On July 12, 1804, Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury and a leader of the Federalist Party, died from a gunshot suffered in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. This was an expression of a culture of honor that had lethal consequences.
In their recent book, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning discuss three cultures; the honor culture, the dignity culture that displaced it and the culture of victimhood they assert is replacing dignity culture.
Honor culture is “attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone,” say the authors. In these cultures, reputation is important. Failure to fight back against slights and insults damages one’s reputation.
Campbell and Manning note that these cultures arise in places where law is weak or absent, and where the aggrieved often do not resort to law even if it is available. They specifically cite the Hamilton-Burr affair of honor. Duels were illegal in New York and New Jersey, but Burr was never brought to trial.
Other writers have claimed that the elevated level of violence among white men in the American South is a legacy of a culture of honor. Some, such as Thomas Sowell, have characterized the high levels of homicide among young black men a consequence of an honor culture.
Honor culture has been replaced in modern society by dignity culture. Dignity is not dependent on what others think. The schoolyard chant “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a manifestation of this attitude.
People in dignity cultures are urged to ignore minor affronts or to use nonviolent responses. Eventually, the offended may bring lawsuits or otherwise engage the authorities, yet there is social pressure against being confrontational or too litigious.
Campbell and Manning say the strongest form of dignity culture existed in homogeneous mid-20th century American towns, where strong legal systems and social closeness discouraged aggressiveness and fostered settlement of infractions.
Yet in recent years a new form is culture is emerging, one the authors call victimhood culture. In this culture, verbal slights are considered actually harmful. What earlier generations might have regarded as insensitivity is now tagged with the neologism “microaggression.” These are slights or comments that may not even be intentional, but are nevertheless hurtful.
In victimhood culture, like honor culture, the offended are touchy and on the lookout for affronts. Unlike honor culture, the affronted are quick to claim victimhood status and to look to authority figures to take action.
Unsurprisingly, the incubators of victimhood culture are the college campuses, which have engendered a new vocabulary: “microaggression,” “microassault,” “microinvalidation,” “mansplaining,” “whitesplaining,” “straightsplaining,” “cultural appropriation,” “slut shaming,” and “heteronomativity.”
On some campuses offices and websites exist so people can make accusations more easily.
Victimhood culture has moved off campuses and online, with so-called “hashtag activism.” We have seen incidents recently where huge numbers of people post abusive comments about people who are perceived to have victimized others by demeaning them.
The most recent of these took place with a group of Catholic high school boys, a Native American with a drum, and a group of black religious extremists. The tempers have died down, fortunately, with at least some people chastened by their initial response.
It is fair to say that Campbell and Manning are not sympathetic to victimhood culture. Their work is heavily footnoted, and their tone is scholarly rather than polemic.
If they are right about their analysis and justified in their concerns, a big question arises. What are we to do about this?
And who are “we,” anyway?