Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.They argue
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. This culture shares some characteristics and conditions with the culture of dignity out of which it evolved, and it may even be viewed as a variant of this culture. It emerges in contemporary settings, such as college campuses, that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs, but in which organized authority and public opinion remain as powerful sanctions. Under such conditions complaint to third parties has supplanted both toleration and negotiation. People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.
The culture of victimhood is currently most entrenched on college campuses, where microaggression complaints are most prevalent. Other ways of campaigning for support from third parties and emphasizing one’s own oppression – from protest demonstrations to the invented victimization of hate-crime hoaxes – are prevalent in this setting as well. That victimhood culture is so evident among campus activists might lead the reader to believe this is entirely a phenomenon of the political left, and indeed, the narrative of oppression and victimization is especially congenial to the leftist world-view (Haidt 2012:296; Kling 2013; Smith 2003:82). But insofar as they share a social environment, the same conditions that lead the aggrieved to use a tactic against their adversaries encourage their adversaries to use that tactic as well. For instance, hate crime hoaxes do not all come from the left. In 2007, for example, a Princeton University student who belonged to the Anscombe Society, a socially conservative campus group, scratched and bruised his own face before claiming two men in ski caps beat him because of his political views (Hu 2007). Naturally, whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else) confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it. As clinical psychologist David J. Ley notes, the response of those labeled as oppressors is frequently to “assert that they are a victim as well.” Thus, “men criticized as sexist for challenging radical feminism defend themselves as victims of reverse sexism, [and] people criticized as being unsympathetic proclaim their own history of victimization” (Ley 2014). An example of the latter can be seen in an essay in The Princeton Tory by student Tal Fortgang, who, responding to the phrase “check your privilege,” which he says “floats around college campuses,” recounts his own family’s many victimizations – a grandfather who did hard labor in Siberia, a grandmother who survived a death march through Poland, and others shot in an open grave (Fortgang 2014). Examples such as these suggest that, at least in some settings, the culture of dignity has given way to a culture of victimhoodThey conclude
If it is true that the phenomenon of microaggression complaints heralds a new stage in the evolution of conflict and social control, we should be aware that changing a moral culture also reshapes social life beyond the realm of conflict. Moral ideas orient one’s entire life. In an honor culture, for example, they affect people’s leisure and self-presentation: Ever concerned with appearing brave and strong, the honorable often gamble, drink heavily, and openly boast about their exploits (Cooney 1998:Chapter 5). Contrast these behaviors with the socialization toward restraint found in dignity cultures, which do not value reckless behavior and abhor boasting in most contexts (Elias  1982:230–286; Pinker 2011:59–116). The emerging victimhood culture appears to share dignity’s disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits. For example, students writing personal statements as part of their applications for colleges and graduate schools often write not of their academic achievements but instead – with the encouragement of the universities – about overcoming adversity such as a parent’s job loss or having to shop at thrift stores (Lieber 2014). And in a setting where people increasingly eschew toleration and publicly air complaints to compel official action, personal discomfort looms large in official policy. For example, consider recent calls for “trigger warnings” in college classes or on course syllabuses to forewarn students they are about to exposed to topics that cause them distress, such as when a guide for faculty at Oberlin College (later withdrawn after faculty complaints) suggested that the novel Things Fall Apart, because it takes place in colonial Nigeria, could “trigger students who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more” (quoted in Medina 2014). Similarly, at Rutgers University an article in the student newspaper suggested that an appropriate trigger warning for The Great Gatsby would notify students that it depicted suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence (Wythe 2014; see also Jarvie 2014).
Another inevitable consequence of cultural change is conflict – in this case, the clash between competing moral systems. As we noted at the beginning of this article, the practice of publicizing microaggressions has attracted controversy and criticism even from within the academic communities that generate it. So too have various social media campaigns and pushes for trigger warnings (e.g., Schmidt 2014). These controversies extend beyond US universities to any place where these techniques of social control are exported. For instance, in 2012 an American-Japanese columnist published an article in The Japan Times complaining that native Japanese frequently subject him to such microaggressions as being surprised by his ability to use chopsticks or speak fluent Japanese (Arudou 2012). The article produced a flood of responses from Americans, Europeans, and Australians who have lived in Japan. Many of these agreed with the author that such microaggressions were a major problem, but others viewed his complaint as a form of deviant behavior in its own right. One disapproving commenter stated that he would “never let [such microaggressions] get to me” (Von Jettmar 2012), while another explains that “When Japanese compliment my chopstick use, I tell them thank you, and then politely let them know that some non-Japanese might not take it as a compli-ment. . . . I’d say this is much more effective than . . . bitterly complaining . . . to other non-Japanese” (Ben 2012).
What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity. Looking at those clashes, we know that when contradictory moral ideals exist alongside one another people may be unsure how to act, not confident of whether others will praise or condemn them. Believing his public reputation would otherwise suffer, Alexander Hamilton felt compelled to fight a duel even though he wrote that his “moral and religious principles are strongly opposed to the practice of dueling” (quoted in Seitz 1929:98). Yet after Hamilton was killed the public vilified his opponent Aaron Burr as a murderer and denounced the practice of dueling – certainly not the reaction either man would have expected. Today among the poor in inner cities and in other environments where honor lives on, conflict and confusion about honor and dignity continue. Outsiders who enter such settings might misunderstand the local standards of provocation to their own detriment, while insiders who seek success in mainstream society might find their reaction to slights viewed as a sign of immaturity and low self-control. Interactions between honor-oriented Middle Easterners and dignity-oriented Westerners often run afoul of these differences as well (Aslani et al. 2011). At universities and many other environments within modern America and, increasingly, other Western nations, the clash between dignity and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion: One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound.
And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable authority. In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly minor, but in this context even minor offenses – or perceived offenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic. Add to this mix modern communication technologies that make it easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the rise of a victimhood culture. This culture arose because of the rise of social conditions conducive to it, and if it prevails it will be because those conditions have prevailed