Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Victimhood Culture

"John Spartan, you are fined five credits for repeated violations of the Verbal Morality Statute."
--Moral Statute Machine (Demolition Man)

In the context of recent 'microaggression' claims and 'trigger warning' responses observed on college campuses, NYU prof Jon Haidt reviews a recent article by two sociologists that lends explanatory power to the phenomena.

Campbell and Manning (2014) propose that moral culture is once again transitioning. In the 18th century, Western societies moved from cultures of honor, where people must earn honor and avenge insults on their own (e.g., let's duel), to cultures of dignity, where people don't traditionally engage in violence to settle transgressions between people. In dignity cultures, major transgressions are left to administrative or judicial bodies and minor transgressions are either ignored or settled by social means.

Dignity culture, the authors posit, is now giving way to a culture of victimhood. Victimhood culture encourages people to respond to even the slightest perceived offense against them. But instead of obtaining redress on their own, people must appeal to powerful others, such as administrative bodies, for help. People must make their case before these powerful bodies that they have been victimized. The very presence of these administrative bodies gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim.

From where I sit, this can be seen as an extension of resource dependence theory. Administrative bodies seen as having the power to settle transgressions offer a resource that people want. As such, people engage in behavior that keeps resources flowing in their direction. In this case, a new moral culture of victimhood is being created that fosters, as Haidt observes, 'moral dependence' and reduces capacity among individuals for handling interpersonal matters on one's own. As it weakens individuals, victimhood culture creates a society of intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.

While Haidt's analysis focuses on recent phenomena observed in higher ed, it takes no genius to see how this theory applies much more broadly.


Campbell, B. & Manning, J. (2014). Microaggression and moral cultures. Comparative sociology, 13(6): 692-726.

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