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The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars Paperback – 27 February 2018
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Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2018
“A book of revelations! Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning provide both a comprehensive overview and surgically precise analysis of what many will find a new and possibly shocking style of modern morality―a ‘culture of victimhood’―that ever more aggressively dominates discourse and silences the free exchange of ideas in American academic life. The book will reward any reader with a rare experience: a consistently creative and stunningly insightful theory supported by a rich array of captivating empirical illustrations. Anyone with even a casual interest in the conflict and tension that increasingly pervade and politicize the atmosphere of today’s colleges and universities will surely feast on every chapter of this book.” (Donald Black, University Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences, University of Virginia, USA, and author of Moral Time and The Behavior of Law)
- Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2018 edition (27 February 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 308 pages
- ISBN-10 : 3319703285
- ISBN-13 : 978-3319703282
- Dimensions : 14.81 x 1.78 x 21.01 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 35,697 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Therefore, the authors, two US sociologists, aim in this book is to accurately characterise and describe the core reason we are seeing phenomena such as beliefs in micro-aggression, calls for "safe spaces", increases in hoaxes and false accusations of crimes, and also calls for censorship on free speech. They present a solid explanation of behaviour that seems absolutely astounding and incomprehensible to most of us today, such as students in the US demanding from their universities the creation of racially segregated spaces where white people would be banned from entering, such as at Northwestern University where black students demanded that white student not be allowed to join them in the cafeteria, so they could "enjoy their lunches in peace" (p.80). The reader will surely be aware that Martin Luther King certainly did not dream of separate cafeterias for black students, so how has it come to this?
They start by explaining how different sets of values determine cultures and determine each individual's social and moral status. There are many forms of status, such as wealth and fame; moral status is often used in determining who is right and who is wrong, who has just cause and who does not. There are different cultures, or sets of values, that determine a person's moral status. For instance, in a culture of honour, an individual's status is determined by their reputation amongst their peers, and is enhanced by showing acts of bravery, strength, or prowess. Individuals defend their honour at all costs, and will retaliate against challenges to their reputation, e.g. by duelling after an insult or argument. Failing to retaliate is a sign of weakness and invites further attacks, therefore people must fight back against even the smallest offences. Criminal drug gangs are an example of groups living according to honour culture in the west today.
However, honour culture was replaced in mainstream western societies during the last few centuries by a set of values centred on dignity. In a dignity culture, a person possesses an inherent dignity that cannot be dented by slights and insults. A person can however damage their social status by engaging in undignified behaviour, such as childishness, boorishness, violence and so on. Therefore, in a dignity culture, individuals learn to dismiss insults and minor offences as unworthy of response, as they stand to lose more than they can gain by escalating the conflict. To respond back with a petty insult is childish, to be aggressive is boorish, and to be violent is criminal.
In a culture of dignity, more serious conflicts or arguments are resolved by reason, rather than strength or reputation, sometimes with the help of third parties as arbitrators. This describes how, in our society, conflicts are taken off the street and into courts of law, which seek to resolve disputes based on evidence and facts, using legal principles that apply equally to each individual. It is clear to the reader that cultures of dignity are part of the bedrock for free, democratic states centred on individual citizens who hold equal rights, regardless of who they are.
Now, as the title of the book suggest, there is a third culture which has emerged and which does not consider the dignity of the individual, nor a person's individual reputation, as the key value of social status. Instead, it is a person's ability to claim a need for sympathy and pity that determines their position and hence validate their goals. Therefore, unlike honour culture where weakness is associated to inferiors status, individuals seek to publicize their victimization as much as possible, in order to attract favourable intervention from third parties. Thus victimhood culture is different from honour culture, as in an honour culture, reliance on third parties is another form of weakness.
Although dignity and victimhood cultures both sometimes rely on third parties for arbitration, they do so differently. Instead of dignity culture's emphasis on arbitration based on evidence of actual offence, victimhood culture primarily seeks to appeal to emotions of sympathy and pity. This explains why such emphasis is placed on the feelings of the victim, rather than the actual objective presence or absence of an offence. Similar to honour cultures but unlike dignity cultures, victimhood culture makes it advantageous to react to every small offences and insult a person receives, since it enhances the sympathy and pity from their peers who also share victimhood values, especially if it is argued that these offences are not isolated incidents, but part of a wider "systemic" trend. Furthermore, since most minor offences are simply too minor for serious consideration from dignity culture, it is also highly advantageous in a victimhood culture to claim shared victimhood with members of a group, e.g. to take personal offence and make others party to a conflict that would otherwise not involve them. This is a good strategy if you want to bring people onto your side, and explains why victimhood culture is obsessed with historic injustices, despite no party having been involved in those events.
The authors argue very convincingly that these main traits of victimhood cultures explain many of the things we see today. They go through many key examples, such as how micro-aggression theory downplay objective truth and proportionality and instead claim trivial incidents as part of "systemic bias" or even "rape culture". They explain how victimhood culture promotes false accusations and even hoaxes of crimes, since they generate the sympathy the supposed victim craves, without the need to provide a genuine example backed up by evidence.
They further explain how victimhood culture is inherently tribal, as it emphasizes the role of group conflict. It promotes the view that society is simply composed of groups of oppressors and oppressed, despite the evidence of more equality and fairness than ever before in human history. Recall that a person's status and influence is determined by their ability to claim membership to a supposedly victimized group. This explains why, in a victimhood culture, people from non-victimized groups are considered inferior in moral status, as shown by how often we see claims that out-group members cannot hold valid opinions and should not be allowed to speak publicly, regardless of their own individual reasoning and arguments. Unlike dignity culture, victimhood culture is inherently a partisan culture, where adhering "moral commitment to always support alleged victims" is paramount, and the act of seeking the truth is seen itself as an offence. This is illustrated in the attacks on the journalist who first pointed out the inconsistencies in a rape accusation at the University of Virginia in 2014 (p.125), which upon further investigation revealed that the accusation was fabricated, which ranged from the ad-hominem to claims that the due process and safe-guards of free society are institutional abuses of power ("institutions will bring their power to bear to obfuscate violence.", p 125). The reader can't help but think of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird given the disturbing parallels with the moral panics and mob justice that are present in these examples.
The concept of victimhood culture even explains how would-be victim groups compete for victimhood. For instance, in 2017, three Jewish participants were asked to leave an annual LGBT event called "Dyke March" in Chicago, because they were carrying a rainbow flag with the star of David, on the basis that it "made people feel unsafe" and that the march was "pro-Palestinian" and "anti-Zionist". It's initially hard to understand how they cannot see the contradiction in having a march for minority rights being so blatantly anti-semitic, but inside victimhood culture, it is inevitable that multiple groups will emerge to compete for maximum victimhood status, and will seek to portray other groups as oppressors to raise their status.
In the later parts of the book, the authors examine how victimhood culture has come to be and how it spreads. They argue that it arises primarily in environments with high but somewhat imperfect levels of equality, high levels of access to potential sympathy to third parties (e.g. twitter) high levels of overarching authority for acting as enforcers, overly protective parenting, and lack of developmental opportunities for dealing individually with even minor challenges, such as attending a interview, as an independent dignified individual. This explains why victimhood culture has not arisen in challenging poor neighbourhoods, but instead in the affluent elite universities. The authors then go on to consider what are the possible future outcomes of victimhood behaviour, such as increased tribal conflicts in society, maybe even the return of racial segregation. More broadly, victimhood culture challenges the core beliefs of dignity culture, namely that we are each reasonable and responsible citizens of our society, that we are not guilty of our ancestors crimes, that our individual behaviour determines our dignity and that reasoned thinking determines right and wrong.
Ultimately, I think the book is simply excellent. The authors write clearly, lucidly and present a very solid line of reasoning for their description of this new phenomenon. From the lens of mainstream dignity culture, much of what happens in victimhood culture is alien to our moral compass, and thus the authors do a great service to provide a consistent description and explanation of victimhood culture behaviour. The fact that many immature young people are misbehaving is one thing, but the miscarriages of justice by adults in positions of responsibility is deeply concerning for wider society. Many surely know that it is our responsibility as adults in society to take note of these alarming developments, to be conscious of the manipulations of victimhood cultures, and, especially for those in positions of authority, to safeguard the practices of due process based on evidence and investigation when arbitrating conflict. An important principle of justice that has seemingly been forgotten is that the action of the authorities in redressing a harm should not be disproportionate to the actual objective harm of an initial offence. It is time for us to have a grown up conversation about why so many of us live in fear of being the next victim of the twitter lynch mob, of losing our jobs, our livelihoods and our families to possible misinterpretations, exaggerations or even fabrications about our persons.
TLDR: The authors hit the nail on the head. You need to read this book.
Putting aside the content, I like the writers’ style. It’s very accessible.