latest leftist orthodoxy. But the randomness also means that even the most maverick thinkers aren’t attacked as a matter of course. Part of what’s strange about the Abrams incident is that he’s been writing similar things for some time without incident. At universities all over the country, people are discussing and debating ideas — with more trepidation, perhaps, but it’s usually still possible to do so. If there’s any chance of preserving that, even temporarily, we should do so. We’re unlikely to be successful, but it makes sense to try.

As we try, though, we need to recognize what we’re up against. Misunderstanding victimhood culture has led critics of its various manifestations to underestimate its strength.  One reason victimhood culture is strong is that those who embrace it are sincere and zealous. Simply condemning them, or worse, calling them names or trying to trigger them, won’t help anything. Neither will simply ignoring them until things get out of hand, as at Sarah Lawrence University. If you want to save the academy, you’ll need to start by offering an alternative moral vision.

Bradley Campbell is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles.

In the video, Two incompatible sacred values in American universities” by Jon Haidt, Hayek Lecture Series, he addresses the sacredness of victimhood directly starting about 25 minutes into the talk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s