In honor cultures, people (men) maintained their honor by responding to insults, slights, violations of rights by self-help violence. Generally honor cultures exist where the rule of law is weak. In honor cultures, people protected themselves, their families, and property through having a reputation for swift violence. During the 19th century, most Western societies began the moral transition toward dignity cultures in which all citizens were legally endowed with equal rights. In such societies, persons, property, and rights are defended by recourse to third parties, usually courts, police, and so forth, that, if necessary, wield violence on their behalf. Dignity cultures practice tolerance and are much more peaceful than honor cultures.
Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning are arguing that the U.S. is now transitioning to a victimhood culture that combines both the honor culture’s quickness to take offense with the dignity culture’s use of third parties to police and punish transgressions. The result is people are encouraged to think of themselves as weak, marginalized, and oppressed. This is nothing less than demoralizing and polarizing as everybody seeks to become a “victim.”
Blogger Jeb Kinnison disagrees with the notion that this is a “transition,” suggesting instead that victimhood culture thrives in “environments [that] tend to be artificially maintained,” like college campuses, and has likely reached its “peak influence,” with “natural corrections” beginning to appear, including tarnished brand of the Democrat Party and the popular appeal of the brash Donald Trump.
My suspicion is that the conflicting notions of an inevitable transition and a swift correction are both overstated. From my own experience moving through college and early adulthood just before the wave of Millennials, I can say that the victimhood game can become something of a trap. As Jonathan Haidt highlights in the original study, people who successfully claim to be victims increase their “moral status,” at the expense of the accused oppressor. “Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless.”
Because the accusation is interwoven with questions of identity and status, being innocent of specific, individualized offenses is insufficient defense. The oppressor may be able to prove that he did not rape the victim, but as a white male, he remains representative of the whole oppressive system that would have empowered him to rape, if he had in fact done it (and must be assumed to be doing it, at least in symbolic ways).
The incentive is strong, therefore, to look for some competing claim to victimhood, whether sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, mental illness, or some other quality that can bring victim status to a person who, on the surface, appears to be in the oppressor category. In that way, to the extent that the dispute is about more than the facts of the case (which can still be arbitrated according to the legal system of the “dignity culture,” in the terms of the study), membership in a protected group can act generally as a social prophylactic.
This incentive implies, also, a source of power for those who are able to designate themselves as the judges of competing victimhood claims and as moral legislators in decreeing what experiences or sources of identity qualify one for victim status. That source of power aligns naturally with the statist side in our culture’s ongoing politico-economic war.
As Kinnison suggests, bringing victimhood activists on board can be a liability for organizations that have to compete in some sort of market, and Western Civilization as we have known it would tend toward treating the culture of victimhood as a fad to expectorate. But taken as a tool for statists, it can be a lever to overturn the sources of wealth and power (and freedom) on which Western Civilization was founded. Providing the best, most-innovative product on the market is no defense for oppressors; indeed, it is simply more evidence of privilege.
Kinnison’s characterization of the environments in which the culture of victimhood thrives as “artificially maintained,” in short, may not be a description of a limiting factor, but rather a description of one side of the larger war. One needn’t squint very much at all to see the goal of central planning as being the transformation of the world from its natural, imperfect state into a perfected, if largely artificial, state in which — by incentive and by force — everybody behaves as if things that are not real actually exist, because the planners insist that they are better than reality.
To be sure, the utopian project is doomed to fail, and social collapse is the ultimate limiting factor for large-scale delusions. Still, we who can see the delusions for what they are do well to push back against them, rather than assume their inevitable collapse. It is not enough to recognize the falsehood of an imaginary culture; we have to be apostles of the truth. Victimhood can overturn the natural world only if we go along with the proposition that the lever is actually there and that its enforcers have real and legitimate authority over us.