The Rise of Victimhood Culture by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning offers little in the way of novel concepts but integrates a kitchen sink full of social justice lexicon and arguments into a holistic understanding of an emerging world view. Moreover, the gestalt that emerges from the synthesis provides a novel and lucid theoretical framework for understanding academe’s current culture wars.
In expanding on their controversial 2014 Comparative Sociology article, “Microaggressions and Moral Culture”, the authors use the first two chapters to outline their thesis within the framework of the three moral cultures encompassing much of humankind. If you stopped there, you would have a reasonably complete picture of the authors’ core message but would lose the benefit of profiting from the greater richness that comes with reading the rest of the book. Furthermore, reading cover-to-cover is hardly a burden as the authors pull off the rare achievement of providing a well-sourced and rigorously argued scholarly treatise in a writing style that is truly page-turning.
For those not already familiar, an honour culture is characterised by hypersensitivity to perceived slight, an obsessive demand for respect, and a reliance on conflict resolution by self-help rather than by institutional authority (think, for example, of the Hatfields and McCoys or of duels with pistols). Honour cultures have been largely eclipsed in mainstream Western society but hang on stubbornly in certain disadvantaged groups (e.g., inner city gangs).
Dignity is at the core of today’s mainstream moral culture, characterized by the valuing of personal resilience (e.g., sticks and stones …), by giving people the benefit of the doubt, and of a commitment to non-violent conflict resolution based in dialogue and good will. Dignity culture can only thrive in societies based in the rule of law yet discourages appeals to institutional authority other than for significant breeches of the social contract or when good-will dialogue fails to settle less serious matters. Over the last five years or so, dignity culture has come under increasing attack by a rapidly expanding victimhood culture, first emerging in our universities but now starting to spill over into mainstream society.
Like honour culture, a victimhood orientation promotes extreme sensitivity to perceived slight regardless of the intent of the offense-giver and where the reality of any offense need not be discernable in any objective sense (e.g., the microaggression). However, rather than seeking remedy via individual efforts, those in victimhood cultures are encouraged to rely on institutional authority. This has resulted in the ever-increasing number of university bureaucrats with titles related to harassment, diversity, and inclusion.
Victimhood culture encourages people to report offenses, even if trivial or experienced vicariously, by mechanisms like the bias hotlines that are increasing in frequency in the university. Whereas dignity culture discourages, or even scorns, the actions of the “tattle-tell” or informer, victimhood culture tends to reward such behaviour. Furthermore, whereas dignity culture determines moral worth based on individual actions (e.g., Martin Luther King’s famous admonition to judge by character), status in victimhood culture is accrued by demographic characteristics (e.g., sex, race) denoting the level of one’s oppression.
The authors combine University of Melbourne’s Nick Haslam’s notion of concept creep with the ranking system used to determine one’s level of privilege and/or oppression to explain the logic of the victimhood rulebook. That only whites can be racist, only men can be sexist, and that words can be acts of violence (and justifiably countered by actual violence) are examples of rules that adherents to dignity culture are likely to find find mysterious or nonsensical. A more extreme, yet seriously defended, claim is that being white is, de facto, an act of violence.
Traditional scholars might wish to view certain victimhood claims as hyperbolic and directed to support a grab for political power packaged in a balloon bound to deflate if only a pin were stuck in it. Campbell and Manning argue that such a conclusion is wrong because victimhood forms the basis of a distinct moral culture where dignity principles may seem as antiquated and unreasonable as those of honour culture have come to be seen. The actions of the victimhood crowd flow normally from the foundations of their culture and they are unlikely to be persuaded by rational arguments reflecting dignity values. As such, student activists, as well as a similarly inclined and increasingly homogenous professoriate, are unreachable in terms of seeing the desirability of viewpoint diversity. The discomfiting question that arises is not how long the victimhood fad will last but rather whether there is any future at all for a dignity-oriented university.
Consider, for example, the email that Yale assistant house-master Erica Christakis sent to students encouraging the exercise of good judgement in their choice of Halloween costumes. Her comments come across as commensurate with the maturity and autonomy of young people in a dignity culture. However, to the victimhood culture, left-leaning Christakis was a villain who challenged their deeply held beliefs and who deserved, in turn, to be driven from her post. Such campus conflict, argue Campbell and Manning, is not best understood as a battle between left and right, but rather as a clash between the values of dignity and those of a rapidly expanding victimhood culture.
The Yale incident points to another seeming irony of victimhood culture. Students there, as at other elite universities where victimhood is most dominant, are very privileged and this privilege extends, relatively at least, to students identifying as members of oppressed groups. Campbell and Manning point out that victimhood culture flourishes best in societal milieus that are already generally, if not perfectly, egalitarian.
Campbell and Manning are obvious iconoclasts amongst today’s advocacy-oriented sociologists, and in Chapter 6 they take aim at the current state of their discipline. They contend that social science generally, and sociology in particular, cannot advance when the primary goal is to advance a political agenda. It is for sociologists to describe and explain the social phenomena they study, not to make judgements and proscribe how those data should be used.
Sociologists who fail to recognize this distinction compromise the integrity of their research endeavours insofar as their findings and interpretations, and even their questions, are destined to conform to the prevailing ideology. The authors do not spare my own discipline of psychology from this critique with the only difference being that psychology has not ventured quite so far down the social-justice rabbit hole. Not surprisingly, the newer identity disciplines, like Women’s Studies, are even further removed from the scholarly endeavour.
The authors point out two examples of where a burgeoning victimhood culture has resulted in side-effects that threaten the movement overall. The first of these is refered to as a purity spiral (more commonly and derisively known as the Oppression Olympics) where identity groups compete to prove that they are the most oppressed. A current salient example of this phenomenon is seen in the remarkable hostility that has grown between certain transgender activists and those to whom they derisively refer as TERFS (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). However, even if such internal conflict has resulted in cracks in solidarity within victimhood culture, there is no clear evidence that the strength of the movement overall has been compromised.
Another example involves those who were initially consigned to have no status whatsoever within victimhood culture. These are, of course, cis-gendered, straight, white males some of whom are now claiming their own victim status. These alt-right identitarians appear to be similarly motivated to their victimhood culture counterparts in their desire to censor speech and de-platform speakers with whom they disagree.
Readers of this review are encouraged to pick up a copy of the book to see just how much more the authors deliver than can be conveyed here. In endorsing this volume, New York University’s Jonathan Haidt points to just how prophetic the authors’ original 2014 article has proven to be. The extended treatment in this book is not, by definition, prophetic but it is bound to become these authors’ enduring contribution, such that future scholars are likely to view it as being seminally relevant to describing our current times in the academy.