In "Microaggression and Moral Cultures," the UCLA* California State University, Los Angeles sociologist Bradley Campbell and the West Virginia University sociologist Jason Manning identify a "culture of victimhood" that they distinguish from the "honor cultures" and "dignity cultures" of the past. In a victimhood culture, they write, "individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance."
Insightfully complementing their analysis is a new study by the St. Lawrence University economist Steven Horwitz, titled "Cooperation Over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism." Horwitz makes the case that overprotective childrearing is undermining the "ability to engage in group problem solving and settle disputes without the intervention of outsiders," a capacity he calls "a key part of the liberal order." In other words, both studies find that Americans increasingly want and expect adult supervision.
Campbell and Manning begin by probing the rise of the "microaggression" phenomenon on university campuses. As defined by the Columbia diversity training specialist Derald Wing Sue, microaggressions are "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group." Microaggressions include asking an Asian American where he or she was born, complimenting a Latino on speaking English well, or asserting that "America is the land of opportunity." In general, microaggressions are seen as instances of a larger narrative of structural inequalities. "Conduct is offensive because it perpetuates or increases the domination of some persons and groups by others," Campbell and Manning observe.
The authors argue that people seek the moral status of victim in situations where social stratification is low, cultural diversity is high, and authorities are referees. These three conditions pervade the modern American university, so it not surprising that the microaggression victimhood phenomenon is most intense in academia. Google Trends finds that headlines featuring microaggression started a steep rise in 2012.
As social status becomes more equal, they argue, people become more sensitive to any slights perceived as aiming to increase the level of inequality in a relationship. In addition, as cultural diversity increases, any attempts seen as trying to reduce it or diminish its importance are deemed as a morally deviant form of domination. As the New York University moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has astutely observed, "As progress is made toward a more equal and humane society, it takes a smaller and smaller offense to trigger a high level of outrage. The goalposts shift, allowing participants to maintain a constant level of anger and constant level of perceived victimization."
Those experiencing what they think are microaggressions seek third-party redress of their grievances by assuming the pose of victim. "People portray themselves as oppressed by the powerful—as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy," write Campbell and Manning. The process heralds the emergence of a culture of victimhood that is distinct from earlier honor and dignity cultures. This is nothing less than demoralizing and polarizing.
In honor cultures, men maintain their honor by responding to insults, slights, and violations of rights by self-help violence. "Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or non-existent, and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack," write Campbell and Manning. They note that honor cultures still exist in the Arab world and among street gangs in Western societies.
During the 19th century, most Western societies began the moral transition toward dignity cultures in which all citizens are legally endowed with equal rights. Dignity does not depend upon reputation but exists as unalienable rights that do not depend on what other people think of one's bravery. Having a thick skin and shrugging off slights become virtues because they help maintain social peace. The aphorism that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," is practically the motto of dignity cultures.
Of course, serious conflicts cannot always be resolved privately. In dignity cultures persons, property, and rights are then defended as a last resort by recourse to third parties, such as courts and police, that if necessary wield violence on their behalf. Still, dignity cultures practice tolerance and are much more peaceful than honor cultures.
Horwitz is all about defending the culture of dignity. He points out that daily social interaction is full annoying or obnoxious small-scale behavior such as failing to refill the copier, taking some else's parking space, or hearing a tasteless joke. "When one seriously considers all the moments in a typical day that have potential for conflict that get resolved through conversation and negotiation, or just plain tolerance, it is actually somewhat astounding how smooth social life is," Horwitz observes. In fact, the vast majority of conflicts in modern Western societies are resolved without recourse to external authorities or direct coercion.
Horwitz makes a strong case that unsupervised and unstructured play among children teaches them private, noncoercive ways to resolve conflicts and generate cooperation, lessons that are very important to how they conduct themselves when they become adults. Supervised play, by contrast, trains children to expect adults to step in to adjudicate disputes and apply coercion. Horwitz fears this is flipping the social default setting from "figure out how to solve this conflict on your own" to "invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises." He suggests that the recent upsurge in conflicts around sexual consent on campus may arise in part because so many young adults never acquired the social skills developed through unstructured play, such as "ensuring that all involved continue to consent to the rules and to the game being played."
Like Campbell and Manning, Horwitz notes that Americans are turning increasingly to third-party coercion to resolve what would in earlier days have been considered minor conflicts. He worries that without "the skills necessary to solve conflicts cooperatively, it is not hard to imagine that people will quickly turn either to external authorities like the state to resolve them, or would demand an exhaustive list of explicit rules" as to what constitutes permissible conduct. His concern mirrors that of Alexis de Tocqueville who in Democracy in America (1835) prophesied that democracy would generate an "immense and tutelary power" whose authority is "absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood." Ultimately, Horwitz fears that the result of ceding ever more power to state authorities to resolve conflicts "will be the destruction of liberalism and democracy."
A victimhood culture combines an honor culture's quickness to take offense with an overdependence on the coercive institutions that serve as a dignity culture's last resort. If Campbell, Manning, and Horwitz are right about the direction American society is taking, that's really terrible news. A victimhood culture will spawn social conflict, which in turn will produce an ever larger and more coercive government tasked with trying to suppress it.
*Entirely my error.