From honor to dignity to victimhood: Are we witnessing the rise of a new moral culture?

A paper recently came out in Comparative Sociology arguing that certain segments of Western society (college campuses, the blogosphere) may be experiencing the rise of a new type of moral culture (which they call ‘victimhood culture’) – one that has begun to compete with the previous dominant moral culture (one they call ‘dignity culture’) in our broader public discourse. The authors also describe the social conditions under which victimhood culture thrives (high levels of equality and diversity in the presence of a strong authority). This paper is generating quite a splash and is discussed in The Atlantic, as well as in a longer piece by Jonathan Haidt here. I encourage you to read both articles, as they give a far better review of this topic than I do.

The paper describes the three prevailing types of moral culture found in different places today.

1) In ‘honor cultures’, bravery and unwillingness to be dominated confer moral status. Status is built by defending one’s honor, often with violence. Duels and ‘honor killings’ are examples of dispute settlements that are characteristic of honour societies.

2) In ’dignity cultures’ resilience and agreeableness are considered virtuous. As the paper describes it:

“The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have ‘thick skin’ that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.”

3) ‘Victimhood culture’, as the name suggests, is one in which real or perceived victimhood confers moral status.  People are highly sensitive to insult, as they are in honor cultures (as opposed to dignity cultures), but they rely on third parties to enforce their desired retribution rather than enforcing it themselves.  As the authors describe it:

“Microaggression complaints have characteristics that put them at odds with both honor and dignity cultures. Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount to showing that one had no honor at all. Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether. A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization”

I encourage you to read the links above and share your thoughts with us. Are the rise of “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” really part of a new emerging moral “culture of victimhood”, one which could be alternatively and more positively spun as a “culture of empathy”? If so, do you think this cultural shift is likely to have predominantly positive or negative effects on our social fabric and public discourse? Another recent popular piece in The Atlantic (“The Coddling of the American Mind”) lays out a detailed argument against ‘victimhood’ (or empathy) culture in the context of American college campuses, citing detrimental effects to both the quality of education and student mental health. On the other hand, the conditions under which such a victimhood culture seem to emerge – those that are marked by high levels of diversity and equality in the presence of a strong central authority – seem to have some potential positives to them.

My instinct is that Haidt is probably right about some aspects of victimhood culture being negative (in particular the tendency to encourage hypersensitivity, which is itself a very real form of aggression), but I don’t necessarily think the rise in appeals to empathy is all bad. I look at good parenting as an analogy and see a healthy society functioning very much like a healthy family, in which a reasonable balance between boundary enforcement and nurturing (empathy) complements a strong sense of community and shared responsibility to one another (common goodwill). Encouraging boundary enforcement and resilience without empathy (honor cultures) nurtures bullies, but encouraging empathy without boundary enforcement or resilience (victimhood cultures) creates spoiled children. Without a balance, neither is a recipe for a productive child, and I think the same is probably true for citizens.


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