A Transition of Moral Cultures?

Jonathan Haidt summarizes a paper (by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning) which may help explain some of the dynamics now manifesting themselves on college campuses and even in the larger society.  In brief:  prior to the 18th and 19th century, most Western societies were cultures of honor, in which people were expected to avenge insults on their own–and would lose social respect and position should they fail to do so.  The West then transitioned to cultures of dignity, in which “people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it.  They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transitions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means.  There’s no more dueling.”  The spirit of this type of culture could be summarized by the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

Campbell and Manning assert that this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But the difference, Haidt explains is this:

“But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized.”  Campbell and Manning distinguish the three culture types as follows:

“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.”

I had read something about this model a couple of months ago, and was reminded of it by a discussion at Bookworm Room.  She described a scene of insanity at Rutgers “university,” in which students were so traumatized by a speech given by Milo Yiannopoulos that “students and faculty members held a wound-licking gathering at a cultural center on campus, where students described “feeling scared, hurt, and discriminated against.”


“A variety of different organizations and departments were present to listen, answer questions and show support” to the apparently weak and vulnerable students, who just a few days prior had disrupted Yiannopoulos’ event by smearing fake blood on their faces and chanting protest slogans.  One student at the event told the Targum that they “broke down crying” after the event, while another reported that he felt “scared to walk around campus the next day.” According to the report, “many others” said they felt “unsafe” at the event and on campus afterwards.  “It is upsetting that my mental health is not cared about by the University,” said one student at the event. “I do not know what else to do for us to be heard for us to be cared about. I deserve an apology, everyone in this room deserves an apology.”

In comments to Bookworm’s post, I said  “Victorian maidens were apparently encouraged to be emotionally fragile. Apparently this encouragement now applies to both sexes and also possibly to those not of the upper classes”…to which commenter Ymarsarkar responded  “Mostly because they figured out that men with titles and power liked protecting women who were fragile. To a certain extent. It was almost like a marriage trick. Why peacocks have colors.”

Indeed, Victorian women (of the upper classes, at least) must have perceived that being seen as vulnerable worked out a lot better for them than did the opposite–although many or most must have internalized the behavior to the point they believed that was who they really were.

I think Campbell and Manning are on to something with their model.  A very important question, of course, is what is driving the transition to Model Three…and can this transition be neutralized or reversed?

Haidt says that it is the very presence of administrative bodies to which one may complain about minor forms of victimization that gives rise to efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim.  “This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces.”  But I don’t think the presence of these administrative bodies would have much effect had not a high % of the institutional population been exposed to extreme and fragility-creating forms of “self-esteem building” in K-12 schools and by parents.


15 thoughts on “A Transition of Moral Cultures?”

  1. This is an odd period in our history. There is a subset of the population that is self reliant, almost aggressively so, and another segment that is perpetually aggrieved. One difference is that the former is also known as “the gun culture” and is dismissed by cultural elites as “less intelligent” and less cultured. The “gun culture” is also the segment that joins the military and fights our wars. The police is largely composed of this group and many of the other security agencies, like firemen for example, are also members.

    The “victim culture” is less stable as it requires support from people like college administrators and various “helping agencies” like social workers.

    What happens when the victim culture is on its own ? Large corporations have been hiring employees for various “diversity” positions that seem to have multiplied in recent years.

    Large corporations are also heading for reduced employee populations and have been importing work forces from India and other countries for lower wages.

    It seems to me to be a formula for disappointment and mental health issues for the victims.

    It will be interesting to see what happens. I predict suicide will be a major focus for mental health in the near future.

  2. The blacks are really risking a severe reaction. I am all for those who want to work and be educated. The subculture of violent criminality is not going to get much traction with the majority and I could see them entering a cul de sac where they have no allies.

    I have black neighbors here in Orange County and they seem to be comfortable with the middle class culture. I’m sure they prefer peace and good schools to what there is in Los Angeles, let alone Chicago or Detroit.

    I met the guy who now owns my parents’ house in Chicago where I grew up. I feel so sorry for him as he obviously would like to live the way we did in the 1940s, and asked me to send him some photos of the house when we lived there.

    The neighborhood is the most violent in the country. It was a lovely place to live 70 years ago.

  3. it isn’t about the negros. it is how the communist use the “civil rights” political weapon to attack the culture. gays/dykes/queers/lgbtxyz are the “new” negros. muslims are awaiting. so flint mi – fix your problem
    don’t ask the rest of the USA.

  4. I think Campbell and Manning are on to something with their model. A very important question, of course, is what is driving the transition to Model Three…and can this transition be neutralized or reversed?

    This cultural change all started with Oprah and those with like mind who began calling victims of rape, victims of amputation, heroes for their suffering. Throughout history we defined heroism as a reflection of someone’s choices but now the definition of heroism morphed into how one has suffered.

    These calls to heroism/victimhood directedly a lot of attention and sympathy onto people and this fed into people’s egos. You’re a special person, one that is looked up to because people call you a hero. They took the admiration aspect of heroism where one would look at a hero’s behavior and admire it to such a degree that one would pledge to live up to that standard in one’s own life and they mapped this admiration module onto the new definition of hero where it didn’t make sense – who would want to admire victimhood and pledge to emulate that circumstance in one’s own life? So with a mapping which doesn’t resonate the admiration module simply shifts to the next ready target which is the attention pay pay to you and the ego boost you get from this attention.

    Now being a hero means that you get a lot of attention and sympathy and this is something worthy of admiration and it says something positive about you for being a hero, hence if you can get people to think that you’re a hero for suffering some plight, then you too will be admired by others, you will be the center of attention and you will be important.

    Moreover, instead of heroism being a rare thing because it called on extraordinary bravery and sacrifice, heroism now becomes common because it simply entails that you have suffered some plight and that’s an easy hurdle to jump because all you need to do is to tell people you’ve suffered some harm and so everyone will therefore acknowledge the harm that has befallen you, shower you with attention and praise you for how you are dealing with the harm.

    Thanks Oprah!

  5. An additional effect is that, if you’re in the large part of society that embraces the victimhood culture, it’s increasingly unlikely that you’re able to recognize true gallantry, heroism, magnanimity, justice, temperance, moderation, courage, fortitude, or wisdom, because these qualities are not directly connected to an aggrieved status.

    And thus we have Amb. Susan Rice citing the “honor and distinction” of Bowe Bergdahl’s career. That’s an extreme example, admittedly. But one cannot fathom Teddy Roosevelt (Honor Culture) or George Bush (both Dignity Culture) saying such things.

  6. Trump is definitely a part of the Victimhood culture. He skin is microns-thick–he can’t resist pointing how how grave his injustices are. I complains about “not getting credit” for self-funding his campaign. He was aggrieved by Magyn Kelly’s existence, so much so that he skipped that debate to go to a Trump Fundraiser that was theoretically for the benefit of what society thinks is another victim class: veterans. He’s able to manipulate the media in large part because of his claims to be a victim. And who makes up the Trump voter base? Largely the working poor and lower middle class white men.

    Noblesse Oblige?! Ha! He’s not cut from the same cloth as a Patton, a Roosevelt, an Astor, a Vanderbilt, a Carnegie. Trump could only exist in today’s sad moral culture. He would have called John Jacob Astor, who went down with the Titanic, a loser. And he would also be offended that I said that, if he were to know that I said it.

    That is part of what makes him so effective today, basically by making much left live by their own standards (This is one of Saul Alinsky’s Rules of Radicals). I don’t see eye to eye with his moral reasoning, though.

  7. I don’t see Trump as “Victimhood” but as lashing out at those who invite his wrath. That is more “Honor Culture.”

    Next week will be huge in determining what happens. March 1 is Super Tuesday and there are a lot of primaries on the same day. That may be Rubio’s downfall as he had all the ducks lined up in South Carolina and they did not pull him over the finish line.

  8. Trump is definitely a part of the Victimhood culture. He skin is microns-thick–he can’t resist pointing how how grave his injustices are.

    I agree with Micheal. Additionally, I suspect that you’re misreading what’s taking place. You’ve probably heard of the South Park Gnome’s Underpants Strategy – Part 1 – steal underpants; Part 2 – ????; Part 3 – Profit. I bring this up because the public now knows that Trump has a free media strategy, Part 1: Get Free Media; Part 2 – ????; Part 3 – Win Elections. Well, HOW DOES ONE GET FREE MEDIA? You create dramas every day. Trump is insulted, Trump accuses X of Y, Trump demands apology, etc.

  9. Isn’t litigiousness (Trump’s lawsuits and Trump’s threats) a form of getting the law to reward you – as victim? Faulkner shows how the Snopes use the legal system to try to best the old southern aristocracy. The old system, with it duties as well as it pride and rights, needed to end. But it is hard to find the Snopes a good replacement.

  10. Trump is the loudmouth braggart culture. Hellary is the perpetual liar crook culture. In your shoes I’d vote for the lesser evil.

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