Victimhood Culture Metastasizes


One of the most important papers for understanding the political climate we live in is “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.1

In the article, Campbell and Manning explore three stages in the evolution of moral culture:

  • Honor culture
  • Dignity culture
  • Victimhood culture

The essence of honor culture is reputation. That is because–in a society without a strong, centralized authority–the best defense against predation is a reputation for drastic overreaction. If people believe you will overreact to any provocation, they are less likely to provoke you. Unfortunately, when everybody is trying to build a reputation for toughness and overreaction at the same time, “people are verbally aggressive and quick to insult other.” This causes damage to reputation, and so we have “a high frequency of violent conflict as participants in the culture aggressively compete for respect.”

When strong, formal authorities begin to emerge, the logic of the honor culture dissipates. If someone insults you and you react by physically assaulting them, then–in the presence of a strong authority–you’re going to end up getting punished more harshly than they are. When there is a legitimate criminal justice system to handle major offenses, the best response to a minor offense is to simply ignore it. As a result, reputation is not as important in dignity cultures. In an honor culture, appealing to an outside authority is a sign of weakness. In a dignity culture, failing to appeal to an outside authority is taking the law into your own hands.

The transition from an honor culture to a dignity culture is vitally important, because a dignity culture has a much greater capacity for pluralism. Free speech is more than a legal framework or a constitutional right, it’s also a tradition. In a dignity culture, where having a thick skin is encouraged, that tradition can flourish because minor conflicts and disagreements don’t carry the risk of exploding into open hostility and violence.

Victimhood culture is an outgrowth of dignity culture that combines the worst of honor and dignity cultures. It is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties.” The “sensitivity to slight” comes straight from honor culture, and the “heavy reliance on third parties” comes straight from dignity culture. The basic idea of victimhood culture is to manipulate third parties2 to intervene in a dispute on your side by appearing to be the victim.

The bigger the apparent injustice, the greater the chance of persuading a third party to take your side and the more drastic the action you can convince them to take on your behalf. Victimhood culture, then, is fundamentally about manufacturing and maintaining the highest degree of apparent victimhood. As Campbell and Manning point out, one simple way to achieve this is through the use of outright hoaxes and “hate crime hoaxes are common on college campuses.”3

The gold standard in victim culture, however, is the microagrresion. Microaggressions are essentially a form of bundling. First, you bundle individual instances of minor offenses into larger patterns. Second, you bundle individual people (victims and perpetrators alike) into larger cohorts. By using this approach, an isolated and incidental comment from one individual to another becomes a symptom of systematic oppression of one entire category of people by another category. These forms of bundling are important, as we will see at the end, because they forge a link between victimhood culture and identity politics.

According to Campbell and Manning, one of the results of the rise of victimhood culture is a “clash between competing moral systems” as dignity culture and victimhood culture come into conflict. This is certainly true. Progressive social justice theories like Critical Race Theory “[reject] the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy,”4 which are the heritage of dignity culture. There is no doubt that victimhood culture–championed by progressive social justice ideology–is incompatible with dignity culture.

This is why so much of the push-back against second-wave political correctness has been bipartisan.5 There are plenty on the left of American politics who still cling to old-fashioned notions of liberalism like freedom of expression, the marketplace of ideas, and the dignity of individuals. Aligned with conservatives who share these concerns, they form a bipartisan coalition that is engaged in the conflict Campbell and Manning predicted: dignity culture attempting to hold off the insurgent victimhood culture.

But there is another conflict going on as well. The most vociferous push-back against progressive social justice ideology (and ostensibly the victimhood culture it embraces) comes from the alt-right. What is notable about this push-back, however, is that instead of genuinely objecting to victimhood culture, the alt-right has embraced a re-branded version of it. The best example of this is the most obvious: Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again” and his obvious appeal to white grievance.

Just as with the progressive social justice movement, Trump’s appeal works because it has enough truth in it to give it the feel of veracity. One of the best explanation of this comes (believe it or not) from a Cracked article: How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind. The article (which includes lots of non-censored swearing) does a fantastic job of outlining the legitimate grievance of white, rural America.

Which leads me to an essential side-note: it is possible for the world to simultaneously get worse for both the minorities that liberals care about (black, Hispanic, women, and LBTQ Americans) and the group that Trump and the alt-right appeal to (rural, white Americans). I recently had simultaneous stories in my Facebook feed about white highschoolers putting a noose around a black student’s neck and another about how Berkeley students barricade bridge, force whites to cross creek. These two stories neither cancel out nor justify each other.

One of the things that contemporary theories of racism as systematized prejudice and discrimination fail to appreciate is that in the United States there is more than one system. The legacies of systemic oppression of racial minorities are absolutely still in place. My review of The New Jim Crow should leave no doubt about where I stand on that. But the existence of systematized anti-black discrimination in the criminal justice system does not obviate, cancel out, or justify the creation of anti-white (usually: anti-poor-rural-conservative-white) discrimination in other systems, like academia in general or social psychology in particular.

So this is where we stand: in the battle of victimhood culture against dignity culture, Trump and the alt-right are not fighting against the so-called social justice warriors. They are–with their grievance-based, identity-centric campaigns–quite literally part of the problem. They are fighting fire-with-fire while the whole world burns down.

Along these lines, David Marcus’s recent Federalist piece (How Anti-White Rhetoric is Fueling White Nationalism) is a must-read. In it, Marcus attacks another prong of the progressive social justice approach to race, writing that a shift to emphasizing privilege amounts to “ask[ing] white people to be more tribal” and is even “abetting white supremacy.” Marcus points out that the number of active Ku Klux Klan chapters more than doubled (from 72 to 190) just between 2014 and 2015, and argues that “one of the key components of this racism is the almost-daily parade of silly micro-aggressions and triggers.” He adds:

Young white men, reacting to social and educational constructs that paint them as the embodiment of historical evil, are fertile ground for white supremacists. They are very aware of the dichotomy between non-white culture, which must be valued at all times (even in the midst of terror attacks), and white culture, which must be criticized and devalued. They don’t like it.

It may seem like a stretch to draw parallels between ill-advised anti-racism efforts and the alt-right (let alone the KKK), but here’s a headline that might give you pause: Cal State LA offers segregated housing for black students. According to the article, the decision came after the Black Student Union cited “microaggressions” as part of their call for “housing space delegated for Black students.”

Journalism student Aeman Ansari recently made a similar case in the Huffington Post, justifying the expulsion of student journalists from an event because those journalists were white and arguing that safe spaces are different because “segregation was imposed on people of colour by people of privilege, not the other way around.” That’s a legitimate difference, but it doesn’t erase this fact that the two groups of people in America who think whites and blacks should not mix are the KKK and progressive social justice activists. The different terminology–safe space vs. segregated space–and the differing power dynamics can’t efface the fact that both of them have the goal of racial separation.

It is a genuine tragedy that–after such great (albeit incomplete) progress towards racial equality in this country–we are now seeing a resurgence of the kind of hardcore, strident racism that has not been prevalent for decades. But this is where we are today.

Victimhood culture, as Campbell and Manning note, originated with the political left because “the narrative of oppression and victimization is especially congenial to a leftist worldview.” However, there is nothing about the tactics of victimhood culture that dictate it must remain exclusively an artifact of the left, and it has not. “Naturally,” Campbell and Manning observe, “whenever victimhood…. confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it.” White identity politics is a natural and inevitable response to minority identity politics, and it follows basically the same playbook.

So, while victimhood culture was initially created by left-wing activists in college campuses, it has metastasized and spread throughout American society. Because it is such an effective political weapon, it is has proved irresistable to many of the folks who originally set out to destroy it.6 Based on grievances both real and imaginary, the alt-right has embraced the logic and tactics of victimhood culture. Because victimhood culture is fueled by identity politics and tribalism, the rise in the co-option of victimhood culture by the alt-right necessarily entails a reawakening of old-school racism the likes of which we have not seen openly promulgated for decades, if not more.

I agree with the solution that Marcus proposes, and it’s a solution that applies not only to the resurgence of racism in the US but to the broader problems plaguing our society. He writes that “our anti-racism efforts must be refocused away from guilt and confession and towards equality and eradicating irrational judgments based on race…we must return to the goal of treating people as individuals, not as representatives of their race.”

I would only add that this vision could be expanded even farther: we must treat people as individuals, not as representative of their race, gender, political party, or any other kind of identity-tribe.


8 thoughts on “Victimhood Culture Metastasizes”

  1. Would you describe your (and Marcus’s) prescription as a return to dignity culture, or something post-victimhood?

  2. I’d say it’s just a return to dignity culture, but there is a possibility that–given the new technological context–that it might end up becoming something else.

  3. I feel like I have an incomplete formulation of this question, but here goes:

    On a case-by-case basis I can treat individuals as such (instead of representatives of whatever group they might associate with). But is there a way to make policy that affects groups of people in a way that individuals from that group (or from the enemy tribe) don’t feel like their identity is threatened?

    For example, if I want to address systematized anti-black discrimination in the criminal justice system, how do I do that without getting up the dander of folks who’ve adopted the the notion (regardless of its correctness) that aiming help to blacks somehow takes away from my non-black piece of the pie?

  4. Your argument isn’t well supported. For example you start off by knocking the motto “Make America Great Again,” arguing that this phrase itself is evidence of victimhood culture. How so? You know where that phrase originally game from?

    By that same argument, were the men who stormed the beach at Normandy inspired by a victimhood culture? What about the American revolutionaries? How about Martin Luther King, Jr? Is that what the Civil Rights movement was, victimhood culture? An appeal to a grievance or problem, in of itself, has nothing to do with victimhood culture. The thesis of the paper you cite is how these different cultures would respond to a perceived grievance, real or not.

    The idea of victimhood culture is about emotional and intellectual immaturity. It’s about safe spaces. It’s about a kind of social fascism through victim status. People are socially shamed and economically starved into compliance. The examples are too numerous to cite.

    Victimhood culture is when someone is offended over things they should not be offended by to begin with. Like seeing mannequins hanging from a tree on Halloween and perceiving it as some kind of racist statement rather than just Halloween and starting a virtual facebook MEME. I could give a zillion similar examples specifically related to Trump and how his words are either intentionally misrepresented or it’s an honest case of emotional infants suffering from victimhood culture.

    Inherent to victimhood culture is the inability to tolerate exposure to opposing cultures or points of view. Opposing views cannot be allowed to exist. So we attack grandma’s bakery for not wanting to make cakes for certain weddings. Or whatever. The examples are too numerous to begin to cover. Activist groups call employers, and said employers customers, to make sure they know that such and such employee was expressing unapproved opinions on social media. This is the whole point of Media Matters. It’s journalists camping out on the front lawn of regular Joe’s they don’t like, such as Ken Bone, while not saying even a word about the crimes of a certain Haggard Queen running for president.

    I know a professor at a university in TX that was attacked because he donated money to prop 8. Man has never said a thing about politics in his classes. But they published personal biographic info about this man all over the internet, harassed university administration to get rid of him, and so on. I know another guy who was sued in CA because he was involved with a GOP super pac that was lobbying for a local issue over there. Not prop8, something totally unrelated to all that. At any rate, he didn’t do anything wrong, but these fascists litigated him to death, drowning him in legal fees just responding to stuff… because it’s against the law to be a Republican in California, or something. I know people who have been fired from jobs because they made political comments that were unapproved. I’ve personally had HR call me in because someone filed an anonymous complaint over a phrase that I used, “ghetto rigging.” This is apparently antisemitic. In the context used it clearly didn’t mean anything like that, and he could have said something to me if offended, but no, sick the police on me.

    Victimhood culture is about going out of your way to find offense in something, anything, and then sicking the social justice mob on it. It’s about me, myself, and I. My feelings. Me, me, me. Instead of making an effort to understand people, meet them at their level, others are expected to change themselves and cater to me. They need to use vocabulary that I approve of. Speak the way I want to be spoken to. And so on. This guy said something that offended me, here, I’m going to forward the email to the internet and get it published in the school paper.

    How do Trump supporters fit this description in any way? Trump supporters for the most part are in hiding. For them it’s simply a breath of fresh air that they can even be “out” in public and have their views represented. Because they life in constant fear of retribution.

    You know who does fit the description of Victimhood Culture to a T? Well, lefties, yeah, that’s tacit. I’m talking about the Smart Set gentleman-scholar soft beta-male “conservatives” that have a meltdown in the presence of rude words. Yes, I’m talking about the Mormons and their infamous Persecution Complex. I’m talking about people who walk into the booth and vote not based on sincere thought for their fellow man, what’s good for the country as a whole, but what will make themselves, personally, “feel” good. There is no greater manifestation of victimhood culture this election cycle than the thing of Evan McMullin.

  5. Andrew: “…he could have said something to me if offended, but no, sick the police on me.”


    No, victimhood culture is using a victim status to get the mob on your side in an attempt to use mob-power to enforce the moral high ground. It’s not merely being offended by things one shouldn’t be offended by. It’s using that offense in a power play.

    In victim culture, being a victim not only trumps being in the right, it is by definition “being in the right.” No one is entirely clean of that. This is clear when, in the middle of a rant about others playing victims, one can so seamlessly use language to place oneself in a position of victim-power.

    Simply the use of a red-pill term like “beta male” indicates where your attitude trends. The red pill movement is a classic example of a group of individuals using perceived victim status to justify victimizing others.

  6. “Victimhood culture, then, is fundamentally about manufacturing and maintaining the highest degree of apparent victimhood.”
    So victimhood culture is the equivalent of diving in football (or faking injury in soccer, for the American speakers :) )

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