Is 'Victimhood Culture' a Fair Description?

Readers challenge the name two sociologists have applied to a new moral approach that’s becoming more common in the United States.

Dinuka Liyanawatte

In “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” I described the work of sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who argued that the United States made the transition from an honor culture to a dignity culture in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and that we’re now seeing the rise of what they dubbed “a culture of victimhood.”

They argued that it is characterized by:

...concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.

Among those who read the article, one of the most common objections was to the name “victimhood culture.” Here I want to publish some of those reader emails––and after that, to share the thoughts of one of the authors, Jason Manning, about the criticism. At the end, I’ll also include some emails that may be of interest to anyone trying to think through the framework presented in their paper and how to refine it.

Reader Objections to the Term “Victimhood Culture”

Our first correspondent writes:

Comparing "victimhood" to "dignity" and "honor" has a bias based on the words alone. Campbell and Manning have chosen very positive words in "dignity" and "honor" as well as a rather charged, potentially negative one in "victimhood."

"Honor" and "dignity" tell us to deal with "the status quo", not to challenge it, to live with it even if it means you are oppressed and marginalized. Now, with the evolution of social media, it has become easier and easier to convincingly publicize the oppression of the police state against Black people. The act of publicizing being abused by a police officer is indeed reaching out to a third party to notice oppression and social marginalization and clearly fits into Campbell and Manning's "victimhood" culture––are we okay with demonizing that by precluding them from "honor" and "dignity" as Campbell and Manning have?

"Victimhood" is not a culture.  What Campbell and Manning are really describing is a tool that marginalized and oppressed peoples use to challenge the "status quo'.  

"Victimhood" is an aspect of "Revolution".  

If you are a member of group of people who are socially marginalized or oppressed, is it not "honorable/dignified" work to fight that oppression?

Says another:

The victim label suggests that people whose personal or family or ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds are marked by continual and frequently violent subjugation should just "get over it." That this particular person attends Oberlin doesn't mean that she has no claim against privilege.

That such exchanges may be more readily conducted at a college doesn't mean that they have no validity. We need to grow a dialogue culture. Rather than responding to comments or behaviors with vituperation, we could respond with questions or narrative or other forms of discourse that serve to engage rather than repel. Of course, this is easy to suggest when one is a member of the white professional class.

Here’s another:

I liked some analysis you gave for how social mores are being enforced today, but "victimhood" is a horrible choice of name. There are traditional cultures that enforce social norms through visible, public shaming of the offender. While the nature and scale of "community" is really weird today with the Internet, this seems to be the same kind of mentality. Call out the offense, make it visible. None of these traditional communities would consider this "victimhood." Calling it that puts a stigma on the offended instead of the offender. I'm not going to argue that there aren't cases where people lose their shit for no good reason, but the overall trend of making racist thoughts more visible even when they're subtle is too positive a change to slap that kind of label on.

And one final critic before we hear from our author:

I contend that defining this as a "Victimhood culture" is itself a microaggression. Actually, it's closer to a real aggression. It seeks to diminish our voices to ones without "honor" or "dignity." It suggests that the appropriate grievances are the ones judged so by our white allies, and that the appropriate recourse is the path defined by the same.

A tenuous and capricious definition.

I would propose a different label: vigilance culture. Its a rather exhausting culture to belong to. We must be on guard for the real aggressions that come disguised as dog whistles or innuendos. And yes, we must call it out when those innuendos are uttered without knowledge of their true meaning. In our exhaustion we might occasionally jump at the shadows. But it's our experience that all the shadows belong to something.

Thoughts from Sociologist Jason Manning

Without sharing any of the emails above, I asked what he thought of the criticism that there's an asymmetry in comparing honor, virtue, and victimhood cultures, because the first two terms have positive connotations and the last has a negative connotation.

He responded, “the asymmetry is something I noted in writing the paper over a year go.  Honorable people refer to themselves as such, and recognize it as a kind of social stature. In dignity cultures, dignity is openly proclaimed and valued. Yet as soon as we agreed to use ‘victimhood culture’ I knew that the activist circles who were are prime examples of this culture would object to it, even though I wasn't sure why.”

After brainstorming other terms, he continued, no alternatives captured the distinctions that he and his co-author want to draw. The term “egalitarian culture” could “apply as well to the fragile, touchy equality between honorable gentlemen or to the moral egalitarianism evident in the concept of inherent human dignity or to the egalitarianism of hunter gatherers,” he wrote. "Social justice culture might work, though that seems to have even more baggage than victimhood and to not apply so well to cases that don't involve liberals or progressives.”

He felt that no term better captured a culture where (his examples) a young woman is celebrated for toting a mattress around to protest how her rape allegation was handled, where students do research to demonstrate that their group is treated worse than a different group, and where white people pretend to be American Indians for the benefits. “That people seek to advertise or make cases for their victimization and oppression, or in some cases falsely claim membership in oppressed groups, stood out to us as the most fascinating difference from other moral systems,” he wrote.

The sociologists also addressed the subject in a post at Jonathan Haidt’s blog, where they write:

There is an asymmetry between this term and the terms honor and dignity: People in honor cultures openly refer to their honor and judge it a good thing, people in dignity cultures openly refer to their dignity and judge it a good thing, but people in victimhood cultures would not likewise openly refer to victimhood as a kind of status and judge it a good thing.

We believe this could not be any other way, as there is an inherent tension—a cultural contradiction if you will—in demonizing the privileged and valorizing the oppressed. Supporting one side in a conflict—judging it as virtuous and throwing your weight behind the cause—accords that side a kind of status. The contradiction is that support goes to those who lack privilege, but the ability to attract support is a kind of privilege. It is perhaps then quite difficult—a source of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—to openly acknowledge this: that a reduction in oppression—however limited in context and extent—comes from being recognized as oppressed. If this is the case, it is not really the term “victimhood culture” that people are objecting to, but the very idea that victimization is increasingly valorized, or that anyone might find it attractive to gain recognition as a victim or member of a disadvantaged group.

It is likewise difficult to admit that privilege can ever be a liability. What Lukianoff and Haidt call “vindictive protectiveness” creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before they speak up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” But the advocates of this type of morality seldom acknowledge they are harming anyone at all. This is especially so since, while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim.

Other Reader Responses to the Sociologists   

Let’s close with several more emails of interest for those pondering the intellectual framework that the sociologists have suggested. One reader writes the following:

The new "culture" is not rooted in the wish to have victimhood--where the "honor culture" is rooted in a wish for "honor" and "dignity culture" is rooted in a wish for "dignity"--rather, the new "culture" is rooted in a wish for greater empathy for one another. Thus, I think it is best to refer to it as the "empathy culture."

Where the ideology of the "honor culture" is to maximize the "honor" of the individual and the "dignity culture" is to preserve the "dignity" of the individual, the ideology of the "empathy culture" is to maximize empathy for the suffering of others within the group and greater society. Indeed I believe it is the very collectivist tilt to the new "culture" that makes it so attractive for those who lived through the Cold War to deride and demean this new trend, starting with its very name: "victimhood culture."

"Honor" is a good thing. "Dignity" is a good thing. "Victimhood" is not. Please do not use value terms to describe different "cultures" unless you choose all positive terms or all negative terms. That is why I advocate using the term "empathy culture."

Says another:

The reference to victimhood cultures thriving because of "atomized environments" sidesteps the sociological literature on how these institutions (universities, yes, but many other modern workplaces) exert influences independent of the honor/dignity distinction. I'd recommend reading Kim, Cohen, and Au, "The jury and abjury of my peers" in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010) or Asiani, et al., "Dignity, face, and honor cultures" in the 2013 Handbook of Research on Negotiation.

A final reader writes:

We're seeing the spread of a form of discourse that is more-or-less the offspring of the relationship between the human resources profession and the post-sixties left. Both were engaged in the project of managing diversity and inequality, often in the context of small-group, personal politics, in the context of the failure of the sixties left to effect a radical transformation.

One trait freewheeling social justice proponents share with their more staid cousins in managerial professions is that both concern themselves with visible signs of potential liability and/or internalized oppressive attitudes.