The Rise of Victimhood Culture

A recent scholarly paper on “microaggressions” uses them to chart the ascendance of a new moral code in American life.

David McNew / Reuters

Last fall at Oberlin College, a talk held as part of Latino Heritage Month was scheduled on the same evening that intramural soccer games were held. As a result, soccer players communicated by email about their respective plans. “Hey, that talk looks pretty great,” a white student wrote to a Hispanic student, “but on the off chance you aren’t going or would rather play futbol instead the club team wants to go!!”

Unbeknownst to the white student, the Hispanic student was offended by the email. And her response signals the rise of a new moral culture America.

When conflicts occur, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observe in an insightful new scholarly paper, aggrieved parties can respond in any number of ways. In honor cultures like the Old West or the street gangs of West Side Story, they might engage in a duel or physical fight. In dignity cultures, like the ones that prevailed in Western countries during the 19th and 20th Centuries, “insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery,” they write. “When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions.”

We’ve all engaged in these actions.

The aggrieved might “exercise covert avoidance, quietly cutting off relations with the offender without any confrontation” or  “conceptualize the problem as a disruption to their relationship and seek only to restore harmony without passing judgment.” In the most serious cases, they might call police rather than initiating violence themselves. “For offenses like theft, assault, or breach of contract, people in a dignity culture will use law without shame,” the authors observe. “But in keeping with their ethic of restraint and toleration, it is not necessarily their first resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities as frivolous. People might even be expected to tolerate serious but accidental personal injuries.”

* * *

The Oberlin student took a different approach: After initially emailing the student who offended her, she decided to publicly air the encounter that provoked her and their subsequent exchange in the community at large, hoping to provoke sympathy and antagonism toward the emailer by advertising her status as an aggrieved party.

She did so in a post to the web site Oberlin Microaggressions, a blog  “primarily for students who have been marginalized at Oberlin.” The aggrieved student quoted the aforementioned email: “Hey, that talk looks pretty great, but on the off chance you aren’t going or would rather play futbol instead the club team wants to go!!”

Then she explained her grievance:

Ok. 1. Thanks for you thinking that the talk is “pretty great”. I appreaciate your white male validation. I see that it isn’t interesting enough for you to actually take your ass to the talk. 2. Who said it was ok for you to say futbol? It’s Latino Heritage Month, your telling people not to come to the talk, but want to use our language? Trick NO! White students appropriating the Spanish language, dropping it in when convenient, never ok. Keep my heritage language out your mouth! If I’m not allowed to speak it, if my dad’s not allowed to speak it, then bitch you definitely are not supposed to be speaking it. Especially in this context.

She also published the email that he sent to the white student:

  1. Your not latino, call it soccer. You don’t play futbol. Futbol is played with people (LATINO) who know how to engage in community soccer, as somebody who grew up on the cancha (soccer field) I know what playing futbol is, and the way you take up space, steal the ball, don’t pass, is far from how my culture plays ball.
  1. I’m not playing intramural once again this semester because you and your cis-dude, non passing the ball, stealing the ball from beginners, spanish-mocking, white cohort has ruined it (for the second time). Unless I find another team you won’t be seeing me.
  1. I don’t care if this email is over the top or mean. So complain to whatever white friends you want about it. You’re never going to know what its like to not be able to your own heritage sport comfortably because of your gender/race/ethnicity.

And she quoted the white student’s reply, which emphasizes the white student’s own sense of grievance:

...I’m sorry that I detracted from your event.  Do you really think people who were going to go to the talk changed their mind because of my email? I don’t think so, and that was not my aim at all - I wanted to give those people who had been looking forward to playing soccer on Thursday a chance to do that.

You do not get to define who I am. Fuck off. Clearly you only see me at face value and yes I’m white and male, what do you want me to do about that? I have a second family that I have spent a good portion of my life with. My brothers Paco Rafa and Diego my mom Julie my grandmother Margo and my father Arnoldo. Technically their my god-family but for all intensive purposes they are my family, call me their 4th son, and I am extremely close with them. My father came from Costa Rica as a fourteen year old boy, living, working and studying through an education program jointly coordinated by the catholic church and UC Berkeley. My 2nd family is Costa Rican, and I am a part of that family no matter what you say. I’m not claiming to be latino and I don’t think I’ve ever claimed that, but I do have a latino family and you trying to separate me from them, to create distance that doesn’t exist based purely on how you incorrectly perceive me, is terribly offensive.

The white student goes on to assert that white, male privilege is a huge problem in America, and briefly chronicles his attempts to wrestle with it and live a just, moral life.

The Hispanic student replied, in part:

(WOWWWWWWWW SO YOUR NOT RACIST BECAUSE YOU HAVE A “SECOND” LATINO FAMILY, SECOND! We need to talk about tokenizing brown friends/family and taking them in to identify with POC’s (or avoiding accountability for being racist)… I’m glad you’ve recognized you’re not latino, how hard was that? Did you ever think  that you shouldn’t speak or advertise your Spanish because you’re white. How hard is it to understand when a member of the latino community comes out and says, DO NOT APPROPRIATE AND FETISHIZE OUR LANGUAGE. GET OFF MY CANCHA!

So what exactly does this exchange tell us?

​* * *

The sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, cited the Oberlin incident as one of many examples of a new, increasingly common approach to handling conflict.

It isn’t honor culture.

“Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response,” they write. “But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor.”

But neither is it dignity culture:

“Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”

The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, 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.”

It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”

Victimhood cultures emerge in settings, like today’s college campuses, “that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions,” they argue. “Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood ... the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”

To return to Oberlin, it is instructive to imagine how an exchange-student from Spain might react to the Hispanic student’s post on the Oberlin Microaggressions blog. Were he operating in an honor culture, he might find the student and slap her in the face. In a dignity culture, he might ignore the post, or write the student a private note that says, “Hey, just to let you know, in my native country, there are millions of people who are both white and native Spanish speakers. And we all say fútbol.”

Whereas in a victimhood culture, the Spaniard might write his own post at Oberlin Microaggressions, constructed to heighten the perceived insult. “Hey you American supremacist,” he might tell the Hispanic student, “your HEGEMONIC ignorance of MY PEOPLE effectively ERASES US. Before you engage in RHETORICAL GENOCIDE against me in the future, consider that by calling it YOUR LANGUAGE you’ve EXCLUDED millions of people in a country smaller and poorer than yours.” Then someone else could take offense and call the Spaniard a white-male colonialist. There is no end to conflict in a victimhood culture.

​* * *

Per their discipline, the sociologists offer structural explanations for why college students are addressing conflicts within the framework of “microaggressions.” Victimhood culture “arose because of the rise of social conditions conducive to it,” they argue, “and if it prevails it will be because those conditions have prevailed.”

Those social conditions include the following:

  • Self-help in the form of dueling or fighting is not an option.

  • “The availability of social superiors—especially hierarchical superiors such as legal or private administrators—is conducive to reliance on third parties.”

  • Campaigns aimed at winning over the support of third parties are likeliest to occur in atomized environments, like college campuses, where one cannot rely on members of a family, tribe or clan to automatically take one’s side in a dispute.

  • Since third-parties are likeliest to intervene in disputes that they regard as relatively serious, and disputes where one group is perceived as dominating another are considered serious by virtue of their aggregate relevance to millions of people, victimhood culture is likeliest to arise in settings where there is some diversity and inequality, but whose members are almost equal, since “a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.”  

This interesting theory offers a lot of fodder for reflection––indeed, it is broader in scope and more nuanced in its particulars than I’ve been able to convey in this article, and interested readers should read Jonathan Haidt’s treatment for more details.

As I ponder microaggressions as “a form of social control in which the aggrieved collect and publicize accounts of intercollective offenses, making the case that relatively minor slights are part of a larger pattern of injustice and that those who suffer them are socially marginalized and deserving of sympathy,” I certainly see their emergence on college campuses, but I wonder about other possible iterations.

For example, the emergence of “the blogosphere” in the early aughts––something I participated in to some extent–– was rife with examples of conservative, progressive, and libertarian bloggers calling attention to minor slights against their respective ideological groups by mainstream media outlets. In “Fisking” the MSM, the aggrieved seized on these slights, often exaggerating them in the process; tried to garner the support of third parties (an ombudsman, the public at large); cast themselves as victims of unfair treatment; and demonized adversaries.

They did so in hopes of making the case that the small slight that they’d seized upon was actually evidence of a larger, significant injustice to a whole class of people.

In the mid-aughts, when I covered immigration politics and policy, many restrictionists that I interviewed—many of them working class whites in the Inland Empire—would say that they resented “having to dial one for English” on automated phone lines, or having to hear Spanish spoken while in line at the grocery store. They, too, were emphasizing small slights in hopes of casting themselves as victims while appealing to third parties, like politicians they were lobbying.

A little bit farther afield is a Hispanic homeowner I once encountered who lived across the street from a high school. Sometimes she would call the police on black or Hispanic students who were standing on a nearby corner after school, arguing that they were loitering and that their loud conversation and laughter bothered her. If “dignity culture” is characterized by a reticence to involve third parties in minor disputes, an argument could be made that many black and brown people are denied its benefits. In a city like New York during the stop-and-frisk era, minorities were stopped by police because other people in their community, aggrieved by minor quality-of-life issues like loitering or sitting on stoops or squeegee men, successfully appealed to third-parties to intervene by arguing that what may seem like small annoyances were actually burdensome and victimizing when aggregated.

To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name? How are their actions the same as and distinct from Oberlin Microaggressions and its analogs at other campuses? It seems clear that college students are coming into conflict as adherents of dignity and victim cultures collide; but to what extent are the same clashes happening in other realms, some of them on the political right? These are the questions I’m pondering after reading that paper.

As yet, I have no firm conclusions.

And I encourage your emails, whether they’re abstract responses to those questions or observations from campus or elsewhere about “dignity” and “victimhood.” Are those the right frames? Do you think that dignity culture is better, in the abstract, than victimhood culture? Write with your views.