The changing competition between three dimensions of social status
There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about how western culture is changing, especially amongst youth. Individuals are becoming measurably safer and more prosperous physically yet more distressed psychologically. Our interpersonal interactions are also showing some paradoxical trends. In the physical sense, we are getting more peaceful – rates of violence are going down nearly everywhere in the world, both within nations and between nations. Yet, political intolerance and some measures of hatred are on the rise compared to previous generations. Instead of physical confrontations like duels, new forms of aggression have emerged, whose effects are primarily psychological – public shaming, doxxing, trolling – enabled by social media. Two years ago, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argued that some of these trends represented the emergence of a new type of moral culture, which they called ‘victimhood culture’. This culture was typified by a desire to magnify conflict to build status, but with a preference for indirect forms of aggression: demanding compensation or retribution from a larger (online) group or from third-party authority figures by appealing to victimhood under controversially expansive concepts of harm.
What has caused these cultural transitions, and what do they mean for the future? It is interesting to me that these cultural changes have been very rapid and widespread, and yet very organic (i.e. not ascribable to co-ordination by a central authority). When a large number of people change behaviour spontaneously without coordination, this suggests some significant shift in incentives that most people encounter. In this case the shift would be in the costs and benefits of picking a fight and in whether to try to win a fight one-on-one (direct aggression) or do so by turning a larger group against one’s opponent (indirect aggression).
As I expand on below, I believe that the rise of ‘victimhood culture’ (or ’empathy culture’ as I think is more accurate) may be a side effect of improvements in technology, which have made us simultaneously more prosperous yet have made our labor less valuable.
The link between mass automation and so-called victimhood culture can be explained starting from just three assumptions: 1) the desire to compete for greater influence is a universal human trait; 2) influence can be exerted on someone in generally three ways – by appealing to fear (intimidation), trade, and empathy; 3) the scarcity of resources and of labor determines which vehicle of influence is generally the most effective across a society. It is therefore a useful exercise to abandon a singular concept of ‘social status’ and instead split it up into three separate sub-traits, corresponding to the three methods of influence. I call these dominance (capacity to influence by intimidation), extrinsic value (capacity to influence through trade), and intrinsic value (the capacity to attract empathy and influence others as a result). The moral culture reflects which method of influence, and which type of status, is most important.
Status is about influence. Fear, trade, and empathy are the basic ways to influence people.
Social status is usually defined in textbooks as something like ‘the position or rank of a person or group, within the society’, but rank ultimately boils down to influence. Having high status means that you can influence others people’s behavior. The more status a person has, the more people they can influence. A person can use their influence to allocate themselves a larger share of resources or to have a greater say in how society is run.
I understand how someone wields influence by asking myself how I am influenced by other people. ‘Why would I do something to benefit someone else?’ This question has two general answers:
1. “Because I feel I have to” The sense of obligation implies fear. If I say “I feel I have to” do something, I generally mean “I feel I have to because I am afraid of what would happen if I didn’t” (for example getting fired, arrested, beaten, killed, etc.).
- The capacity to influence others through fear is therefore a form of status, which I will call dominance. An individual who wields significant dominance compared to their peers might be called ‘intimidating’.
2. “Because I want to”. When I do something for someone because “I want to”, I am implying that something relating the recipient is valuable to me. I split this value statement into two broad categories and associated status types:
- I expect to get something in return. If I am getting something in return, I could say that the person has something of value to me (e.g. payment, work, etc.) or they are extrinsically valuable to me. So I define extrinsic value as the capacity to influence others through trade (i.e. the capacity to have things that are of value to others, such as money, assets, skills, etc.) A person who has high extrinsic value compared to their peers might be called one or more of: ‘useful’, ‘handy’, ‘talented’, or ‘wealthy’.
- Or I do not expect to get something in return. When I do not expect anything in return (e.g., for feeding my daughter), it implies the recipient is intrinsically valuable to me and that I feel empathy for them. I define intrinsic value as the capacity to influence others through empathy (or the capacity to be of value to others).
A common misconception is that attracting empathy from others comes primarily from some form of weakness, vulnerability, or need, rather than from a form of value (what I am calling ‘intrinsic value’). For example, we might think we have empathy for children because they are vulnerable. However, if we understand the capacity to attract someone’s empathy is about how they value us, fairly irrespective of how vulnerable, weak or needy we are, then it is easier to see why we empathize more readily with children over adults, with our own children over other people’s children, and are perfectly happy to step on ants, bugs, spiders and other vulnerable invertebrates that don’t do much for our quality of life or passing our genes onto the next generation. You could argue that ultimately, or evolutionarily, we get our incentives to behave empathetically towards others from benefits we get in return ourselves–often indirectly. For example, our children don’t give us anything directly in return for feeding, sheltering, and clothing them, but they do give new life to our genes and pass them on to any children they have. When we are in the act of feeding them, we’re probably not thinking, “I better feed Charlie so he can pass on my genes to the next generation,” but instead something like, “Charlie is cute,” or “Charlie is crying and it breaks my heart.” But we have evolved to feel this way much more strongly about our own child (Charlie) than about someone else’s child, because the other child is not giving us the same thing in return (passing on our genes), even though they may be just as cute.
Fear, trade and empathy are all currencies of influence in any community. However, I would expect that each has differing degrees of effectiveness depending on group circumstances. How effective each method is relative to the others across the group would describe what Campbell and Manning call a ‘moral culture’. Honor cultures or fear cultures describe societies in which fear (dominance) is the most effective method of influence. Dignity cultures or trade cultures describe societies in which trade (extrinsic value) is the most effective method of influence. Victimhood cultures or empathy cultures describe societies in which empathy (intrinsic value) is the most effective method of influence.
Since the dawn of humanity lots of people have been trying to dominate or intimidate people, trade with people or swindle people, and plead with people or cry wolf to get what they want. So what really defines a social change is when people start changing how they respond to these strategies. If violence is an effective way to get ahead in a society, then more people will be violent. Likewise, the fairly rapid transition to an empathy culture in the education system over the last few years is most probably the result of an increase in the likelihood of authorities responding affirmatively to the complaints of the most vocally sensitive students, rather than a spontaneous increase in the emotional sensitivity of the average student. The change in response will likely encourage the most sensitive students to be more vocal, and is probably also making students more emotionally fragile, but which is the cause and which is the effect?
So why are some forms of influence more effective than others? For example, what caused us to change our parenting styles and education systems across much of the developed world to encourage an empathy culture over a trade culture? What caused most Western countries to ascribe to a trade culture over the 20th century (emphasis on minimizing conflict and ascribing highest status to industrialists), but to a fear culture for most of its history before the Industrial Revolution (highest status to warriors and prevalence of duels, etc.). Why do fear cultures still thrive in many places in the developing world today?
To consider which conditions should favor which forms of influence, again I find it easiest to put myself in the situation of someone who is trying to be influenced and ask when certain approaches would be most persuasive. Imagine that I have a loaf of bread and three people with me, all of whom want it. One of them demands I give it to them, threatening to harm me if I don’t (attempting to exert dominance). The second one asks for it and offers to build me a hut in exchange (asserting their extrinsic value – in this case their hut-building skills). The third begs for it, emphasizing some aspect of their vulnerability and/or likeability (trying to win me over through empathy). Which person would I be most likely to give the bread to and why?
The answer would likely depend on my circumstances at the time. If the area was in a famine and my next meal was uncertain, I would be very unlikely to give the bread to either the trader or the beggar, but I might give it to the intimidator if I thought they posed a greater threat than the prospect of hunger. Thus, fear (honor) cultures should arise when resources are scarce. Fear (honor) cultures describe the social hierarchy in many animal species, like lions, where starvation and murder are some of the most common causes of death. When resources are too scarce to adequately support the population, the primary impact other individuals have on you is as a drain on resources that you need and therefore a threat to your survival. With individuals being expendable, their value, both extrinsic and intrinsic, decreases as useful currency to you and to anyone else in the society. Displays of dominance become the most effective means of securing resources as competition intensifies. This hypothesis seems to be borne out amongst people as well: fear cultures are found in most of the poorest and least developed countries, where resources are the most scarce.
When resources are abundant compared to the population, exercises of dominance should become less effective and assertions of value, extrinsic or intrinsic, become more important and effective means to achieve relative status. If everyone has enough to eat, fighting and intimidation become more of a threat to survival than a means for survival, and advantages of belonging to a group at all (i.e. rather than running off into the bush on your own) depend on higher degree of co-operativeness. In the book “Why Nations Fail”, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that scarcity of people (including Indigenous and settlers) in North America and Australia when the first settlers arrived was a key reason that democracy, inclusive institutions and a trade (dignity) culture evolved there whereas extractive institutions and fear (honor) cultures developed in Latin America, where Indigenous peoples were more numerous. The abundance of land and scarcity of people in North America created conditions where leaving the colony and running off on your own was a comparatively favorable option if you were treated too harshly by others in the colony. Thus, the ruling class had to concede more inclusive rights and greater co-operation (as opposed to exploitation) to keep the colonies alive. The people whose talents would improve life in the colony (e.g. smiths, carpenters, farmers, etc.) suddenly saw their status increase as their talents became the most scarce resource.
Since highly cooperative groups can make resources more abundant, there can exist a virtuous circle where cooperativity and abundance reinforce each other. In these conditions, it is advantageous to institutionalize authority, further diminishing the impact of dominance on relative status between individuals. In parallel, the distribution of authority becomes increasingly standardized and egalitarian in many respects. Instead, value becomes the most important currency for individuals to accrue overall relative status, and is also the lever with which they can bend institutional authority in their favour. The more widely accessible intrinsic or extrinsic value is to everyone in society as a means to compete for status, the less violence there will be, as the risks no longer outweigh the potential benefits.
So if fear cultures thrive when resources are scarce, what conditions determine whether a resource-abundant society will produce a trade culture or an empathy culture? To answer this question, let’s return to the situation where I have a loaf of bread and three people are trying to get it from me (a thief, hut builder and beggar). Since there is enough food to go around, assume our society has organized a police force to prevent people for threatening or stealing from each other. As a result, there are now only two people vying for my bread: the hut builder and the beggar. Which of them I am more likely to give the bread to depends on how hard it would be for me to get a hut otherwise. If this is the only person capable of building a hut in my community and there is therefore a long waiting list for huts, I am very likely to give them bread (or anything else they want) in exchange for the hut. However, if everyone (including me) is capable of building a hut or we all own hut-building robots, then I am less likely to be convinced to give a hut builder much for their talents, and I am more likely to be won over by the beggar if their sob story is convincing enough.
So I expect trade cultures to emerge when resources are abundant but where there is a scarcity in labor or talent relevant to improving quality of life. Empathy cultures should emerge in societies where neither resources, nor relevant labor or talent, are scarce.
Trade culture has been the dominant moral culture in most of the western world throughout most of the 20th century, particularly post WWII. In trade cultures, the primary competition for status is over who can have the highest extrinsic value–who can offer to be the most useful to others by virtue of their hard work, specialized skills, and accumulated wealth if they have any. If you think about it, most of the institutions we grew up with are built around this type of culture. Trade cultures are also the only of the three moral cultures that encourage people to cooperate, avoid conflict and downplay grievances or minor slights, with competition for status instead occurring indirectly through markets. In both fear (honor) cultures and empathy (victimhood) cultures, direct conflict is the primary vehicle through which status is exerted, whether through competitive displays of toughness or competitive displays of vulnerability or charitability. The need for direct conflict to get others to recognize someone’s dominance or intrinsic value incentivizes people to magnify even the most minor slights (‘insults to my honor’ or ‘microaggressions’) into cause for conflict.
Another way to understand why there should be perpetual grievance or conflict in both fear and empathy cultures is that both arise in conditions in which people are expendable to a society. When there are not enough resources to go around or when labor/talent is too abundant, removing someone from the group (either by ostracism, exile, imprisonment, murder, etc.) does not have an obvious direct downside on the overall prosperity of the group. Therefore, manufacturing a conflict in either fear or empathy cultures is worthwhile if it is perceived to be winnable–more likely to lead to removal of the competitor than you. In trade cultures on the other hand, the combination of ample resources and scarce labor/talent causes the entire group to be penalized when a member is lost. As a result, in trade cultures, making a big deal out of minor grievances should be looked down upon by the group for manufacturing too much risk to group’s well-being. Mottos like ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ are used to encourage people to try to minimize conflict because conflict is unproductive.
We should not expect empathy cultures to have existed very often, if ever, in human history, because they can only exist when conditions are extraordinarily good: resources have to be both abundant and easy enough to get that labor is not scarce either, and thus there is little correlation between the skills of individuals and the group’s access to these abundant resources. This explains why, as Campbell and Manning have suggested, the post-industrial world, with abundant information and mass automation, might be the first time in our history that conditions favor the emergence of an empathy culture in some segments of our society.
It may also not be surprising that the change of moral cultures is occurring first amongst youth (people born after 1980) and in the education system, since they are encountering the underlying trends of abundance most acutely. People born in the 1980s or later are the first generations that grew up on a large scale in comfortable conditions and whose parents were not alive to see truly hard times (e.g., the Great Depression or World Wars). These are also the first generations to go through a knowledge-based education system (designed to impart information into them) while immersed in an environment where information and knowledge were no longer scarce resources, both becoming abundant and readily accessible. For example, earlier generations would not have had to grapple with why they were spending thousands of dollars in tuition to hear a professor recite information from a biology textbook and related research papers that they could probably find online and download in a few minutes, and read up on for free on their own or study with others through online discussion forums. Even sources of skills training are becoming more abundant. For example, we have seen several people with no formal training in Computer Science use online services such as Code Academy and Reddit learn to code up to sufficient level to build commercially viable software in a short time. With further automation of the economy, the shift toward an empathy culture across the whole society may well accelerate, as hard work alone is no longer enough to earn many people a decent living and place in the social ladder.
The conditions of abundance also may explain the ethic of extreme risk aversion that has accompanied the rise of empathy culture in our parenting and education system. This is where I disagree with Campbell and Manning’s diagnosis that institutions erected to enforce equality and diversity are what cause empathy (victimhood) culture to emerge. Egalitarian ideals, the institutions erected to enforce these ideals and the emergence of empathy culture all make sense as symptoms of the same underlying conditions of abundance. These conditions make appeals to empathy to be the most effective form of influence and also drive institutions toward extreme risk aversion.
The combination of empathy culture and extreme risk aversion in the context of an education system naturally lead to an egalitarian ethic (competition is a source of risk), participation trophies, grade inflation, and so-called ‘safety culture’ with safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc. It makes sense for people to take risks if they think they have little worthwhile to lose, a lot that is worthwhile to gain, or both. For example, African migrants and Vietnamese Boat People take incredible risks to escape dire and perilous living conditions in the hope of raising their kids in richer western democracy, and were no doubt encouraged to take these risks by the people that cared for them most (e.g., family, mentors). Conversely, people are likely to avoid risks if they think they have a lot to lose, nothing to gain, or both, as would be found in societies where resources and labor/skills were in oversupply.
Of course, none of these moral cultures are absolute. In real life all three forms of influence are used to varying degrees by different people at different times in their lives. Additionally, different moral cultures can thrive in different pockets of the same society (e.g., fear culture in the most impoverished pockets of America, and empathy culture in the most privileged elite schools), particularly the more these pockets become socially and/or geographically isolated from one another.
Finally, one place where I disagree with Campbell and Manning is in the use of the term ‘moral’ in ‘moral cultures’. Associating a dominant means of influence or status-building as ‘moral’ suggests that it is somehow better or worse for co-operation or collective wellbeing. All means of influence can be used toward ends that lead to collective benefit or collective harm. If we really are transitioning from an age of trade to an age of empathy, this change will likely have many consequences, some clearly positive (e.g., less physical violence), some negative (e.g., worsening mental health, increased polarization, possibly increased authoritarianism), and others that will be positive for some people and negative for others (e.g., freedom from work, matriarchy). At least if we get there, it is probably a sign that times are historically good to begin with.