n 2011, a group of University of Wyoming students created a Facebook group called “UW Crushes,” where they shared anonymous declarations of attraction to one another. The police were called to investigate when one anonymous poster wrote: “I want to hatef–k Meg Lanker Simons so hard That chick runs her liberal mouth all the time and doesn’t care who knows it. I think its [sic] hot and it makes me angry. One night with me and shes [sic] gonna be a good Republican bitch.” Students who were members of the group asked the group’s administrators to remove the post. But Lanker Simons objected: “Actually, I want this to stay up. This is disgusting, misogynistic, and apparently something the admins of this page think is a perfectly acceptable sentiment.” She continued: “Even if it is taken down, I’m left to wonder if there’s someone out there with a violent fantasy about me—and likely other women.” Police later determined that the post was a hoax and that the threat had been written by Meg Lanker Simons herself. Before the police arrived at this conclusion, a rally against “rape culture” had been held at the university.
The Rise of Victimhood Culture makes the case that incentives at the modern American university have created a new moral culture, one where victimhood is granted a special moral status. Awarding status to victims has in turn led to hoaxes, false accusations, and, in some extreme cases, moral panics. The diagnosis is put forward by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, and they make their case convincingly. The argument is that college campus is ground zero for this new culture, but its rules of conduct are starting to leak into mainstream institutions.
Campbell and Manning did not start their careers investigating microaggressions and trigger warnings. Campbell had been studying the sociology of genocide at California State University, and Manning had been studying suicide at West Virginia University. They came together to consider the questions of how groups manage conflict and how grievances are handled in different cultural contexts. In The Rise of Victimhood Culture, Campbell and Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today: “dignity,” “honor,” and “victimhood,” and the various behaviors associated with each.
A dignity culture, they explain, has a set of moral values and behavioral norms designed to promote the idea that each human life possesses immutable worth. If an individual has been brutalized or exists at the bottom of a social pecking order, she still has human worth. In a dignity culture, children are encouraged to try their best and are taught aphorisms such as “sticks and stones make break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
By contrast, in an honor culture, being on the bottom of a social pecking order is associated with great shame. Victims are tainted and often punished for bringing dishonor to their families. In some extreme circumstances, they may even be killed.
A victimhood culture departs from both by inverting their norms. On a university campus, for example, victims are not shamed but are instead fiercely protected, and now awarded status. This dynamic could be observed as early as 2015, in the reception to Emma Sulkowicz’s protest against a sexual assault she alleged had taken place. It consisted of her carrying her mattress around the Columbia University campus, including to class, under the condition that her accused rapist needed to be expelled in order for her to stop. For this performance, she was widely criticized, but she was also heralded as a feminist hero. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called it “succinct and powerful” and added that Sulkowicz has “set a very high standard for any future work she’ll do as an artist.” Although Columbia University and the New York Police Department failed to establish any wrongdoing on the part of the student Sulkowicz had accused, for art critics such as Smith, the accused student’s guilt was a fait accompli. That such awards and accolades might incentivize vexatious or false complaints in a student body seemed not to matter to adults in charge.
In the most disquieting chapter, Campell and Manning predict that victimhood culture will eventually spread from elite colleges into the mainstream. In making this prediction, they note the significance of the fact that victimhood culture has emerged among the wealthiest schools in America. Oberlin and Brown, for example, have led the microaggression movement, while Claremont has been a pioneer in safe-space demands, microaggression protests, and the banning of speakers. They point out that the median family income at Middlebury College—where Charles Murray was shouted down and where his sponsoring professor, Alison Stranger, was given whiplash injuries in a parking lot—was $240,000 per year. That income level is double that of Saint Louis University, where Murray spoke to an attentive audience. The book thus highlights a peculiar fact: The students most obsessed with their own oppression are some of the most pampered individuals in the world.
Unlike victimhood culture, dignity culture did not arise from pampered pupils at American schools and universities. It did not even originate with the upper classes. Campbell and Manning explain that it was first established in the class of yeoman farmers, master craftsmen, and artisans of Northern Europe. Since its members had goods to sell, they had a lot to gain from general tolerance of the foibles of others and a lot to lose from engaging in reckless violence. While the nobility continued to duel with swords, Europe’s growing middle classes developed cultures of commercial interdependence. When institutions such as courts matured and the authority of nobles was weakened, the upper classes adopted dignity culture as well. So while dignity spread upwards from the middle classes to the social elite, Campbell and Manning warn, victimhood culture will likely spread downwards from the social elites to the middle classes—as those wishing to be upwardly mobile will try to emulate upper-class moral norms.
While the culture is likely to spread downwards, it is also likely to inspire resentment. Campbell and Manning warn that the narratives of privilege deployed by the culture, which target white men in particular, are just as likely to inspire hostility as deference, especially in those who feel that they are unfairly targeted as oppressors:
If whites and males increasingly face a moral world divided between those who vilify them and those who glorify them, we should not be surprised if many find the latter more appealing than the former.… Here again, the backlash against victimhood may not necessarily advance the ideals of dignity, such as the moral equality of all people. Victimhood culture deviates from this moral equality by producing a moral hierarchy with white males at the bottom; the reaction it provokes may be the resurgence of a moral hierarchy that places them at the top.
Paradoxically, the backlash against political correctness is likely to make the situation worse. Conservatives are quickly learning to ape victimhood, too. The authors note that professional provocateur Milo Yiannopolous “thrives on causing offense and controversy,” neither of which promotes a culture of dignity.
When Kevin Williamson was fired from the Atlantic, Erick Erickson tweeted, “Kevin Williamson’s firing is a reminder that there are two Americas and one side will stop at nothing to silence the other.” Kurt Schlichter took it up another notch:
Never Trump, the public humiliation of Kevin Williamson demonstrates the indisputable fact…
You can side with the left and hope to be allowed to exist like a domesticates [sic] lap dog like David Brooks or Bret Stephens…
Or you can accept this is an existential fight and join us.
The logic of victimhood culture, then, is escalating grievance and retaliatory aggression. When slights cannot be neutralized with a dignified turn of the cheek, the prognosis looks grim.
What the purveyors of victimhood culture do not seem to grasp is that in weakening dignity, and in undermining the principles that deem all men and women to be moral equals, they unwittingly destroy the safeguards that prevent bad actors—such as hoaxers and narcissists—from climbing the social hierarchy through dishonesty and manipulation. In incentivizing weakness and reliance on third parties to intervene in disputes, students invite a paternalistic authoritarian apparatus to develop. While they seem comfortable with an authoritarian apparatus on their university campus today, we should not be surprised if they demand an authoritarian state to police the citizenry tomorrow. The logical endpoint of a victimhood culture will not be a progressive utopia. On the contrary: The further this culture radiates outward, the more likely it will make victims of us all.