Campus Wars and the ‘Culture of Victimhood’
The concept of a “Culture of Victimhood” will be familiar to most people who have observed or participated in debates over behaviors seen on college campuses and elsewhere over the last several decades.
The notion of establishing victimhood as a means of social control has been applied to a variety of situations, from debates over political correctness — in all its forms — to fights by ethnic groups (including Jews and Muslims) over who gets the mantle of persecuted minority. But in the sociological context that I started describing in my last post, his “Culture of Victimhood” represents a new moral framework that is currently trying to supplant a “Culture of Dignity” which itself represents a fairly new innovation.
If you recall, a “Culture of Honor” values strength and independence, which is why members of such cultures perceive the merest of slights as a challenge to their honor which must be vigorously fought against without turning to outsiders for help. In contrast, members of a “Culture of Dignity” are ready to let things like verbal insults roll off them and are willing to turn to authority for assistance — but only when attacks rise to a level where personal indifference or social pressure are not enough to deal with the problem.
Like a “Culture of Honor,” members of a “Culture of Victimhood” are not indifferent to things like personal slights. In fact, they are far more sensitive to them than members of an honor culture ever were — seeing personal insult in even the unconscious behavior of others.
These types of unintentional insults have recently been branded “microaggressions,” but even before this term began spreading in recent years, the hypersensitivity regarding matters of race and gender occurring on campuses can be seen as an element of the “Culture of Victimhood” taking on an earlier “Culture of Dignity.”
Like members of a dignity culture, members of a “Culture of Victimhood” do not perceive turning to authority as a source of shame. In fact, they are ready to reach for this option immediately, demanding protection from harm (in the form of safe spaces and trigger warnings) and punishment of transgressors, which they insist be provided by authority figures (such as campus administrators) immediately upon request.
In order for such “Culture of Victimization” to take hold, some important elements must be in place. The first is that an environment where a victim culture can thrive must already be ethnically diverse and relatively economically egalitarian.
It might seem contradictory that places like college campuses, which have established diversity and egalitarianism as cultural norms, have become Ground Zero in battles over lack of diversity and perceived privilege, including economic privilege. But if you think for a moment, how could this not be so? After all, if colleges were still segregated places where minorities like African Americans, Hispanics and Jews were excluded, who would play the role of an on-campus target of discrimination?
As for economic equality, while government assistance in education means today’s students come from a much wider range of economic strata than they did a century ago, the struggle for existence that prevents the truly impoverished from participating in political activity elsewhere in the world is generally not present in college environments — where basic needs (such as food and shelter) are amply supplied.
Given that turning to authority is an important (and often first) option for members of a “Culture of Victimhood,” it is also vital that such authority figures not only exist but be plentiful, accessible, and ready to accommodate requests made of them. In any debate over the cost of college, bloating administrations are often fingered as one of the main culprits for rising tuition rates. But the plethora of administrators (some of whom are mandated to develop and enforce codes of student behavior) means an aggrieved party has a ready ear for complaints and demands.
This too might seem odd, given that recent protests have been directed at school administrators, some of them leading to the resignation of senior leaders. But keep in mind that the goal of such protests is not the supplanting of existing power structures, but rather to replace members of those structures with administrators that are more accommodating to the protester’s agenda.
We should not ignore the role played by the internet in all this mayhem. As with many political projects (including the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and the fight against it), the net is a powerful force multiplier, giving political activists the ability to organize and recruit. And while there are certainly positive elements to networked politics, social media also allows — if not encourages — the forming of online mobs that serve as judge and jury targeted at perceived wrongdoers.
The internet also tends to magnify the importance of small events and phenomena, including controversies over things like microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces (not to mention BDS) which are actually playing out in very few locations. But whether or not these particulars represent trends or temporary moral panics, it is worth reflecting on what our world would look like if a “Culture of Victimhood” took hold beyond the campus.
And it is to this subject that we’ll turn to next.
Part II of a series