The Rise of Victimhood Culture
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.
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.