|Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.(1929 -
1968) stands in front of a bus at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott. |
Montgomery, Alabama December 26, 1956
Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist who penned The Righteous Mind, wrote an important blog post a few days ago responding to a paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning titled "Micro-aggression and Moral Cultures." Manning and Campell's goal is to understand why "calling out" micro-aggression has become a prominent part of U.S. culture, especially on university campuses. Their focus is not on the prevalence of micro-aggression itself; inasmuch as micro-aggression is a real phenomena, it is an exceedingly old one. "Calling out" micro-aggression, however, is a novel practice, and by no means widespread. In a few environments (like university newspapers or Tumblr threads) it is ubiquitous. In others (say, the rural Western town from which I write this post) it is unknown. This demands explanation.
The explanation Campbell and Manning offer is a structural one. Call-out culture, as they see it, is a manifestation of a much broader shift in the way Americans perceive and resolve social conflicts. This shift is a natural and predictable response to the changing distribution of power within American society. They argue that this isn't the first time such a shift has happened. The emerging moral matrix which gives birth to trigger warnings and call-outs is the third system of its type. Campbell and Manning describe it as a "Culture of Victimhood." They name the moral system that preceded it a "Culture of Dignity." Filling out the trinity is the "Culture of Honor." Honor is the oldest conflict-resolution device of the three, and a fitting place to begin our discussion. Here is their description of honor culture dynamics:
NOTE: Campbell and Manning's study is locked behind a pay-gate, so I cannot provide exact page numbers for the excerpts. All quotations from Campbell and Manning that follow are taken from the Jonathan Haidt's post, which quotes them extensively. Haidt's comments are in [brackets]. All bold emphasis is my own.
A) A Culture of Honor
Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them (Cooney 1998:108–109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly, those who engage in such violence often say that the opinions of others left them no choice at all…. In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510). Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs (Cooney 1998:122–129).  (Emphasis added).This will be familiar to anyone who has read The Iliad, Mahabharata, The Zuo Zhuan, The Tale of Burnt Njal, or any other piece epic literature of great antiquity. All these tales hail from aristocratic worlds where kings were feeble and governments barely existent. Understandably, it is quite common to describe cults of honor as the province of the stateless and ungoverned. Honor cultures have been described this way for centuries; perhaps the most beautiful description of Campbell and Manning's "Culture of Honor" was written millennia ago to make just this point:
"Justice turns the wheel
Word for word, curse for curse
'Be born now,' Justice thunders
Hungry for retribution,
'stroke for blood, stroke be paid'
The one who acts must suffer." 
The words are those of Aeschylus, sung by the chorus in The Libation Bearers. But Libation Bearers was the second in a trilogy; the concluding piece sees Athena stop the endless blood-feud justice demands by providing a citizen's court to judge cases of right and wrong. To the jury she gave "from the heights, terror and reverence, [so that] my people's kindred powers will hold them from injustice through the day," forever replacing the anarchy of vendetta with order imposed by the state.  That is how the story usually goes, and this is largely how Campbell and Manning describe the transition away from honor. As law grew honor diminished, allowing men to resolve their disputes without recourse to violence or reputation. This story is also wrong--or perhaps more charitably, incomplete.
The study of honor has had something of a renaissance among classicists and historians of Ancient Greece and Rome, with folks like J.E. Lendon and Susan Mattern demonstrating conclusively that a culture of honor and reputation were the driving forces behind Roman and Greek government, warfare, and inter-personal relations, despite the might of their rulers or the force of their laws. The pattern is repeated elsewhere: as early as 200 BC Chinese thinkers like Shang Yang and Han Fei discerned that feats of valor and private vendettas pursued for reputation and honor undermined state power. They, and the many dynasties that succeeded them in the centuries to come, tried with all their power to stamp out bloody honor feuds. They failed. Despite the efforts of thousands of thinkers and statesmen, archetypes like the vengeance driven son or the swordsman who cared more for his reputation than his life continued on as stock heroes throughout late imperial times, recognizable to all and cheered on in popular plays and novels like The Orphan of Zhao or Outlaws of the Marsh. Efforts by literati to lift conflict resolution to a more refined plane barely made a dent on popular Chinese attitudes, which remained consumed with ideas of honor and face into the early years of the 20th century.
The growth in the size or power of government that came along with modernity was less important for the end of honor culture than the slow death of extended family systems ("clans"). "Honor" is always a corporate possession. As anyone who lives in a contemporary honor culture can tell you, disgrace for one in the family is disgrace for all. The clan is the weapon through which blood feud is waged. There were practical reasons for this: if no one has family to retaliate for wrongs done to their kinsmen, then the simplest solution to perceived slight is to kill the offender and end all chance of future retaliation then and there. Absent a clan committed to upholding the family honor, honor is all but impossible to maintain. This is quite apparent in the famous honor feuds of American history. Sagas like that of the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like hold-overs from an earlier era quite out of their time--until you realize the critical element in the feud of the two families was not the reach of America's Leviathan, but the fact that there were two extended families capable of carrying out the feud in the first place.
The transition away from honor culture and its constant feuding took centuries, for it took centuries for new family models to develop and displace older networks of extended clans.The process went furthest with the Dutch, Welsh, English, and Scandinavians, who by the early modern period were living in "absolute nuclear families," which have few connections to extended relatives of any type. People in these societies had to develop a new model of conflict resolution. It was from this milieu the "Culture of Dignity" would arise. We return again to Campbell and Manning:
B) A Culture of Dignity
The prevailing culture in the modern West is one whose moral code is nearly the exact opposite of that of an honor culture. Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others (Berger 1970; see also Leung and Cohen 2011). Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” – an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor (Leung and Cohen 2011:509). People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.
When intolerable conflicts do arise, dignity cultures prescribe direct but non-violent actions, such as negotiated compromise geared toward solving the problem (Aslani et al. 2012). Failing this, or if the offense is sufficiently severe, people are to go to the police or appeal to the courts. Unlike the honorable, the dignified approve of appeals to third parties and condemn those who “take the law into their own hands.” For offenses like theft, assault, or breach of contract, people in a dignity culture will use law without shame. But in keeping with their ethic of restraint and toleration, it is not necessarily their first resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities as frivolous. People might even be expected to tolerate serious but accidental personal injuries…. The ideal in dignity cultures is thus to use the courts as quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible. The growth of law, order, and commerce in the modern world facilitated the rise of the culture of dignity, which largely supplanted the culture of honor among the middle and upper classes of the West…. This should be more familiar to most Americans, as it was the dominant 'moral culture' for most of our history. Dignity is the preferred conflict resolution device for those who identify as members of a community instead of as a clan. Modern conceptions of citizenship are built upon this moral code. But the conflict resolution mechanisms built into this order and the one now emerging on university campuses differ sharply:
C) A Culture of Victimhood
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.Comparing the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s with contemporary black activism may help us grasp the scope of this transformation. "Dignity" was the byword of the civil rights movement, and talk of dignified deeds, indignities born, and the dignity inherent in all men was the bread and butter of its civic sermons. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a fine example of this in the opening words of his final address on the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
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. … 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 worldview (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. [gives examples] … Naturally, whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else) confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it. 
"For more than twelve months now, we, the Negro citizens of Montgomery have been engaged in a non-violent protest against injustices and indignities experienced on city buses. We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So in a quiet dignified manner, we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the sagging walls of injustice had been crushed by the battering rams of surging justice." This talk of dignity was more than just empty rhetoric. A central, driving goal of the movement was to reaffirm the dignity of black Americans--both to whites, and perhaps more importantly, to themselves. Fellow activist Bayard Rustin recognized that one of the greatest boons of the boycotts had been that it "won... the Negroe’s self-respect" as well as "the respect of their enemy." He continued:
The fellowship, the ideals, the joy of sacrifice for others and other varied features of the movement have given people something to belong to which had the inspiring power of the Minute Men, the Sons of Liberty, and other organized forms which were products of an earlier American era of fundamental change. One does not need to delve deep into the history or the rhetoric of this movement to realize that one of its central goals was convincing black Americans that if they acted with unity and purpose then they would have the power to "crush the sagging walls of injustice." Destiny was theirs to make. This is a remarkable thing to tell a people oppressed and downtrodden. It was a direct assault on all that the racist elements of America had ever tried to teach the black man--namely, that he and his people were incapable of self-government, and that it was their sorry fate to depend on white America for moral and political advancement. Both the words civil rights activists spoke and the protests they organized were designed to prove this a lie. This was not their only purpose. Martin Luther King, Baynard Rustin, Diane Nash, the other civil rights strategists knew that they were bargaining with political actors intensely hostile to their vision. They were acutely aware that they needed the support of white America to attain their ultimate goals, and constantly assessed how their words and deeds would affect white public opinion. However, their victories on the bargaining table cannot be separated from the sense of solidarity and moral power that made their campaigns possible in the first place. The source of this power was the radical idea that black men and women could be the masters of their fate.
This fits in neatly with the "Culture of Dignity" pattern that Campbell and Manning describe; it also diverges sharply from current practice. Ta-Nehesi Coates, America's most prominent black intellectual--possibly the country's most prominent public intellectual, period--captures the zeitgeist of our times well. Benjamin Wallace Wells described Coates' views in a recent essay for New York Magazine:
Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.Coates does not believe black Americans can be masters their fate. They are the victims of structural oppression, and describing them as anything else is in his view intellectually dishonest. There is a sad irony here: the most prominent black intellectual of 21st century America advances the same narrative outline used by white supremacists of America's past. They knew that you wouldn't need the white man to force you down if you've convinced yourself you will never be able stand up in the first place.
“That’s the thing that linked Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Coates said. “People say Malcolm was a pessimist. He was a pessimist about America. But he was actually very optimistic. Malcolm very much believed in the dream of nationalism. He believed we could do it. And Martin believed in the dream of integration. He believed that black people could be successful if they did x, y, and z.” Coates did not share that optimism: African-Americans are a minority in America, and he sees limits to what they can control. “I suspect they were both wrong. I suspect that it’s not up to us.” .
In a moral "Culture of Victimhood" this sort of pessimistic declaration of powerlessness makes Coates a moral paragon. But it is a virtue gained by surrendering the power to organize, mobilize, and bargain for change. One can take this charge too far: Coates is an intellectual, not an activist. It is unfair to fault him for writing op-eds instead of organizing a resistance movement. But much of what he says is simply a eloquent expression of widely shared assumptions. For our purposes the most important of these is his assumption that meaningful change can only occur if the powers that be allow it. Coates is very pessimistic that they ever will. Most full time activists are more optimistic. Yet the assumption remains. As much as groups like #BlackLivesMatter might talk about "struggle in the streets led by the people,"  this does not describe the most successful campaigns of the hashtag era. Those have revolved around drawing mass media attention to specific incidents of institutional racism in hope that enraged public opinion will pressure leaders to remove racist underlings (or more rarely, end their organization's racist policies). The Ferguson protests and its attendant media coverage--whose most immediate accomplishment was Governor Nixon's decision to end the St. Louis County P.D.'s control of policing in the area--are an example of this strategy on the broadest scale; the firing of Justine Sacco over a racist tweet is an example of it on the smallest. Both ends fit Campbell and Manning's description of victim culture dynamics perfectly. Activists seeking change emphasize their own state of victimhood (or oppression, offense, etc.). This allows them to draw the attention of the masses, and then direct this attention towards whatever power supervises the offender in question. Contemporary protests are best understood as petitions to the powers that be.
It is important to recognize that this shift is not limited to black activism, though the stakes are probably higher there than anywhere else. The same pattern reappears in every social movement that has rallied widespread support over the last decade. "Awareness" is the buzzword of the hour, and it has become an explicit goal of every activist campaign of any fame. Why is this? Why has awareness replaced action as the aim of so many organizations? The answer is that raising awareness is a rational activist strategy when disputes are resolved by gaining the support of powerful third parties who can institute your vision, be they university administrators or the federal government.
This point is worth exploring. There is a temptation to see call outs, micro-aggressions, and awareness activism as the product of university indoctrination or millennial immaturity. But this is the wrong way to look at it. In Campbell and Manning's terms, "the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization."  The transition from honor to dignity reflected a deeper shift in the basic building blocks of society. Had Western Europeans not shifted away from clan based to citizen based communities, there would not have been any Culture of Dignity. The shift from dignity to victimhood reflects a similar change in the societal distribution of power. Campbell and Manning offer the following explanation for this transformation:
Several social trends encourage the growth of these forms of social control, particularly in the United States. Since the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, racial, sexual, and other forms of intercollective inequality have declined, resulting in a more egalitarian society in which members are much more sensitive to those inequalities that remain. The last few decades have seen the continued growth of legal and administrative authority, including growth in the size and scope of university administrations and in the salaries of top administrators and the creation of specialized agencies of social control, such as offices whose sole purpose to increase “social justice” by combatting racial, ethnic, or other intercollective offenses (Lukianoff 2012:69–73). Social atomization has increased, undermining the solidary networks that once encouraged confrontational modes of social control and provided individuals with strong partisans, while at the same time modern technology has allowed for mass communication to a virtual sea of weak partisans. This last trend has been especially dramatic during the past decade, with the result that aggrieved individuals can potentially appeal to millions of third parties. Haidt puts a lot of stock in the first of these factors--increasing equality between diverse groups, which makes small slights seem large. This goes a long way towards explaining the paradox of the university campus, which is simultaneously one of the most equal, least offensive spaces in America, and the place most prone to baseless claims of victimhood. It does a much poorer job of explaining the broader trend in American political culture, where disputes are usually of far greater consequence. This is part of the reason I contrast black activism in the '60s and black activism now: unlike campus micro-aggressions, the issues facing urban black communities are not frivolous. Claims that increasing equality and opportunity are at the root of their activist strategies simply aren't tenable.
Campbell and Manning hint at a more important factor when they highlight the growing power of university administration and the weakening of social ties among students. Here the college campus is a microcosm of social changes happening at every level of American society. Not every American must deal with an ever distant university administration, but all are further and further removed from the levers of power. This story is a well known one: over the last five decades American social capital has fallen apart. Americans are less likely to volunteer, participate in local political parties or caucuses, join civic, religious, or self improvement associations, attend church, have group hobbies, vote, read local newspapers, organize neighborhood gatherings, play cards, spend time on social visits, or have as many friends now as they did in 1960.
At the same time many organizations which once gave average men and women the chance to work together or serve in local leadership roles disappeared--or have been consolidated to heights far beyond the reach of the average citizen. There are fewer school boards and municipal governments now than there in the 1950s, despite the doubling of America's population since then. National charities are more likely to ask their members for money than time; lobbying has replaced supporting local chapters as the main activity of most national activists. The federal government assumes powers traditionally reserved to local and state governments. Local businesses have been pushed out of existence by international conglomerates.  The businesses, associations, congregations, and clubs that once made up American society are gone. America has been atomized; her citizens live alone, connected but weakly one to another. Arrayed against each is a set of vast, impersonal bureaucracies that cannot be controlled, only appealed to.
A "Culture of Victimhood" is a perfectly natural response to this shift in the distribution of power. Remember that the central purpose of moral cultures is to help resolve or deter disputes. Dignity cultures provide a moral code to regulate disputes among equals from the same community. They also help individuals in a community--citizens--organize to protect their joint interests. 21st century America has lost this ability to organize and solve problems at the local level. The most effective way to resolve disputes is appeal to the powerful third parties: corporations, the federal government, or the great mass of people weakly connected by social media. The easiest way to earn the sympathy of these powers is to be the unambiguous victim in the dispute.
Victim culture is here to stay. It's success cannot be blamed on the ideologue or the propagandist, but on deeper changes in the structure of American society. That the values of this culture would eventually arise was inevitable once American these changes occured. This was understood more than two centuries ago. Alexis de Tocqueville speculated on what American society would look like when its elements had been atomized and equalized. His description sounds remarkably like that of Campbell and Manning:
In times of equality no one is obliged to lend his assistance to his fellow men and no one has the right to expect any great support from them, [so] each man is both independent and weak. These two conditions, which must not be viewed either separately or connected together, give the citizens of democracies very contradictory urges. Independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals while his vulnerability occasionally makes him feel the need for outside support, which he cannot expect from one of his own people since they are all powerless and unsympathetic. In such extreme circumstances he naturally turns his gaze towards this huge authority rising about the general impotence. His needs and, above all, his desires, constantly bring him back to that authority which he end ups regarding as the sole and necessary support for his weakness as an individual....
The loathing men feel for privilege increases as these privileges become rarer and less important, so that democratic passions would seem to burn the brighter in those very times when they have the least fuel. No inequality, however great, strikes the eye in a time of general social inequality, whereas the slightest disparity appears shocking amid universal uniformity; the more complete this uniformity, the more intolerable it looks. Therefore it is natural that love of equality should thrive constantly with equality itself. To foster it is to see it grow.
This ever burning and endless loathing which democratic nations feel for the slightest privilege has an unusual effect upon the gradual concentration of every political right in the hands of a single representative of the state. Since the sovereign authority stands necessarily and indubitably above all citizens, it does not arouse their envy and each citizen thinks that he is depriving all his fellow men of those powers that he grants to the crown. The man living in democratic ages is always extremely reluctant to obey his neighbor who is his equal.... he distrusts his form of justice and looks enviously upon his power; he both fears and despises him; he likes to bring home to him the whole time they are both equally dependent upon the same master.... Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands central power is placed but they always retain their affection for the power itself. (emphasis added) An insight that pervades all of Tocqueville's writing is that moral culture and political culture are two sides of the same coin. Campbell and Manning define the three moral culture in terms of moral authority, but one could just as easily define them in political terms. The first is the culture of the clansman. The second is the culture of the citizen. The third is the culture of the isolated individual--or as Tocqueville would call him, the subject.
 Jonathan Haidt, "Where Microagressions Really Come From: A Sociological Account," The Righteous Mind Blog (7 September 2015).
 Aeschylus, The Libation-Bearers, trans. H. Lloyd-Jones (Raleigh: Hayes Barton Press, 1970). v. 315-21.
 Ibid., v.704
 Quoted in Haidt, "Where Microagressions,"
 Marthin Luther King Jr., "Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott," (20 Dec 1956) in King Encyclopedia [http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents.html], accessed Sep 2015
 Bayard Rustin to Martin Luther King Jr., memo dated 23 December 1953, in King Encyclopedia [http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents.html], accessed Sep 2015
 Benjamin Wallace Wells, "The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates," New York Magazine (12 July 2015).
 Black Lives Matter Network, "Statement in response to the Democratic National Committee" Facebook profile post (30 August 2015).
 Quoted in Haidt, "Where Microagressions,"
 A great deal of research has been done on each of these topics. For a general introduction see Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999); Robert Putnam, Carl Frederick, and Kaisa Suelman."Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness Among American Youth", Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (8 August 2012); Theda Skopal, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010); 2012 U.S. Census of Governments.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Other Writings, Trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin Books), 781-783.