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Victimhood culture will tear us apart Culture wars rule the debate as the wealth gap widens

Credit: Sarah Morris/Getty Images

June 18, 2018   11 mins

Culture and identity have become the main ideological battle grounds of our era, where once they were class and the economy. The arguments are now spooling out terminology faster than the general public can learn it: we have ‘mansplaining’, ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘straightsplaining’ (describing, variously, a man, a white person, or a heterosexual explaining something to a woman, a person of colour, or a non-heterosexual in a laborious and patronising way).

There are accusations of ‘microaggressions’ (small incidents of disrespect that accumulate over time) and of ‘slut-shaming’, ‘fat-shaming’ and ‘body-shaming’ (attempts to make someone feel bad about their sexual behaviour, weight or body). To add to ‘sexist’ and ‘racist’, which have long been common currency, a person can be ‘ableist’, ‘Islamophobic’, ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic’ (prejudiced against disabled, Muslim, trans people or sex workers). The aftermath of incidents covered by ‘trigger warnings’ (alerts to upcoming content that could reawaken previous traumas) might require ‘safe spaces’ (welcoming areas where one will be sheltered from any form of possible distress, including dissenting opinions).

Those, however, who openly oppose the growing reach of ‘political correctness’ (over-policing of speech and thought in the proclaimed service of social equity and diversity) have made counter-accusations of ‘snowflake’ (one who believes themselves to be unique and precious but disintegrates easily) and ‘crybully’ (one who wields their alleged victimhood as a means of dominating and intimidating others.)

In the eyes of sceptics, ‘social justice warriors’ (those who vigorously proclaim their commitment to eradicating perceived oppression) will be accused of ‘virtue-signalling’ (making public statements with the intent of placing themselves on a higher moral plateau).

Then, every so often, to add to this confusing mix, a new word appears, such as the left-wing slur ‘gammon’ (used to describe older, white right-wing men who are pink in the face, ideally with outrage at ‘political correctness’.) There will then be a flurry of newspaper articles and impassioned debate on whether such a word is useful, funny, or prejudiced and whether you can be guilty of racism against all races or only non-white ones.

It will flow into the question of whether women can display sexism towards men or – as some feminists argue – it can only be enacted by men upon women. Feelings will run high, but these questions will remain unresolved. They are, potentially, never-ending.

Over time, such arguments have spread from US and Canadian university campuses, where they have long been raging, into UK universities and beyond, into media, publishing and the upper echelons of companies. They are gradually becoming part of mainstream discourse, along with a constant flux of argument that leaves many people confused.

So, too, does the widespread sense that a small clumsiness of description or communication might – in the current climate – have major personal and career repercussions that would have been unthinkable even five years ago: one thinks, for example, of the public shaming of the Nobel-prize winning British scientist Tim Hunt for making a silly, jokey remark about ‘girls in labs’ during a 2015 speech encouraging women into science. Labelled a sexist, Hunt later admitted to suicidal thoughts in the midst of the social media storm his comments had triggered. He is now living and working with his wife in Japan.

In such an era, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces and the New Culture Wars, by the US sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, makes for fascinating reading. As the authors anticipate, there will be those who argue that the use of the phrase ‘victimhood culture’ itself places them in a camp opposed to the goals of ‘social justice.’ On the contrary, Campbell and Manning are worried by the rise of the alt-right in the US, and themselves support ideals of equality and diversity as components of ‘dignity culture,’ which holds that all people are of the same essential worth. Much of their concern about ‘victimhood culture’ in fact appears to stem from the belief that, long-term, it will deliver acrimony and division.

The thrust of their analysis is that an ‘honour culture’ – in which men in particular were easily offended and provoked to fighting as a means of guarding their reputation (for example through duels fought over perceived slights) – widely gave way to a more pragmatic and constructive ‘dignity culture’ in which people were encouraged to ignore verbal insults.

Dignity culture eschewed reactive violence, but sought judgement from a competent state for more serious matters. The recent emergence of a ‘victimhood culture,’ according to Campbell and Manning, is something quite new for society: it borrows the touchiness to perceived offence from honour culture but retains the appeal to a higher power (for example, university authorities) that is characteristic of dignity culture.

Its participants gain social status by emphasising victimhood, although only from within groups that are historically viewed as oppressed: white males are not included.

I had not heard cultures divided in these terms before, but the phenomena the authors describe are familiar to me. I can instantly see, for example, that there was a higher likelihood of encountering manifestations of ‘honour culture’ in a Belfast pub during my teenage years than in the London journalistic circles of my twenties (at that time in Belfast there were observable lines of verbal insult that – if openly crossed – were more liable to get the speaker punched).

Northern Ireland is also cited in the book as an example of “‘competitive victimhood’, in which both sides of a conflict vie to present themselves as the truly victimized party.” There is a strong measure of truth in that.

The authors observe, too, that today ‘honour culture’ is still to be found among certain groups – London’s street gangs, for example – but that it exacts a high toll upon its participants in terms of injury and loss. That is why there was a general shift in the West towards ‘dignity culture’ in the first place, as a cool-headed approach to insult and legal means of redress became more possible and desirable.

The authors argue that the ‘victimhood culture’ which has originated in the higher echelons of society – in particular, US elite universities – will gradually become more mainstream, spreading downwards, unless it is challenged. It differs from ‘dignity culture’ in that it does not separate verbal and physical attack, but instead tends to conflate them. Words can be seen as a form of violence that causes harm and are responded to as such: hence the need for ‘safe spaces’ away from voices that may offend, such as controversial speakers to universities.

The culture actively “promotes constant vigilance and outrage” in response to perceived microaggressions and divergences from approved opinion. The commitment to ideological purity – as evidenced by always being seen and heard to say ‘the right thing’ – can be tricky territory even for activists: with a single slip, one can attract social shaming. One graduate student, Frances Lee, is quoted as saying in 2017:

“The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of a fast-moving activist community is enormous…at times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism.” 

Someone who is a member of multiple categories that are perceived as disadvantaged will be afforded greater moral status than a member of just one or two. This can lead to in-fighting or what the authors term a “purity spiral”, in which members of groups compete for occupation of the moral high ground, sometimes by pushing others out or by self-denunciations. The authors reference that in 2016, for example, the UK’s National Union of Students’ LGBT Campaign passed a motion that abolished the reserved place for “cis gay men” on campus LGBT groups on the grounds that they “do not face oppression as gay men within the LGBT community”. It seems inevitable that such ‘purity spirals’ will lead to the fractious splintering of formerly progressive movements.

Two of the most interesting questions that this book poses are whether victimhood culture is psychologically healthy for its adherents, and where it could ultimately take society as a whole.

On the first question, they point out that although this emergent culture rewards hyper-vigilance to offence, disciplines such as cognitive behavioural therapy seek to teach people the exact opposite for their own mental health: they are encouraged not to perceive everything as a slight or threat, or automatically presume negative attitudes in those around them.

As I was reading the book, I happened to come across one tweet and its responses that illustrated how negative the social media ‘victimhood’ loop can be. An American-Salvadoran female poet, Yesika Salgado, used Twitter to describe her exchange with an Uber driver:

“Uber driver: what do you do for work?

Me: I’m a writer, poet specifically

Uber driver: oh, are your poems in anything?

Me: they’re in my book

Uber driver: how easy is it to publish a book? I’ve considered doing that before.

Sigh. Old white men are exhausting.”

The tweet met with general derision from people who thought that Salgado was being unfair to the Uber driver, who appeared to have been making small talk and showing polite interest in the poet and her work. Nothing he said, they thought, had merited the dismissive remark: “Old white men are exhausting.”

Furthermore, his employment as an Uber driver – at the beck and call of a large company seen by many as exploitative of its workers – added another layer to the interaction. Salgado’s dismissal of ‘old white men’ derived from her confidence that it was morally permissible to speak in that way because white males are seen as historically privileged. Yet whatever the Uber driver’s background, it’s unlikely he was economically privileged.

Many of Salgado’s critics – including black and Latino men and women – made these points clearly and courteously. Others, inflamed by her tweet, insulted Salgado herself, making nasty and indefensible comments about her gender, looks, weight and poetry. Salgado deleted her original tweet, but kept up a tweet that said: “The yts [‘whiteys’] are trolling me again because I said old white men are exhausting”, including the many negative remarks directed.

That particular thread will no doubt reinforce Salgado’s position among existing followers and fans as someone who is persecuted by racists and misogynists (even though, if you read the thread, the profile of posters also includes many people who are neither of those things, nor even white and male).

Yet one of the points of poetry – which is precisely why many publishers are seeking more varied ‘voices’ – is that it speaks across social barriers, enhancing mutual understanding. Salgado’s conversation with the Uber driver could have gone in another direction entirely: she could have asked him what he dreamed of writing about, told him what her poetry was about, and perhaps found some common territory of interest that brought enjoyment to them both.

Instead, her public dismissal of him as simply “exhausting” and an “old white man” brought the shutters down on the conversation, seemingly on the grounds of factors which he couldn’t help: his age, colour and gender. It was a discourteous response, which then triggered even more poisonous discourtesy on the part of some of those who attacked Salgado. Did anyone truly gain in the long-term from that set of sad but predictable interactions? How do you run a successful society on the constant amplification of aggrieved difference between groups?

‘Victimhood culture’ divides people into groups that are privileged and those that are not, on the basis that only those who are not privileged are fully deserving of courtesy. But privilege can be a slippery concept to define, as we are now discovering: for example, do we also include questions of social class, age, income and parenting? Do you get victimhood points for an absent father, an alcoholic mother, or losing a sibling?

These are complex arguments, and of course there are times when it is necessary to address the issues of particular groups – such as the widely-perceived disparity in the treatment of black and white people by police officers and the prison system in the US, or the forced separation of immigrant Latino parents and children at the US border. 

Along the way, however, one thing is certain: the steady erosion of the principle of universal respect and courtesy will eventually damage all of us, ending in a fragmented and angry society. People are much more liable to support and participate in a moral good if they feel that they too are protected by its principles. Britain today is a less racist place than it was fifty years ago, in part because the ‘dignity culture’ argument won: a slur against a non-white person now repels the majority of white people in Britain because we clearly hear in it the denigration of human dignity in which we all share. 

I grew up absorbing the principle that no-one should be insulted or treated unfairly for factors that were inherent to them, including their gender, race, sexuality, disability or appearance. Yet ‘victimhood culture’ now often seems to wish to recategorise the population into separate groups, rank those groups according to perceived ‘privilege’, and finally decide who should be afforded respect according to that ranking: hence the routinely expressed contempt for ‘white men’.

In that sense it feels as if culture is performing the kind of potentially treacherous shift described in Orwell’s Animal Farm from the principle of ‘all animals are equal’ to ‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’

This shift in culture explains, for me, my growing unease in recent months at the direction of some strands of the feminist movement. For almost 20 years I wrote articles against a casual misogyny that was seemingly becoming acceptable in the UK and US media: rape jokes and crude remarks about women on prime-time television, growing sexualised violence in films, ‘porn chic’ and pressure on young women to appear physically ‘perfect’ by means of extreme grooming and plastic surgery.

The #MeToo movement – which began in response to groping and harassment in workplaces – has thankfully addressed many of these wider questions too. Yet now there is a movement in some feminist arguments towards blanket condemnation – not just of individuals or specific behaviour – but of all men per se. In a recent Washington Post article entitled “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”, gender studies professor Suzanna Walters concluded her piece with this impassioned finale:

“If you really are #WithUs and would like us to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from, start with this: Lean out so we can actually just stand up without being beaten down.

Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power. We got this. And please know that your crocodile tears won’t be wiped away by us anymore. We have every right to hate you. You have done us wrong. #BecausePatriarchy. It is long past time to play hard for Team Feminism. And win.”

Where does this kind of exhortation take us? Do we really want men of enormous and valuable talent – husbands, partners, brothers and sons of women, with whom their fates are intertwined – to follow the bizarre mantra: “don’t be in charge of anything”? Should I start the day by confronting my husband with “the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from” and thereby perhaps encourage him, being of Indian origin, to have a go at my history of “white privilege”?

The point is that Walters’ style of writing – and its equivalent on Twitter – creates its own kind of rhetorical world, forcefully repeated, which diverges sharply from most people’s reality, but nonetheless inflames resentments. In recent months society has discussed bad behaviour among men at length – and, certainly, every woman will have her stories of creeps or worse – yet contrasting experiences need articulating too.

During my career I have encountered numerous men who were not power-hogging sexists and gropers, but instead encouraging, kind and notably generous with their time and professional expertise. All around me I see decent men who are helping to support their families, both in work and at home, while playing a valuable part in their community. Are such men simply to be written out of the ideological picture – or if their presence in the lives of many women is acknowledged, where does it leave Walters’ sweeping argument?

I share with Campbell and Manning an anxiety about where ‘victimhood culture’ will take us. Appeals to ‘fairness’ – a concept even young children can understand – are historically much more successful than the ringing denunciation of particular groups. If entire sections of people are effectively dismissed because of their category of birth, rather than specific behaviours, what follows?

The authors argue that some less well-off white men – openly despised by the ideology of the Left, yet devoid of economic privilege – may well drift towards an angry, right-wing ‘victim story’ of their own: “it therefore seems likely that the influence of white identity politics is growing and may continue to grow for some time.” Trump’s ascendancy in the US may already be evidence of such a polarising phenomenon in action: “victim narratives on the right seem to have become especially prominent during the 2016 presidential campaign.”

The authors ask: “will victimhood culture subside and wither away? Or will it replace dignity culture as dignity once replaced honour?” Few can tell, but the latter scenario is potentially a grim and divisive one, in which a left-wing ‘victimhood culture’ spars with a right-wing ‘victimhood culture’ while a violent ‘honour culture’ dominates in worse-off communities.

Meanwhile, big issues of poverty and equality of opportunity are neglected: culture wars rule the debate as the wealth gap widens. Before heading in that direction, those of us who believe in a harmonious, multi-racial society in which men and women like and respect one another should give close thought to the best means of getting and staying there – and remember that courtesy is a social asset beyond price. I hope we will re-examine the mass benefits of ‘dignity culture’ while we still have one.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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4 years ago

Magnificently stated. It put into words a debate I have been unsuccessful in making. What’s especially enjoyable is the ability to state this viewpoint from either side of the political spectrum. Thank you.

Andrew Shaughnessy
Andrew Shaughnessy
4 years ago

Well-written and thought-provoking, although near the end it fell into the “angry white men voted for Trump” cliche. He actually polled higher among Hispanic and Asian voters than any other recent Republican candidate.

Victimhood Robs From the Poor - Abundance Reconstructed
2 years ago

[…] Victimhood Culture Will Tear Us Apart and The Noise of Victimhood Culture Has Drowned Out the Plight of the Poor by Jenny McCartney in […]

Maxim van Rijs
Maxim van Rijs
1 year ago

If we’re not careful honour culture will take over and have us all gated up. The glorification of all things subversive and general demise of the education system is dumbing down society to such an extend that the sword might soon be mightier than the pen.

Maxim van Rijs
Maxim van Rijs
1 year ago

If we’re not careful honour culture will take over and have us all gated up. The glorification of all things subversive and general demise of the education system is dumbing down society to such an extend that the sword might soon be mightier than the pen.