The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars
By Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning
Palgrave, $65, 278 pages, ISBN 9783319703282
How did it come to this? When did it become, on the campuses of many upscale US universities, almost impossible to say anything without someone taking offence and initiating legal action through an office set up for the purpose? How is it that professors can be applauded for saying that they want to see a “white genocide”? When did hate-crime hoaxes become acceptable, even desirable?
Campbell (Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University) and Manning (Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University) have collected a vast body of research on the subject – at considerable professional cost, it should be said – and have come up with some answers. They track the spread of the new culture of victimhood through universities and into broader society, and believe it began about ten years ago, when a new generation entered university life.
These teenagers had been continually told by their affluent, left-wing parents that they were “special snowflakes”: unique, beautiful and fragile. Years of helicopter-style parenting had given them the impression that they had the right to never be offended or challenged, and that their country was characterised by an evil history and a fearful present. To be subjected to an idea that you didn’t like was an insult, and that made you a victim. If you were, or saw yourself, as a member of a minority, then your victim status automatically became much higher.
And thus the idea of the micro-aggression was born. The key to it was that the content of any comment from someone outside one’s own circle was less important than the interpretation placed on it, and the interpretation was usually that the comment was racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive. Campbell and Manning note that even the phrase “on the other hand” was condemned (‘ableist’, apparently).
University administrations responded by setting up administrative bodies to hear complaints and pronounce sentences. These tribunals quickly extended their reach, equating what might have been a minor slight or a simple misunderstanding with actual violence. Hard evidence was not required: Campbell and Manning cite several cases where tribunals found a student ‘guilty’ of rape on campus even though police had established the accusations to be untrue.
From a sociological perspective, the culture of victimhood might be compared with the earlier culture of dignity, which was marked by self-restraint, forbearance, and quiet courage – and, when it came to issues such as racial equality, a sense of reciprocity and fairness. But all that was seen as hopelessly, dangerously outdated. The new mentality was about a war between the enlightened few – the ‘woke’ – and the rest. No quarter, no respite. Haters got to hate.
The key enemy of the victimhood movement was, inevitably, the older white male, always depicted as privileged, racist, misogynist and stupid. An army of media commentators agreed. But Campbell and Manning provide a poignant, anonymous quote from one of the snowflakes’ targets:
I am very lower middle class. I’ve never owned a new car, and I do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money. I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege, and America will be a much brighter, more loving, more peaceful nation when I finally just keel over and die.
And this is why over 62 million people voted for Donald Trump. Cause, meet effect.
One of the most telling chapters of the book deals with the rise of hate crime hoaxes. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election there was a dramatic rise in the number of people saying they had been attacked by Trump supporters. However, many of the claims turned out to be simply fabricated. Campbell and Manning examine about a dozen cases, and a journalist called Andy Ngo has compiled a list running into the hundreds.
Presumably, being the target of an attack gives a person in the victimhood culture more status, and fits into a larger anti-Trump narrative. The problem with this is that there simply aren’t enough white racists to go around – if there were, there would be no need to invent them. (In fact, the statistics suggest that the number of real hate crimes is falling. The only growth area is attacks on Jews by members of the ultra-militant Nation Of Islam – something which is largely ignored, as it does not fit into the paradigm of black people as helpless victims of white racism.)
It says much that the celebrity of Jussie Smollett, the mid-level actor who recently staged an attack on himself by Trump supporters, has grown since his claims were revealed to be falsehoods. In victimhood culture, a hate-crime hoax is not a dishonest trick but a sign of true commitment to the cause. Well, fakers got to fake.
Campbell and Manning are not optimistic about the situation getting any better, although they discuss the possibility of victimhood culture burning out – there are already signs of it consuming itself in a “purity spiral”. On the other hand, they see the more likely outcome being that it will continue to grow and mutate, causing an even greater backlash. The result will be a more polarised, antagonistic society.
It takes no great effort to see the patterns described in this book in Australian society, as victimhood culture spreads from universities into the media. At present, Australia seems to be running a few years behind the US trend, but this book is a signpost of what might be coming. Don’t say you weren’t warned.