Have Microaggression Complaints Really Launched a Whole New Sort of ‘Victimhood Culture’?

By
5 pointing fingers of multiple ethnicities
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/(c) Klaus Vedfelt

Two things are clear about microaggressions, which are defined here as the “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities” that affect women, minorities, and other marginalized groups — think an Asian-American man born in the U.S. being asked where he is “really” from, or an African-American woman being asked by a white person if they can touch her hair. The first is that they definitely exist in that, yes, members of these groups have to deal with various annoyances others don’t, and over time their cumulative impact can lead to a great deal of frustration.

The second is that some university administrations seem to have flown off the rails a bit in their understanding of the concept. The University of California system, for example, published a guide (PDF) for faculty that listed sentences like “America is a melting pot” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” as possible microaggressions — not banning the use of these phrases, but strongly implying, the constitutional-law scholar Eugene Volokh has argued, that faculty who use them could be contributing to a “hostile” learning environment, which is in fact “legally actionable.” (It should be said that many professors and free-speech advocates are reacting strongly against these sorts of guidelines — the University of New Hampshire had to un-publish its own overly broad “bias-free language guide” in June after details of it went national.)

Lurking underneath the free-speech debate is an even more fundamental one about what microaggressions, as a concept, signify. Are they just another way to understand the complicated ways race, gender, and other categories impact other life, or do they represent a new, dangerously illiberal attitude on the part of students and administrations? Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, for example, recently argued in The Atlantic that microaggression-awareness advocates are embracing speech policing and self-victimization.

This debate is part of the reason an academic paper in Comparative Sociology called “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” has made recent headlines. Written by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, sociologists at Cal State – Los Angeles and West Virginia University, respectively, the article came out last year but got a burst of attention following its discovery by Haidt, who called it an “extraordinary paper”; a long write-up by Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic; and a Bloomberg column by Megan McArdle.

In the paper, Campbell and Manning, having examined a bunch of blogs in which college students report microaggressions they’ve suffered (usually anonymously), argue that these blogs signal the dawn of a new “victimhood culture” distinct from the cultures that came before it. They view this as a big deal: “If it is true that the phenomenon of microaggression complaints heralds a new stage in the evolution of conflict and social control,” they write (social control just being academic-ese for how humans handle conflict), “we should be aware that changing a moral culture also reshapes social life beyond the realm of conflict.” In other words, if these blogs and the complaints they house really do represent a new way of understanding human interactions, expect the results to ripple outward.

Part of the reason this argument appeals to folks like Haidt is it plays up the newness and potency of microaggression complaints — yes, the authors argue, this is a genuinely novel, genuinely powerful approach to questions of power and interpersonal conflict, and therefore, if you take a Haidtian view, we should be afraid (the authors themselves steer clear of making value judgments about microaggressions). In his write-up, Haidt writes that the key idea of the paper is that “the new moral culture of victimhood fosters ‘moral dependence’ and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own.”

But I found the paper a lot less convincing than Haidt did.

Explaining why will require a very quick tour of exactly what Campbell and Manning are arguing. They write that “social scientists have long recognized a distinction between societies with a ‘culture of honor’ and those with a ‘culture of dignity.’” In honor cultures, reputation is extremely important, and threats to it are taken very seriously. “Honorable people must guard their reputations,” the authors write, “so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights.” These cultures lend themselves to frequent violence as their members “aggressively compete for respect” — Campbell and Manning present the Hamilton-Burr duel as a classic example of the natural consequences of honor culture.

In dignity cultures, on the other hand, it’s not necessary to vigilantly guard one’s reputation, because “people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others.” If someone randomly calls you a name or otherwise insults you, it doesn’t matter, because other people likely won’t take it to really mean anything important about you and who you are. The general consensus, the authors argue, is that the U.S. has evolved from an honor culture into a dignity culture. Small slights are generally laughed off, while when genuine conflicts arise, “dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem.” Going to the authorities is only widely accepted after attempts at compromise have failed, or in the case of something serious. If you call the cops on a neighbor just for parking in your spot once, rather than just asking them to not do it again, you’ll generally be seen as a jerk by others. (We’re talking in big generalizations here; obviously, there are some Americans who will react aggressively if you call them a name, and Campbell and Manning note that honor culture is still present in certain enclaves in the U.S. and other Western nations, as well as big swaths of the rest of the world.)

The key thing about microaggression complaints is that Campbell and Manning don’t think they fit neatly within honor culture or dignity culture:

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.

These complaints do, however, fit into a new kind of culture — a “culture of victimhood”:

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.

Got all that? Key to the whole argument is the idea that these microaggression-documenting blogs represent something new and important in the broader tale of how humans relate to one another. But there are good reasons to be skeptical of this.

The first is that this phenomenon isn’t really new. For those lucky enough to have missed or ignored a very silly episode, there was a time about a decade ago when Bill O’Reilly (among plenty of other conservative pundits) would regularly proclaim that progressives, in an attempt to tear America’s Judeo-Christian foundations out from under it, were waging a “war on Christmas.” The infidels used a variety of weaponry to undermine Christmas and Christianity, among them the promotion of nondenominational winter-holiday displays in town squares and complaints against explicitly Jesus-themed sing-alongs in schools.

Pro-Christmas warriors were particularly outraged when people like checkout clerks said “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” To them it was a perfectly concise symbol of the extent to which Christmas was being secularized. And while this hysteria has died down in recent years, a quick Googling reveals that people are still making O’Reilly-ish arguments about the holidays, such as this woman claiming in 2013 that the use of “happy holidays” — and other such secularizing trends — constitutes “a blatant assault on Christianity.” It’s a frequent subject of letters to the editor.

Doesn’t complaining to a newspaper editor or Bill O’Reilly over the use of “happy holidays” tick exactly the same boxes as complaining to a blog about a microaggression? In both cases, the complainant is portraying themselves as a victim over a slight that is, by most definitions and to most people, minor. And in both cases it’s used to make the case of a broader, more systemic sort of bias going on. Or take Conor Friedersdorf’s example: complaints about having to “press one for English.” Again, a very minor thing is inflated to amplify one’s “victimhood” and used as evidence of a broader, pernicious trend. If it’s easy to come up with examples that were prevalent a decade ago, is there really a reason to think microaggression blogs represent any sort of turning or inflection point?

In an email, Campbell said he saw the war-on-Christmas anger as “more of a backlash against the manifestations of victimhood culture. I believe what he and others were claiming was that people were taking offense at the use of ‘merry Christmas’ or ‘Christmas parties’ and such. I think you’re right to see it as ultimately very similar, though.” He also pointed out that “we’re talking about long-term trends. The ‘war on Christmas’ stuff is also pretty recent.” In other words, it’s part of the same general trajectory toward victimhood culture. Well, okay — but it’s fair to ask why it’s microaggression complaints that “[herald] a new stage in the evolution of conflict and social control” (emphasis mine), rather than stuff that came a decade before.

Perhaps more important, Campbell and Manning don’t really even prove that these blog posts fit into a new sort of moral culture. To review: The authors argue that in victimhood culture, “[p]eople are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.” They see this as a shift from how people handle minor conflicts over language in dignity cultures: “confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”

There are a couple of reasons why these blogs don’t necessarily display a victimhood tendency. For one thing, they’re mostly anonymous — how can you bring attention to yourself as a victim, or bring in the authorities or the public at large as an ally, if all or most of the people reading don’t know who you are or who the perpetrator is? Anonymous posting just doesn’t exactly fit within the moral-culture framework the authors are discussing, which is heavily concerned with calling out specific enemies, rallying the support of specific friends, or both. At most, the stories on these blogs can be seen as part of a broader sort of “awareness-raising” about the use of certain types of language on campuses — or simple venting. (In an email, Campbell argued that the complaints are more than just anonymous griping: “What they’re doing is contributing to a ‘case-building’ strategy for larger political grievances. They are showing that a minority group are victims of majorities — that lots of minor offenses that maybe do not warrant individual punishment do warrant some collective response due to the burden they impose overall on the victims of these slights and insults.”)

Plus, in many cases the authors do handle things within the guidelines of dignity culture. In one post the authors highlight in which a Latino Oberlin student launches into an unhinged rant about a classmate who referred to soccer as futbol, for example, the author sent an angry email to the perpetrator of the microaggression, got an angry response, and then posted the whole thing. In other words, his first move was to “[confront] the offender directly to discuss the issue.” The email he sent was comically mean and over the top, yes — but it was a direct confrontation. Or take this post, in which a Brown student reports having yelled at someone to stop screaming, “[Student’s name] is a faggot!” over and over at 3.a.m. Again, direct confrontation followed by anonymous posting. These students are doing exactly what you do in a dignity culture — confronting the offender directly without involving the “authorities.” How does venting anonymously about these conflicts afterward retroactively alter the nature of how they were handled?

To be fair, in most posts on the microaggression blogs the authors don’t mention having confronted the offending party. But even here it can be argued they reacted in a standard dignity-culture way. Frequently, authors recount social situations in which it would be difficult or awkward to confront the perpetrator directly, even afterward in an email — it’s not easy to tell a group of friends that what they’re doing is offensive, or to tell a professor you’re offended by an offhand remark they made in class. This is the sort of normal, everyday social pressure that everyone’s familiar with, and in these cases the authors apparently weighed the seriousness of the comment versus the awkwardness of saying something and simply decided to … ignore the offending remark. Which is exactly what dignity culture says you should do!

Again: Venting about the incident on an anonymous board doesn’t change the fact that they ignored it — there’s no sign they reported the incident, went to the administration, or anything else. These kids were doing exactly what a million people do every day — they got offended by something, decided it wasn’t a big enough deal to confront the offending party about it, and vented about it later instead. This doesn’t seem like a particularly new approach to minor conflicts. As for Haidt’s argument that these blogs show that "the new moral culture of victimhood fosters ‘moral dependence’ and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own," how does posting an anonymous complaint about an incident mean that you didn’t handle it on your own? 

***

Campbell and Manning specifically cite 11 campus microaggression blogs in their paper. Ten of them are now defunct or haven’t been updated in a long time; only McGill’s seems to be relatively active. “I think those microaggression sites, if they are in decline, might just be the analogue of MySpace or Friendster — those particular networking sites have long since become unpopular, but social media and networking sites as a general are still going strong,” Manning said in an email. In our correspondence, he and Campbell both argued that microaggression complaints have effectively graduated, in some places, to administrative actions like the documents released by UNH (before it was yanked) and the University of California system. “The websites and the attention they generated have succeeded in influencing official policy (often the goal of activism) and introducing the concept into mainstream discourse,” said Manning.

This might be too straightforward a causal story. Reading the posts on the blogs themselves, one gets the sense of college students trying to figure stuff out. Some of the posts are filled with righteous anger; others are just sad that their peers don’t get it. The complaints run from stuff that the majority of people would agree is offensive — crude ethnic stereotypes that probably don’t even qualify as a microaggression — to incidents that most people probably would consider to be a minor infraction at worst: someone misreading something and then complaining about being “dyslexic,” even though they don’t actually have the disorder.

In the case of the wackier complaints, it’s worth keeping in mind that these are 20-year-olds venting about the sorts of slights that some 20-year-olds, by virtue of their age, have a tendency to exaggerate and have trouble brushing off. I understand why Campbell and Manning might see this as part of larger trend — again, universities really are sending their faculties guides to offensive speech that seem written by a caricature of a radical activist — but we don’t really know who the anonymous authors on these microaggression blogs are, why they wrote what they wrote, or what happened to them in the months or years since they posted. Many of them were only offended enough by the microaggression they experienced to write a quick note about it on an anonymous blog. Do we know these kids would want the language they heard outlawed, or that they even want the campus administrators involved at all? It just isn’t necessarily fair to assume these ephemeral online figures are interested in doubling down on their complaints in any sort of meaningful way.

All of this reflects problems that are inherent to analyzing any anonymous online space, of course. But if you’re going to write that a group of such spaces heralds the arrival of a new sort of moral culture, that the presence of people complaining online in a particular way is a sign that old rules about managing conflict are crumbling, the burden is on you to prove it. If there are ​widespread​ examples of students dealing with microaggressions in a victimhood-culture way in the real world — that is, actually calling attention to themselves as victims, pointing out the offender, elevating the incident to administrators, and so on — they would be interesting to hear about and the first step to proving that a new sort of culture really is taking hold. But for now, when I read these anonymous posts, I see college students venting — in much the same style college students always have.