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James A. LindsayJames A. LindsayAug 18, 2016

10 Reasons Victimhood Culture Is a Plague on Mankind

Moral sociologists, most notably the increasingly relevant Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, have, of late, been attempting to give academic account to a phenomenon that has become ever more obvious over the last decade: what they call "a culture of victimhood." This cultural paradigm has become increasingly prominent and is the central characteristic feature of the moral tribes that can be branded under the "social justice" banner, but it is spreading to other moral tribes exactly as Campbell and Manning predict it should in their 2013 paper.

We've seen victimhood culture arise alongside social media and increasing sociopolitical egalitarianism. The first of these influences is unlikely to be coincidental, and it with the second is explicitly accounted for by Campbell and Manning in their paper: a culture of victimhood will only arise in highly egalitarian settings with great diversity and access to one or both of authoritarian administrative bodies and access to partisan mob authority. The university, of course, provides nearly the perfect microcosm of these forces, and social media grants unprecedented access to the will of otherwise latent partisan mobs.

My goal in this piece is not to detail much what victimhood culture is so much as to talk about some reliable consequences of its prominence, but a quick primer is worth giving. A culture of victimhood refers to one that has adopted a moral paradigm that is best described by operating along vectors of victimization, as opposed to previous moral cultures that relied upon dignity and honor. All three of these examples of moral paradigms refer specifically to the primary way in which its members seek to resolve social conflicts.

Honor cultures primarily utilize idealized notions of personal honor and reputation as a basis for solving social conflict. They tend to fight over social defection and present with high sensitivity and high violence. Dignity cultures rely upon law and order combined with an elevation of individual dignity and mutual respect to seek remediation for social problems. They tend to present with a tendency to ignore slights, psychological robustness, and self-restraint, and they are largely nonviolent. Victimhood cultures outsource their problems to institutional authorities and partisan mobs to address social conflict (note: this is the core abuse of the social part of social justice), and they exploit the natural moral currency of victimhood to do it. These operate by reporting slights and are highly sensitive and, rather than being violent in response to that sensitivity, are censorious as a result. Those feeling this brief summary is wanting are encouraged to read Manning and Campbell in detail, where the features of these three moral paradigms are laid out in considerable detail.

There are plenty of problems that arise in corollary to adopting a victimhood culture as a moral paradigm. Here, I'll introduce and describe ten of the more significant and alarming issues that directly follow from adopting a victimhood culture.

1. Moral Dependence

Moral dependence means becoming psychologically dependent upon outsourcing one's capacity to reach resolutions to moral and social conflicts to external agents and authorities. It is one of the biggest problems associated with reliance upon a culture of victimhood, and it is one of the strongest identifiers that suggest a connection between victimhood culture and emotional/moral immaturity.

Honor cultures rely least upon the outsourcing of resolving moral and social conflicts, and thus they also present with the highest level of violence as a means to remedy social conflict. Dignity cultures aim to appeal to external authorities and agents for conflict resolution only at need, recognizing that such entities (like those imbued with political authority, e.g. courts) offer a good third-party solution to conflicts large enough to be difficult to resolve otherwise or to ignore. Victimhood cultures, using the natural moral currency of victimhood as a means, seek external avenues to social conflict resolution as a primary tool. These may be governments, non-governmental institutional authorities (like university administrations or other non-state governmental bodies), and motivated groups of partisan actors who enact social pressure, penalty, or retribution for perceived wrongdoing as a means of conflict resolution and social deterrence.

Some examples of victimhood culture in action in these regards are almost everything to do with modern activism culture: protest rallies, leaflet campaigns, publicizing offenses on websites, call-out culture, open letters, gratuitous petitions, and so on, and they are characteristic of victimhood culture when they are centrally concerned with rallying sufficient partisan support, via a vector of responding to perceived victimhood, to convince authorities or mobs to act.

The primary problems with moral dependence are that it weakens the individual's capacity to seek and find conflict resolution and it undermines the capacity of a social contract to enforce resolutions to the kinds of social conflicts they're best suited to resolve. The way in which the second of these problems arises is hard to describe as anything but childish and awful. It happens when courts come to a conclusion that the prevailing victimhood culture disagrees with and its actors proceed to seek another means for resolution anyway. In other words, such actors are not holding up their end of the bargain in a social contract that utilizes courts to resolve certain kinds of social conflicts and thus undermine its utility. (Courts are effective because we take their rulings to be binding, and their effectiveness is undermined when their adjudications are considered instead as calls merely to find another way to achieve a perception of justice.)

The secondary problem with moral dependence is more insidious. According to an email conversation I had with developmental psychologist Jeff Arnett, who is the originator of the developmental phase called "emerging adulthood," usually ages 18-25, one of the specific developmental challenges associated with that final phase before full adulthood is learning moral independence. Practicing moral dependence and entrenching that pattern in the mind during that last crucial phase of neurobiological development is a significant problem because it cripples emerging adults in their future capacity to seek mature conflict resolution. (During emerging adulthood, the brain is undergoing changes that strengthen neuronal pathways that are heavily used and removing ones that are less used, setting heavy reinforcement to the cognitive architecture upon which adult cognition will be based.)

2. Victim and Trauma Centrality

In the Journal of Traumatic Stress, in 2011, Donald Robinaugh and Richard McNally published a paper titled "Trauma Centrality and PTSD Symptom Severity" that indicated that trauma centrality (to be defined momentarily) increases severity and duration of PTSD symptoms, which may generalize to other types of stress-related disorders as well. Trauma centrality refers to importing the relevant (psychological) trauma into one's identity, defining the self in terms of the trauma suffered. I'm using the term "victim centrality" to refer to the same general idea: taking the notion of victimhood as an integral part of one's working identity. In short, believing yourself intrinsically to be a victim makes you more of one, speaking psychologically.

Victimhood culture is effectively synonymous with victim centrality, and very often with trauma centrality. (Cf. Tumblr, pretty much all of it.) The reason is not difficult to guess: the natural currency of victimhood provides social support, thus social reinforcement and value, to victims of trauma. Identifying oneself as a victim taps into the exploitation at the center of victimhood culture. The result is that people seeking that reward, perhaps a significant portion of a generation right now, are importing into their sense of personal identity anything that can reinforce their perception of victimhood status and thus enhancing their own victim/trauma centrality. The result, of course, according to Robinaugh and McNally, is that this specific behavior worsens the very symptoms at the heart of the mentality, and so a vicious circle of mental illness is easily established around engagement in a victimhood culture.

In case you have ever wondered why it seems like a lot of Millennials are almost willfully proud of having various self-diagnosed (paging Dr. Wikipedia) and exaggerated mental illnesses, apparently driving themselves legitimately into neuroses in the process, here you go. They derive reinforcing social benefit from doing so in axes defined uniquely by victimhood culture. These features are completely absent in dignity culture, where wallowing in mental illness is not as dignified as getting treatment and recovering, and are abhorred in honor culture, where such a thing is so dishonorable as to, perhaps, provoke socially condoned suicides (Cf. historical Japanese culture).

3. Grievance Jockeying (Competitive Victimhood)

Psychologist David Ley outlined the feature of victimhood culture known as "competitive victimhood," which has been called (by Gad Saad) "The Oppression Olympics." I prefer the term "grievance jockeying." These terms explain the phenomenon pretty clearly: groups and individuals compete for the limited resource of human compassion extended to victims--the natural moral currency of victimhood--by attempting to paint themselves or their charges as bigger victims than other people. That is, victimhood culture is self-accelerating, with all of its attendant problems.

One offshoot of grievance jockeying noted by Manning and Campbell is that the dignified majority will gradually diminish as ever more groups within it find ways to identify themselves as victims and compete for the limited (thus increasingly valuable) moral currency afforded by victim status under a victimhood culture. That is, people who do not normally view themselves as victims will begin to peel themselves off from the dominant dignity culture specifically in order to see themselves as victims for the benefits victimhood cultures provide. All they need to do is find an identity group to which they can claim to belong and discover a way in which it is beleaguered, and they're off to the races. Victimhood culture begets more subcultures that claim victimhood status. That is, victimhood culture is virulent.

For what it's worth, under epidemological thought (which studies how diseases spread), a damaging, self-accelerating, highly virulent infectious agent is labeled a "plague," so it's really not too much of a stretch to brand victimhood culture a moral plague upon mankind.

4. Hyper-*: Hypersensitivity, Hypervigilence, Catastrophizing

Under the influences listed above, particularly grievance jockeying combined with victim centrality, we can also expect to see an increase in some "hypers," and we do. Hypersensitivity to slights is another infectious trait of victimhood culture because, under such a moral culture, it is an easy way to create a persuasive case for victimhood status. (Manning and Campbell titled their paper "Microaggressions and Moral Cultures" for a reason.) Hypervigilence to perceived defection from excessive moral norms is also both predictable and already occurring. (Here's your "thought police" and "outrage merchants," especially on social media, folks.)

Catastrophizing is slightly separate, predictable, and occurring. Catastrophizing is the habit of making emotional mountains out of molehills, taking slights or small disruptions as outright catastrophes. When you see a pitiful video of a college-aged student having a complete meltdown and throwing trashcans over an intentionally provocative and offensive show being given by a personality like Milo Yiannopolous, as happened at UCLA recently, you are seeing catastrophizing in action. It's as easy to see how catastrophizing is related to all of the above features of victimhood culture as it is to find examples of it occurring on a regular basis as victimhood cultures increase in visibility and social allure.

5. Sociopolitical Balkanization

Balkanization refers to splitting off into distinct, nonoverlapping groups that used to interact but don't anymore, and it is not healthy within a modern democracy. Sociopolitical balkanization refers specifically to drawing such deep moral lines that, say, conservatives and liberals refuse even to talk to each other, much less work together. You can think of it like an extreme form of the denominalization process in churches with the added feature that members of rival moral sects cannot typically find common ground with other groups, except it's happening across the entire society.

Sociopolitical balkanization reduces conversation and compromise between varying factions within a society or state, and it increases absolutism (partly via the social identity effect of "we're good; they're bad, with 'they' meaning 'not us.'"). It grinds the democratic process to a halt, increases general political cynicism that pulls everyone down, and makes the entire social and political mood more dour and hateful.

It's the opposite of what we should want if we seek to pursue happiness and create a functioning society, but under victimhood cultures, you might notice that it is eagerly embraced (block people who disagree with you from your newsfeed because "nobody has time for that kind of negativity," anybody?). You'll immediately notice that balkanization of this kind also creates and reinforces echo chambers inside of which the ideologically committed can further divorce their views from reality without immediate consequences.

Sociopolitical balkanization arises as victimhood occupies more space as a moral culture, where victimhood status can be obtained over moral offenses, including insults and slights, instead of for more obvious types of injury. It will be intensified by grievance jockeying, as competing identity groups attempt to prove themselves more worthy of their share of the natural moral currency of victimhood status. More on this in the next point.

6. Inflation upon the Natural Moral Currency of Victimhood

The natural moral currency of victimhood is a thing, a real thing, and probably not one we want to lose. It is, properly understood, the correct balance of human compassion that enables human societies to thrive and grow (especially if we want them filled with happy, well-adjusted individuals). We care when people are being cheated or hurt, and we should care because it's part of what defines our humanity, and our societies simply work better for all involved when we manage those kinds of problems as well as we can.

Victimhood cultures demand that more and more "victims" have access to the fruits of this natural moral currency, which in turn demands more output of this currency from participants or caring social compatriots (which means most of you and people like me who happen to live alongside these people and haven't become fully jaded or coldly self-interested yet). Quick Macroeconomics 101 question: What happens when you increase the total amount of a currency in circulation without increasing the real value of the goods and services it can purchase? Inflation!

Under a victimhood culture, the demands put on the natural moral currency of victimhood devalue that currency. You've maybe heard the symptoms of this problem put with all the eloquence of the Millennial muse, Apathy: "Have you seen my fucks field? It is barren. I have no fucks left to give." Why is that? One part of it is that the natural moral currency that we extend to people who are struggling is only worth a fraction of what it used to be, and that dries people up, burns them out, jades them, and eventually causes people to drop out of the game (either by becoming moochers on the system or by becoming curmudgeons who refuse to support the system itself). (Yes, I know that another part of it is that there's a legitimate problem by which the efforts of many people aren't returning the promised rewards, and society is largely tipped toward entrenched opportunity, that is "gildedness," and that contributes to the power of Apathy's song too. No need to mention it.)

I hope we can agree that this isn't something we want happening. The reverse, and the cure, is what people under a dignity culture would call "personal responsibility." (Did you ever think you'd hear a left of left-of-center liberal say that? Well, here we are! Don't worry, though, I still think much of this problem is remedied also by our social contract bending itself toward greater opportunities near the bottom, like a good lefty, but certainly more ownership of personal responsibility is needed by anyone who has subscribed to a culture of victimhood, for their own good and for everyone else's.)

7. Mental Health Concerns: Anxiety, Depression, and Paranoia

Mostly because of the effects of victim centrality, moral dependence, an inflated moral currency of victimhood, and grievance jockeying, victimhood cultures come paired with an increase in some of the very problems they claim to hope to remedy, mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and paranoia. You'll have noticed that these are all way up in Millennials, I'm sure, and while some of that increase must be accounted for directly because they're being financially screwed and have diminished options ahead of them, some of it comes directly from having learned to outsource their social conflict problems via a culture of victimhood instead of owning themselves and their self-esteem via a culture of dignity.

Compounding the issue is that having a mental illness (maybe so long as one identifies with the right demographics) is a victimhood status in itself, and so victimhood cultures will have a bent toward embracing and exacerbating certain kinds of quasi-functional mental illnesses. Thus victimhood cultures generate a kind of neurotic-chic that proclaims itself largely in hashtags. This effect may sound patently ridiculous, but, again, a half an hour on Tumblr will readily convince you that this kind of thing isn't just happening, it's epidemic.

8. Victimhood by Proxy

If you can achieve social status by being a victim, you can also achieve social status by being an "ally" to a victim, and so victimhood culture reliably evolves a system of victimhood by proxy. (We often refer to these people, at the moment, as "Social Justice Warriors.) These are not people who are necessarily victims themselves but are people who have taken up the charge of victims - whether desired or not - because of the social status it confers to them. They, though not victims themselves, are champions of the beneficiaries of the natural moral currency of victimhood, and thus they, though not victims themselves, collect rent on that moral currency.

It isn't at all hard to see how this will go, and because being saddled with the burden of actual victimhood will diminish one's opportunities, Victhimhood Landlords (sometimes called "White Knights" or, more broadly and depending on context, "Social Justice Warriors") will have greater opportunity to craft the nuances of the victimhood narrative. Why are there so many "well educated," white, upper-middle-class busybodies serving as the most visible social justice champions? Because they're Victimhood Landlords, and they're raking it in -- in terms of moral currency (in case you've ever heard them insist that they're not in it for the money because they're broke, here you go: the currency in play is moral, hence esteem and social status, not monetary).

Because Victimhood Landlords, a.k.a. "good allies," have an opportunity to craft the victimhood narrative, it is often a caricature of real vectors of victimhood. Victimhood Landlords also benefit directly from failing to resolve victimhood-related problems and by identifying new classes of victims or reasons they should be outraged, so they have motivations to prove ineffective in their allyship and to become Outrage Merchants on the side. These are problems that have not gone unnoticed.

9. Chilling Effects (on Spontaneity, Creativity, and Academic Exploration)

Ever heard that advice to "dance like nobody is watching"? There's a reason for it. You will be least creative and spontaneous when you think you are being watched and judged. Via the mechanisms discussed above, plus the social threats that come with them, victimhood culture creates a chilling culture where people are more afraid to express themselves, to be spontaneous, to be honest, to be creative, to be authentic, to be open, to be friendly, and to be curious, lest they be judged for it (and held accountable to the Thought Police and their online mobs of self-righteously hate-filled partisan actors).

It cannot be an optimal solution to the human problem of culture to stifle spontaneity, honesty, creativity, authenticity, openness, friendliness, curiosity, and academic exploration, especially when the reason these are being stifled is literally an increase in paranoia about being judged negatively for them. In case you wondered where the increase depression and anxiety scores might be coming from, this is very likely to be a part of it. Be yourself? No way. Not worth the punishment if you slip.

There is almost nothing more chilling to a free society -- as tyrants around the world have repeatedly demonstrated to horrific success -- as feeling watched by your neighbors. The Inquisition used it, the witch hunts used it, the Nazis used it, the Maoists used it, and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was built almost entirely upon the horror of it. Victimhood culture also uses it because it outsources its moral muscle to groups of like-minded partisans (that it sways with victimhood narratives) and to institutional authorities. Victimhood culture is intrinsically chilling to any free society, and it is thus a cancer upon any free society that progresses far enough to evolve one.

10. Outsourced Social Control Mechanisms (A Slippery Slope to Totalitarianism)

We'll end where it gets ugliest, the logical extension of the last paragraph of the previous point. Remember that Manning and Campbell characterized victimhood cultures as tending to report slights (minor social conflicts) in the hopes of attracting partisans or institutional authorities to correct them. They are highly sensitive and tend to seek a solution to their problems by being censorious. They are also punitive, seeking solutions to social conflicts by recruiting some institutionalized authority (university administrations being paradigmatic at the moment, although government can easily get on board too) or partisan mobs. They then petition those authorities (again, by recruiting the will of like-minded partisans) or mobilize those mobs to act to effect their desired resolutions.

If institutional authority doesn't work, they will work to change the institutional authority, and given enough power, their censorious approach will be institutionalized. We see this happening in university settings already and even in some government settings (although the Constitution, at least in the US, serves as a fairly stalwart defender of many civil liberties here, at least for now).

Not all slopes are slippery, and not all slide to totalitarianism, but this one is and does. Every inch of ground given to victimhood culture, because of its plague-like nature (meaning that technically and thus non-pejoratively), slips us toward a more hypersensitive, more censorious, more punitive society in which those who currently hold the most social power (the biggest victims, or, really, their Victimhood Landlords) determine what is allowable, who and what are to be censored, who deserves censured, and who is to be punished, and in what way, all independent of the kind of social contract that time and experience have proven create a robust culture of self-restraint, non-violence, and legitimate progress.

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