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?
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.
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