Understanding Victimhood Culture: An Interview with Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning

Understanding Victimhood Culture: An Interview with Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning

Claire Lehmann
Claire Lehmann
24 min read

Bradley Campbell, Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, and Jason Manning, Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University, have been described as “prophets of the academic world” by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and their new collaborative work The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, “a book of revelations,” by the sociologist Donald Black. The two sociologists have aimed to supply us with an empirical sociological analysis of the recent moral conflicts that have erupted on U.S. college campuses—and the extent to which these conflicts are spreading outwards into mainstream society.

After reading the book, I reached out to the American sociologists to interview them about some of the key themes of their book, and also to gain insight into some recent cultural trends that were not covered.  What follows is a transcript of our interview conducted via email.

I. Three Moral Cultures

Claire Lehmann: Just briefly for our readers who have not read your book, can you explain the main differences between the dignity, honor and victimhood cultures which you outline in your thesis?

Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning: The three moral cultures are different clusters of traits having to do with what people find offensive and how they handle their grievances.

In dignity cultures, there is a low sensitivity to slight. People are more tolerant of insult and disagreement. Children might be taught some variant of “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It’s good to have “thick skin,” and people might be criticized for being too touchy and overreacting to slights. If the issue in the conflict is something more than a slight or insult — say, a violent assault — you’re to handle the matter through appeal to authorities such as the legal system. Taking the law into your own hands with violent vengeance is itself a serious crime and generally looked down upon.

In honor cultures, there’s a much greater sensitivity to slight. Insults demand a serious response, and even accidental slights might provoke severe conflict. Having a low tolerance for offense is more likely to be seen as a virtue than a vice. Letting yourself be slighted without seeking justice is shameful. And seeking justice is more likely to take the form of violent vengeance. Appealing to authorities is more stigmatized than taking matters into your own hands.

These two kinds of cultures emphasize different sources of moral status or worth. Honor is one’s status in the eyes of other people. It depends on reputation. And while a lot of things might go into making this reputation, the core of classical honor is physical bravery. Tolerating slights is shameful because you let someone put you down without defending your reputation by force. It suggests cowardice. Appealing to the authorities is shameful for the same reason. Virtue means being bold and forceful, aggressively defending your reputation against any challenges, and being vigilant for signs that someone else is probing you for weakness.

Dignity is a kind of inherent and inalienable moral worth. It doesn’t depend on your standing in the eyes of other people. A dignity culture emphasizes that all people have this sort of worth, which can’t be taken away. It’s why an insult can’t devalue you. If anything, overreacting to an offense is unseemly because it suggests you’re not confident in your worth and need to take other people’s opinions so seriously. Virtue isn’t being bold, touchy, and aggressive, but restrained, prudent, and quietly self-assured.

What we call victimhood culture combines some aspects of honor and dignity. People in a victimhood culture are like the honorable in having a high sensitivity to slight. They’re quite touchy, and always vigilant for offenses. Insults are serious business, and even unintentional slights might provoke a severe conflict. But, as in a dignity culture, people generally eschew violent vengeance in favor of relying on some authority figure or other third party. They complain to the law, to the human resources department at their corporation, to the administration at their university, or — possibly as a strategy of getting attention from one of the former — to the public at large.

The combination of high sensitivity with dependence on others encourages people to emphasize or exaggerate the severity of offenses. There’s a corresponding tendency to emphasize one’s degree of victimization, one’s vulnerability to harm, and one’s need for assistance and protection. People who air grievances are likely to appeal to such concepts as disadvantage, marginality, or trauma, while casting the conflict as a matter of oppression.

The result is that this culture also emphasizes a particular source of moral worth: victimhood. Victim identities are deserving of special care and deference. Contrariwise, the privileged are morally suspect if not deserving of outright contempt. Privilege is to victimhood as cowardice is to honor.

We can see examples of honor cultures around the world and throughout history. They tend to have relatively high rates of violence, including such distinctive forms as dueling and feuding. Much of the premodern West can be understood as an honor culture. European elites used to preserve their honor by fighting duels to the death; in the US South, fatal duels continued up until the American Civil War.

The Code Of Honor—A Duel In The Bois De Boulogne, Near Paris, wood engraving by Godefroy Durand, Harper’s Weekly (January 1875)

By the 20th century, though, dignity culture had largely supplanted honor culture in the West. Writing in 1970, sociologist Peter Berger called the concept of honor obsolete, saying it had little resonance with modern people. People no longer lived in mortal fear of having their honor damaged. Questioning someone’s honor would result in a quizzical look rather than outrage. And duels to the death were a strange curiosity of the past.

We argue that victimhood culture, at least in its more extreme forms, is new. We see it in its purest form on contemporary college and university campuses. Manifestations of victimhood culture include complaining about and punishing microaggressions, demanding and creating safe spaces, requesting and requiring trigger warnings, and banning or disinviting speakers who might offend designated victim groups.

II. Moral Hierarchy 

CL: In The Rise of Victimhood Culture, you mention that this new morality imposes a moral hierarchy, with white people being at the bottom and oppressed or marginalised people (victims) being at the top. Can you elaborate on what you mean by a ‘moral hierarchy’?

BC & JM: Making moral judgments elevates the reputation of some people and lowers the reputation of others, so morality is always a source of a kind of social status that we can think of broadly as respectability. Other kinds of status have other sources, so in any complex society not only are some people more respectable than others, but some are also wealthier, more socially integrated, or more culturally conventional. Your position on these and other social hierarchies affects how people treat you. If you testify in court, for example, people are more likely to believe you if you are wealthy, respectable, and so on. And if you’re the victim of a crime, it’s more likely the offender will be brought to justice.

So respectability — moral status — acts like other kinds of status. And since moral judgments give rise to it, it takes different forms depending on the moral culture. Whether it’s important to have a reputation for kindness, chastity, obedience, courage, wisdom, generosity, self-control, or anything else depends on what people value. One culture might see obedience and self-control as key virtues, while another might see them as vices if they mean less individuality and authenticity. Even when different cultures agree on what’s virtuous they might emphasize some virtues over others. This is what happens in an honor culture. Courage, and one aspect of it in particular — physical bravery — is elevated over other virtues. It’s not that people in other cultures don’t value bravery, or that people in honor cultures don’t value anything else, but the emphasis on bravery and toughness in honor cultures leads to a morality that outsiders often find bewildering and immoral.

It also leads to a moral hierarchy with brave, strong, and violent men at the top and the cowardly and the weak at the bottom. Honor is one type of moral status, one revolving around a particular virtue. It arises under particular social conditions such as the absence of a government monopoly on violence, so we certainly understand why honor cultures exist and the logic of their moral system. But we agree with the critics of honor cultures throughout history who have objected to the conflict and violence those cultures produce. We also object to the moral hierarchy of those cultures. Emphasizing one virtue over many others leads to perversities: Cruel men and hotheads can end up being esteemed while peacemakers are denigrated.

The moral hierarchy of victimhood culture has some of the same problems, and it introduces others. Like honor cultures, victimhood cultures emphasize one set of vices and virtues over others. They are concerned with eradicating oppression and privilege, and this single-minded moral obsession can lead to the similar kinds of perversities that come from neglecting other virtues in honor cultures. But even in an honor culture your moral status usually has to do with your own behavior rather than someone else’s. In a victimhood culture it’s instead your identity as a victim that gives you status. It’s not your own virtue at all, but someone else’s treatment of you, that makes you virtuous.

One problem with this is that you end up with a system of morality that doesn’t offer much incentive for good behavior. Honor cultures incentivize bravery while neglecting other virtues. But if you want esteem in a victimhood culture, what can you do? It’s not like you can become a victim. Or actually, you can — you can portray yourself as weak and in need of help, you can portray others’ behavior toward you as harmful and oppressive, and you can even lie about being the victim of violence and other offenses. Victimhood culture incentivizes bad behavior.

Image of first page of the “A Rape on Campus” article from the November 19, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone, which was later retracted in its entirety due to the false claims made by the subject of the article.

The extreme form of victimhood culture we see among activists on college campuses leads to another problem in that one’s status as a victim comes not just from individual experiences of victimhood but also from one’s identity as part of a victim group. The idea is that all members of certain groups are victims, but that no one else is. Activists even argue that whites cannot be the victims of racism, or men the victims of sexism. Likewise, whether people can be victims of new offenses like cultural appropriation or microaggression, depends on their identity. A white person wearing a hairstyle associated with African Americans would be cultural appropriation, for instance, but an African American wearing a hairstyle associated with whites would not be. Likewise, those who have pioneered the concept of microaggression have made it clear that not all slights count. A white male elementary school teacher may experience stereotypes and put-downs, for example, but to call those microaggressions would be a “misapplication of the concept.”

So the moral hierarchy of victimhood culture places entire groups of people at the top or bottom based on the whole group’s victimhood status. And while it’s not always clear which groups qualify, Jonathan Haidt identifies seven groups that are currently treated as sacred: people of colour, women, LGBTs, Latinos, Native Americans, people with disabilities, and Muslims. Under this schema even many minority groups, such as Evangelical Christians, fail to qualify, and any discrimination against them is ignored or celebrated.

We have two problems with this. The first is a fundamental moral objection. We believe in the ideals of dignity culture — that all human beings have an inherent worth and should be treated accordingly — and we object to the new hierarchy of victimhood just as we would any racial and ethnic hierarchy. The second problem is the reactions it may produce. Whites, men, and others who do not have victimhood status are unlikely to accept a new morality and a new moral hierarchy in which they’re at the bottom. And they may end up embracing one in which they’re at the top. We find the recent prominence of alt-right white nationalists alarming, and we worry there will be more of it in reaction to the spread of victimhood culture. It’s a dangerous thing to undermine dignity culture and its ideals of equality.

III. #MeToo Movement

CL: You wrote your book before the explosion of the #MeToo movement. From your perspective, and your knowledge about the spread of moral cultures, do you believe that the #MeToo movement represents a significant shift in victimhood culture into the mainstream?

When we look at the full-blown victimhood culture among campus activists, the moral logic at work is starkly different than what we see in other contexts. But the lines between different moral cultures aren’t always so clear. The degree to which victimhood is a kind of status is variable, so even where dignity culture is still dominant, we might see some tendencies toward victimhood culture.

In the book we talk about the movement against campus rape, and we point out that the movement has support from journalists, members of Congress, and others who are not part of the campus victimhood culture. And rape isn’t a new offense like microaggression or cultural appropriation. It’s also not a minor offense. So the movement as such isn’t a pure manifestation of victimhood culture. But what we do see is that an effort to honor victims leads to credulity even in cases like the rape hoaxes at Duke and at the University of Virginia where it should have been clear that the accusers were lying. It also leads to efforts to weaken the due process rights of the accused. And alongside the more mainstream elements of the movement are the campus activists and others enmeshed in victimhood culture who make more radical arguments — that accusers should always be believed, for example. But so far such ideas haven’t been widely adopted.

The #MeToo movement may be similar. To some extent it may have facilitated the mainstreaming of victimhood culture, but it’s also a mainstream enough movement that efforts to radicalize it and to use the moral language and logic of campus activists seem mostly to have failed. The movement as a whole appears not to have relied on accusations of new victimhood offenses and has focused instead on things like rape, groping, and other kinds of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The accusations against Harvey Weinstein and against most of the other prominent targets of the #MeToo movement haven’t been about microaggressions and haven’t relied on creative ideological expansions of the concepts of assault and harassment. The accusations against Weinstein, for example, include 19 coerced sexual acts and many more instances of unwanted touching and sexual exhibitionism.

Harvey Weinstein has been accused of sexual harassment, assault and rape by more than 80 women.

Much of the #MeToo movement might be seen as an expression of dignity culture — an appeal to ideals already widely held in the culture but commonly violated in practice. Women demanding that they not be bullied, groped, fondled, demeaned, assaulted, or harassed by men the workplace, and that the men abusing their power in this way face consequences, aren’t relying on radical feminism or its notions of endemic patriarchal oppression — not usually, anyway. They seem to be trying to bring to light behavior that was already considered wrong but that many people weren’t aware was going on.

But the #MeToo movement is large and has less mainstream elements as well, so some of the accusations have indeed drawn from victimhood culture in various ways. We might think of the most prominent accusations existing on a continuum from Harvey Weinstein to comedian Aziz Ansari. In January 2018 the online magazine Babe published an article by Katie Way about an anonymous woman’s date with Ansari. The article, “I Went on a Date with Aziz Ansari. It Turned into the Worst Night of My Life,” recounts in detail a date between “Grace” and Ansari. Ansari doesn’t come off as particularly gentlemanly in the account, but it’s clear that the story is not about rape, it’s not about sexual assault, and it’s not even about sexual harassment. After going to dinner, the two went to Ansari’s apartment, engaged in sexual acts with one another, and according to Grace, Ansari then kept wanting to engage in intercourse, she didn’t, and she eventually went home. Later in a text message she told Ansari that he had ignored “clear non-verbal cues” and said that he had to have noticed she was uncomfortable.

The accusations against Weinstein, which deal with clear-cut cases of violence, coercion, and harassment, are understandable in terms of mainstream morality, while the accusation against Ansari is understandable only in terms of victimhood culture.

The same perspective that leads to the labeling of uncomfortable conversations as a kind of aggression, or conservative political speech as violence, leads here to the labeling of boorish behavior on a date as sexual assault. To the extent that the #MeToo movement accords a special status to victims, to the extent that it establishes victimhood solely based on whether someone is a woman or man, and to the extent that it blurs the distinction between serious offenses like what Weinstein has been accused of and the kind of noncoercive sexual advances on a date that Ansari is accused of, it will indeed lead to the spread of victimhood culture.

Another thing the Ansari case illustrates is something we have thought of as moral emaciation. Victimhood culture’s focus on oppression narrows the range of moral discourse, and activists seem to be losing the capacity to make moral judgments based on anything other than victimhood terms. It seems that anything activists find bad they define as harmful and oppressive, whether it’s an ugly statue on campus or a bad date. As Mona Charen points out, isn’t what Grace wanted — affection, kindness, attention — what many people want when they go on a date? “What does it say about dating in our time,” she asks, “that those are unrealistic expectations?”

The problem is that Grace has no moral language to communicate this. She can’t describe Ansari’s behavior as caddish, lascivious, or any of the other old-fashioned terms that would more accurately capture her moral reaction. Instead, it has to be oppression, assault. This is probably not good for the #MeToo movement, and it may shift attention away from the kinds of offenses the movement was supposed to call attention to. It also doesn’t help anyone to think better about how people should behave on dates. Moral emaciation leads to moral confusion.

IV. Cultural Appropriation

CL: Do you see the many complaints made today about ‘cultural appropriation’ as being a part of victimhood culture? Cultural appropriation seems to be one aspect of the new morality that most people find baffling. But can it be understood as a culture imbuing certain cultural objects or practices with moral status, that cannot (or should not) be accessed by people who are lower down in the moral hierarchy? Is cultural appropriation in some way similar to a form of moral pollution?

BC & JM: Complaints of cultural appropriation illustrate victimhood culture quite well. As with microaggression complaints, it’s a grievance about a nonviolent, probably unintentional slight that many observers wouldn’t even see as offensive. As with microaggressions, the offense is framed as a matter of collective oppression, of one social group harming another. And in practice, it’s usually an offense defined by identity, something only people in designated privileged groups can be guilty of.

Victimhood culture’s high sensitivity to slight means it continually coins new types of offense. And this is certainly one of the most baffling of the new offenses. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, one particularly confusing aspect is that many of the things that get called cultural appropriation were, until very recently, virtues — signs that one was cosmopolitan and open-minded. If anything, we might expect social and cultural conservatives to be the ones most upset about Westerners practicing yoga or mindfulness meditation, or white kids adopting black fashions and hairstyles. In many cases they are, but these days so-called progressives are often vocal and visible critics.

Your suggestion about moral hierarchy is on point. Though the complaint is framed as a matter of someone dominating or exploiting the vulnerable — in a victimhood culture, virtually all complaints are — it might be more helpful to understand it as a matter of the offenders aping their betters. As sociologist Donald Black discusses in his book Moral Time, various societies throughout history have had rules — sumptuary laws — preventing people from adopting the styles, entertainments, and recreations of their social betters. The Han and Ming dynasties forbade commoners from wearing certain colors of clothing. Premodern Japan had laws forbidding peasants from wearing clothing distinctive of townspeople. In medieval England a law stated that no one under the rank of knight should wear any fur clothing (later amended to allow them to wear distinctive kinds of fur). And no one below the rank of lord was allowed to wear the period’s fashionable pointy shoes. The unwritten norms regarding cultural appropriation seem analogous to these sorts of restrictions.

As you suggest, thinking of it as a kind of moral pollution also might help us put it into a larger sociological context. As sociologist Murray Milner argued in his work on the Indian caste system, sacredness is but a special form of status. It corresponds to what we call moral status in our book, though like honor it might be a particular style of moral status. The sacred is that which is treated as special and worthy of reverence. It must be set apart from the profane, protected by rituals associated with cleanliness and purity. One might immediately think of Mosaic Law, but if we understand it abstractly we can see these sorts of purity rules everywhere, including regarding secular things like national flags and anthems. What is going on when a white Westerner practices yoga or paints in an indigenous style or quotes a lyric from a Beyoncé song? Perhaps it’s like having the unclean enter the temple and put on the vestments. The culture of vibrant, good, brave, people is being polluted by those who carry the moral stain of privilege.

It also seems like there’s also a theme of moral pollution in some of the discourse surrounding “whiteness.” Sometimes the manner in which it’s discussed makes it seem like a curse, or something that spreads and infects places and things as well as people. Hence we see pieces where people complain about the prevalence of whiteness in LGBT spaces, or Taylor Swift exuding whiteness, or, to give a case we mention in our book, people accusing others of asking white questions and employing white research methods.

Conservatives and Victimhood Culture

CL: It was really interesting to read about how conservatives (particularly those who are very flamboyant or attention seeking) have learned to use victimhood culture, or exploit victimhood culture for their own selfish benefit. You argued that this might, in fact, lead to an increased uptake of victimhood culture morality in the mainstream culture. Would you be able to elaborate on this point for our readers?

BC & JM: Victimhood culture is mainly a leftwing phenomenon, but it has a way of spreading. Conservatives and others who find themselves opposed to campus activists might uphold the values of the dignity culture the activists reject, but sometimes they end up departing from it themselves. One way they might do this is by embracing whatever victimhood culture opposes. This can mean being deliberately provocative and offensive in order to get a rise out of the activists, or at the extreme, it can mean embracing alt-right ideologies that reject equality and diversity. But another way conservatives might depart from dignity culture is by embracing the assumptions of victimhood culture and pointing to their own victimhood.

In our first article on victimhood culture in 2014, we pointed to the case of Tal Fortgang, a Princeton student who wrote an article about checking his privilege, as campus activists had been urging that he and others do. The idea was that when he checked his privilege he found in his background a long history of hardship and persecution, including family members who had been persecuted and murdered in the Holocaust.

Now in one sense, that’s perfectly reasonable. It points to the absurdities of the victimhood framework. The grandson of Holocaust survivors might legitimately wonder why he should have the burden of being labeled privileged while others at his elite university gain sympathy and status by labeling themselves victims. We ourselves sometimes wonder why in an academic environment where people constantly talk about disadvantage, inclusivity, diversity, and the like, our working class, small town, Southern backgrounds gain us no victimhood points. So the idea might be, if you’re going to denigrate the privileged and valorize the victimized, at least be more accurate — don’t base it all on skin color, sex, and a few other such traits.

But this easily leads to competitive victimhood, where moral disputes become contests over who can claim the most disadvantage. Conservatives at colleges and universities might be especially prone to embracing victimhood since they can actually make very plausible claims of being one of the most victimized groups on campus. Conservatives are vastly underrepresented among the faculty, especially in the social sciences. Far more sociologists identify as Marxists than as conservatives, for example, and a survey of sociology professors found that nearly 30% of them acknowledged they would be less likely to support a job candidate who was a Republican. Conservatives on campus are also subject to what the activists would call microaggressions or worse if directed toward recognized victim groups. Many of them remain closeted.

The claims of victimhood are understandable, then, but if conservatives end up adopting their adversaries’ assumptions about what constitutes victimhood and what the response to victimhood should be, they’ll become just another force undermining dignity culture. And we’re seeing some of that. For example, National Review published an article by Frederick Hess with the title “When College Presidents Mistake Lib-splaining for Conservative Outreach.” Lib-splaining is presumably like mansplaining, whitesplaining, and other new victimhood culture offenses, and here it refers to a college president encouraging a group of campus conservatives to read more serious conservative works and meeting with them to discuss one of them. As with the other “splaining” offenses, the notion seems to be that any attempt to discuss or explain something coming from an outsider can be offensive.

We also see claims of victimhood becoming a key part of the campus conservative message. Conservatives should definitely complain about the suppression of free speech on campus. But sometimes this takes the form of engaging in intentionally offensive speech in order to get a reaction from the left that then becomes the basis of further complaints. This actually combines both of the dignity-rejecting strategies — the embrace of offensiveness and the embrace of victimhood. Conservative groups that have brought in the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, seem more interested in stirring up controversy and angering the left than in advancing conservative ideas.

Milo Yiannopoulos

They should have the right to do so, of course, and even when groups have brought in conservative intellectuals campus activists have sometimes reacted in the same way. Still, bringing in someone like Yiannopoulos hardly advances the ideals of dignity. As conservative UCLA professor Gabriel Rossman wrote to the Bruin Republicans recently after they scheduled a talk by Yiannopoulos on “10 Things I Hate about Mexico,” “if your mission is to spread conservative ideas, you should recognize that hosting Yiannopoulos will only render your organization and our ideas toxic.” In that case the group ended up canceling the talk, but the temptation to court controversy through popular, attention-grabbing speakers can be powerful.

Another way that conservatives and other opponents of victimhood culture may end up adopting its assumptions, perhaps unwittingly, is by valorizing the victims of victimhood culture.  Consider the recent case of Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University who was certainly treated badly by the faculty and administration there. In a communications class, Shepherd showed a short clip of a debate on the use of gender pronouns and was called to a meeting with two professors and an administrator, who berated her and told her that showing the debate was transphobic and possibly a violation of Canada’s anti-bias laws. When Shepherd released a recording of the meeting, there was an outpouring of support for her from those concerned about free speech and academic freedom, and the university ended up apologizing.

In the aftermath of all of that, though, Shepherd has become a kind of celebrity among opponents of victimhood culture, with regular speaking engagements and honors, including the Outstanding Student Award from Heterodox Academy and a prominent speaking spot at their upcoming meeting. While Shepherd behaved well in the initial conflict with her superiors, her prominence seems to come almost entirely from her status as a victim-of-victimhood culture rather than from any insights of her own. Her views have been consistently supportive of free speech but otherwise mostly inchoate and rapidly shifting. Initially describing herself as on the left, for example, she released a video recently announcing that she no longer identified this way, citing the left’s blurring of the distinction between white nationalists and white supremacists as one of the main reasons for the change. As Genevieve Weynerowski commented, “This granular sidebar made her centrist bona fides a little hard to swallow.” Shepherd also cited the reaction to her campus group hosting a talk on campus by Faith Goldy, an alt-right activist who once gleefully recited a white nationalist slogan and was fired by the right-wing Rebel Media after appearing on a neo-Nazi podcast. Shepherd is both an opponent and victim of campus victimhood culture, but she isn’t necessarily an advocate of dignity culture and seems increasingly to be employing the strategies of deliberate offense and an embrace of victimhood herself. For many opponents of victimhood culture, though, her status as a victim gives her a kind of moral authority and perhaps even immunity from criticism.

Preserving Dignity Culture

CL: I really liked the way you offered insight and not just condemnation of victimhood culture. How do you remain so detached from your subject without becoming judgemental? 

And finally, what are some simple ways (for those who don’t want to live in a victimhood culture) to preserve dignity culture?  

We both have somewhat analytical thinking styles. And from our early training, we’ve both approached sociology out of scientific interest in patterns of behavior. We each got into studying conflict and social control because that seemed where the action was, scientifically speaking. We were drawn to Donald Black’s theoretical work, which used simple principles to describe and explain social behavior.

In our book we talk about the politicization of sociology. The field has long tended to attract people with axes to grind — mostly liberal or progressive ones, occasionally conservative ones. Even if they take scientific methodology seriously — and many still do — their topics and questions are driven by what they feel passionate about for practical or political reasons. Hence the common pattern of people studying their own gender, race, ethnicity, or else writing about the topic they were doing activism on before deciding to go to graduate school.

That’s not been our bag. Our previous research topics — genocide and suicide — weren’t chosen because we were particularly involved with them outside of sociology. They just seemed like strange phenomena, and topics we could tackle given using the approach we’d learned from Black.

Victimhood culture does hit closer to home for us. Its epicenter is the university, and it has a lot of traction in the social sciences. As academic sociologists, we definitely have practical worries about what the future holds. Even with this topic, though, our initial forays into it were more of a “Hey, this is weird” than “Man the barricades!

Throughout the process of writing the book we were simply more interested in describing and analyzing than merely complaining. Complaint is boring. Analysis is interesting, especially if one is making cross-cultural comparisons and searching for the general principles behind it all. There’s a reason so many of our chapters start with examples from the days of dueling aristocrats. In comparative context, all human behavior is bizarre and fascinating.

We are social scientists, but of course, we are not only social scientists. We have political views and strong moral commitments. Our book considers several consequences of victimhood culture that we, and probably most of our readers, think are bad. Outside of the book, including in The Chronicle of Higher Education, we’ve stated our support for free speech and academic freedom and our belief that victimhood culture isn’t conducive to these things.

How, then, would people who agree with us go about preserving dignity culture?

Jordan Peterson’s rule #6 isn’t bad practical advice: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” So we might start with ourselves. Can we make ourselves less sensitive to slight? Studying ancient wisdom, learning the lessons of cognitive behavioral therapy, or even absorbing some folk knowledge might be helpful. So might searching for sources of involvement and meaning that don’t revolve around a moral hierarchy of identity groups. Can we find better ways of handling our grievances other than venting online or complaining to a bureaucracy? Talking things out is hard. It requires confrontations that many of us would rather avoid. But like anything, if you can force yourself to start doing it, it might get easier with practice.

We might also focus on the epicenter of victimhood culture — our colleges and universities. Do we know how much of state universities’ funds go to administration as opposed to instruction? Do we know how much of that is for the policing of offensive speech and propagating microaggression theory and implicit bias training? Do our legislators know? Maybe we should call and ask — or better yet, get together a group of a half-dozen friends to call and ask. If it were possible to shrink the university bureaucracy — particularly the bureaucracy charged with handling offensive words and images — it would reduce the moral dependency of victimhood culture. It would reduce the incentives to jockey for victim status and increase the incentives for alternative ways of dealing with problems. It might even make people more prone to talk to talk to one another and speak their minds without fear of reprimand.

Along those lines, another strategy would be to try to reduce the ideological homogeneity of the academy, where a mainstream conservative is a rarer thing than a radical leftist. There’s no guarantee this would increase dignity culture as such — as we’ve seen, conservatives can join in the victim game too. But since victimhood culture is currently most concentrated on the radical left, some of its most severe manifestations involve demonizing those on the right. According to Black’s theory, tolerance of diversity is greater in exactly those places that have more diversity to start with, while concern with cultural purity is greatest where culture is relatively homogeneous. Theoretically, increasing ideological diversity should reduce the degree of ideological intolerance on campus, and so undermine some of the more severe eruptions. It would also provide some more tolerance for those wishing to criticize victimhood culture as such.

For many college students, socialization into extreme sensitivity and dependency began before they arrived. There are signs that children and youth — at least from the middle and upper classes — are more sheltered, supervised, and regulated than in decades past, and that they have correspondingly less practice in coping with difficulties and handling conflicts on their own. Supporters of so-called free-range parenting campaign against this, encouraging parents to allow their children unsupervised play and school districts to provide recess grounds with such dangerous equipment as jungle gyms and monkey bars. One might find ways to encourage these kinds of initiatives locally or nationally, such as by raising money for the legal defense of people charged with neglect and abuse for what many of us would consider a reasonable bit of autonomy or schools held responsible for accidental injuries.

And finally, it’s important to combat victimhood culture and to deal with the problems it creates in the universities and elsewhere, but it’s also important to create alternatives to the universities and the mainstream media where serious ideas can be discussed and debated.


Bradley Campbell, Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, and Jason Manning, Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University.  The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, is on sale now via Amazon. 

Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor-in-chief of Quillette.

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Claire Lehmann

Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette.