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Microaggression Mania: Where the Victimhood Culture Comes From

A remarkable blog post was written Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business Jonathan Haidt, highlighting an article by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning delving deeply into the question of why microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other recent phenomenon have emerged on college campuses.

The sociologists examined the preceding 300 years of moral culture and came to some surprising conclusions.


I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell andJason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.

Later this month I will write a blog post laying out the implications of this extraordinary article. But first I want to make the ideas in the article widely available. It’s a fairly long article, so I provide below an outline of its main sections with extensive quotations from each section. My hope is that you can read the text below and get 80% of the value of the article in just 7 minutes.

The article is available for $30 so the 7 minutes you spend reading Professor Haidt's summary are well worth it.

Briefly, this is all a form of social control. Victims are a lot easier to control than non-victims, so making virtually everyone -- except white males -- a victim guarantees adherence to a political and cultural agenda.

Campbell and Manning:

As we dissect this phenomenon, then, we first address how it fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties. We note that these tactics sometimes involve building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses. We address the social logic by which such tactics operate and the social conditions likely to produce them – those that encourage aggrieved individuals to rely on third parties to manage their conflicts, but make obtaining third party support problematic. We then turn to the content of the grievances expressed in microaggression complaints and related forms of social control, which focus on inequality and emphasize the dominance of offenders and the oppression of the aggrieved.

We argue that the social conditions that promote complaints of oppression and victimization overlap with those that promote case-building attempts to attract third parties. When such social conditions are all present in high degrees, the result is a culture of victimhood in which individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.

If we are indeed in a transition to a different moral culture that, as Reason's Ronald Bailey points out, "combines both the honor culture's quickness to take offense with the dignity culture's use of third parties to police and punish transgressions," then we're in trouble. Writes Bailey, "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."'

Read Haidt's entire blog post.