In his blurb for our our book, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was kind enough to call us “prophets of the academic world.” He referred to the fact that our first article on victimhood culture – “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” – came out in 2014, a time when few people outside of activist circles had ever heard of microaggressions. In our paper, we posited the spread of microaggression complaints, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other manifestations of victimhood culture. It wasn’t until after our article was published that a series of high profile victimhood eruptions – the Halloween costume controversy at Yale, mass protests over an email at Claremont McKenna, a president pressured to resign at Missouri – brought greater public attention to these things, and to the idea that something strange and new was going on at colleges and universities.
We appreciate Haidt’s compliment, and we do indeed take some pride in diagnosing and explaining the moral shift before many others were even aware of it. But at least some of this recent moral evolution is an acceleration of older trends, and there have been other astute observers who saw where things were headed.
We recently became aware of a piece published by Joseph Epstein in The New York Times in 1989 called “The Joys of Victimhood.” Had we known about it sooner, we surely would have cited it in our book, for Epstein’s argument, written decades before ours, makes some similar observations.
Epstein opens by noting that speakers at the previous year’s Democratic Convention seemed to take pride in advertising things such as having been to rehab for alcoholism, having suffered from addiction to diet pills, or having been born an illegitimate child. He considers this a willingness to embrace the identity of being a victim, and notes that: “Victims have never been in short supply in the world, but the rush to identify oneself as a victim is rather a new feature of modern life.” We likewise argue that, while people in every society might complain of victimization, contemporary victimhood culture is unique in the degree to which people emphasize and advertise their neediness, disadvantage, or suffering.
In our work, we note that portraying oneself as a victim can be a useful conflict tactic, and is often geared towards winning sympathy and support from third parties. Epstein likewise notes that “to position oneself as a victim is to position oneself for sympathy, special treatment, even victory” and gives examples of how victimization works as a tactic of social protest.
We argue that contemporary victimhood culture is most developed and entrenched at colleges and universities, where it shapes not only student life but entire fields of study. Epstein likewise remarks:
“There has come into being a large number of people, many of them in universities, who, if not victims themselves, wish to speak for victims or rouse other people to a sense of their injury as victims. They are the intellectual equivalent of ambulance chasers. Perhaps the best place to see the traffic of victims and ambulance chasers in full flow is in the contemporary university. I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that nowadays if you cannot declare victim status, or find some way to align yourself with putative victims, in the contemporary university you don’t figure to have much standing.”
In our book, we address the seeming paradox that victimhood culture is most highly developed not at the lowest reaches of society, but among the relatively affluent populations of private colleges and Ivy League universities. On this point, Epstein quotes Harvard Graduate Christopher H. Foreman, Jr.: “’The psychological comfort of being simultaneously privileged and oppressed seems too enticing for many people to forgo.” Epstein adds: “The scene thus presented is that of the fortunate teaching the privileged that the world is by and large divided between the oppressed and the oppressors, victims and executioners, and that the former are inevitably morally superior.”
In our work we note that victimhood culture’s sympathy with those recognized as victims is often paired with hostility toward those seen as privileged or as in any way (even unconsciously) contributing to oppression. Critics of contemporary victimhood culture often draw attention to this punitive side of the moral system, and some use “crybully” as a perjorative term for those they think use victimhood claims to dominate others. Writing in 1989, Epstein prefigures this term: “A subtle shift takes place, and suddenly the victim is no longer making appeals but demands . . . . Public pronouncements from victims take on a slightly menacing quality, in which, somehow, the line between victim and bully seems to blur.”
Epstein’s observations suggest that the foundations for contemporary victimhood eruptions were being laid decades ago. In our book, we make a similar point about the intellectual foundations of victimhood culture – neo-Marxian ideas that percolated through the academy for decades before achieving their contemporary prominence. This raises the question of why victimhood culture has accelerated so much in recent years. We suggest some relevant factors in our book, and perhaps readers can think of more.