A culture of victimhood and intolerance

Bradley Campbell on the sociology behind the culture wars on campus.

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Safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings and No Platforming have become ubiquitous on college campuses on both sides of the Atlantic. Identity-driven grievances, hair-trigger sensitivity to slight and a censorious policing of language have even bled out into mainstream society and politics. Could there be a sociological explanation for these phenomena? Bradley Campbell is the co-author, alongside Jason Manning, of The Rise of Victimhood Culture. spiked caught up with Campbell to find out how today’s victimhood culture compares with other cultural and moral frameworks.

spiked: What made you realise that victimhood culture was distinct from past cultures?

Bradley Campbell: Most of my work is on the sociology of conflict and morality, particularly violence and genocide. My co-author, Jason Manning, was interested in that, too. We then became interested in conflicts happening around us on campus. I had become particularly interested in hate-crime hoaxes. I wanted to know why people would make false accusations and report false crimes. For instance, there was a woman at Claremont College, California, who had vandalised her own car with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Similarly, I was following a case at Oberlin College, Ohio, where there had been some racist graffiti which caused an uproar. Then, somebody reported spotting a Klu Klux Klansman on campus. All classes had to be shut down. It turned out that it was just somebody wrapped in a blanket. It wasn’t a hoax but people were very quick to believe the claim rather than scrutinise it.

In 2013, we came across a website called Oberlin Microaggressions, which was the first time we had seen the term ‘microagression’. Microaggressions are small slights directed at disadvantaged groups which are said to be important because they all add up.

We started thinking about microaggressions and what was going on on college campuses in terms of comparative morality. There are other kinds of environments where people will say, ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’. Or where people say that you should have thick skin and ignore minor slights.

We wanted to know why people were so concerned about a particular kind of minor offence and were publicising it to others. We connected this to the hate-crime hoaxes by understanding that we were witnessing a new kind of moral culture among left-wing campus activists. We called it victimhood culture, to emphasise the fact that victimhood had itself become a marker of status. We were also contrasting it with older cultures like honour culture and dignity culture.

spiked: How do these cultures differ?

Campbell: In honour cultures, honour confers status, based on your reputation for bravery. In honour cultures, people are sensitive to slight, so there is a similarity with today’s victim culture. Men would fight duels over minor insults. But the difference is that people in honour cultures portrayed themselves as strong and able to handle their conflicts themselves, rather than appealing to others.

There’s a conception of honour going right back to ancient civilisations. This then comes to be replaced by a dignity culture, where people are said to have equal worth and equal dignity. This emerges in the United States in most of the country around the beginning of the 1800s. You have Aaron Burr fighting a duel with Alexander Hamilton in New York in 1804, which is one of the last major duels. Honour culture continued in the American South until after the Civil War.

Cultural change is a gradual process, and not always complete. At first, despite there being a dignity culture, dignity was not realised for all people. You had Jim Crow laws and discrimination against women. But common assumptions about dignity could be appealed to. In the civil-rights movement, people appealed to the notion that people have equal worth and should be treated as such

Dignity cultures make a distinction between major and minor offences, between speech and violence. People are taught to not insult others, to not take insults personally, and to interpret others’ words generously. That is where the idea of ‘sticks and stones’ comes from.

Victimhood culture is different from both, in that calls attention to minor slights, but only if these slights are said to further the oppression of disadvantaged groups. Everything is interpreted in relation to perceived oppression. Of course, there are other moral values at play, but the central value of victimhood takes precedence over other values like compassion.

Concerns about microaggression or the establishment of safe spaces are also very different from the civil-rights framework that emerged from a dignity culture. Safe spaces are not demanding equality but protection, extending the notion of harm from physical violence and slurs to political disagreement and ordinary speech.

spiked: Why is victimhood culture so prevalent on the most elite college campuses?

Campbell: Certainly, the people making claims of victimhood are not those you would think of as the most disadvantaged. We were inspired by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who, writing in the late 1800s, said that even in a society of saints, there would still be sinners. And so tinier offences would create bigger scandals. Environments like Oberlin or Yale are pretty tolerant places, with high degrees of diversity and equality. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any discrimination, disparity or disadvantage. But compared with poor parts of the inner cities, people are more equal and more tolerant of difference in terms of race, gender and sexuality.

Campus environments also have people to appeal to who can punish these offences or who can train people to change their behaviour. The presence of a responsible authority is important in driving these claims of victimhood. Genuinely disadvantaged people don’t have administrators who will listen to and respond to them.

spiked: How have appeals to victimhood manifested themselves on the right?

Campbell: Victimhood is stronger on the left because it has a moral framework based around oppression. But as victim status becomes more attractive and confers benefits and support, then others are going to take advantage of that, too. Social psychologists talk about competitive victimhood. You see this in particular with Donald Trump, who is constantly calling attention to the way he has been ‘victimised’ by the left.

On campus, conservatives have legitimate grievances – they are outnumbered and their opinions are marginalised. But it is about how you frame things. Conservatives might not use the same language of microaggressions or have the same moral framework around oppression, but they do make opportunistic appeals to others to recognise their victimhood.

spiked: Is the rise of victimhood culture an inevitable historical process or can we push back against it?

Campbell: Some of the factors that have created victimhood culture are pretty entrenched – and nor are they things we would want to alter. For instance, if increasing diversity and equality is contributing to a victimhood culture, I certainly would not want to challenge that. I would rather challenge the attacks on free speech and due process directly.

The way to combat victimhood culture intellectually is to understand that even though some of the concerns that people on the left have are good, claims to victimhood are likely to cause more conflict. They can make it impossible to get along. Worse still, they can provoke a reaction. I am worried that alt-right movements and some people’s embrace of racial hierarchies are arising in reaction to victimhood culture. So victimhood culture doesn’t actually help the people it claims to be helping and there needs to be a better way of dealing with conflicts when they arise.

In particular, we need to insist on the difference between speech and violence. Activists have tried to blur this distinction. This has meant that controversial speech has been met with violence. When Milo Yiannopoulos went to Berkeley and there were riots, a student newspaper said that the violence was ‘self-defence’ against his speech. That kind of idea is poisonous and destructive to free speech.

Bradley Campbell was talking to Fraser Myers.

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