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Microaggression and the Culture of Victimhood


Campus activists and others refer to various slights against women and minorities as “microaggressions” and use various means to publicize them. Campbell and Manning understand microaggression complaints as a distinct form of social control arising from a particular pattern of moral conflict. They argue that this pattern of conflict and social control indicates a distinctive moral culture—victimhood culture—that diverges from both the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past. After outlining the logic of each of these cultures, they consider other manifestations of victimhood culture, such as calls for trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the banning of speakers. These and other aspects of victimhood culture attract opposition and backlash that can be understood as a clash between victimhood and dignity. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the cultural contradictions involved in according moral status to victims.

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  1. 1.

    The websites for Harvard, Oxford, and Sydney feature individuals posting photos of themselves holding written messages, most of which address offensive things the poster has heard from others—such as one Australian poster whose sign reads “‘You’re not like the other aboriginals’” followed by “But you ARE like the other RACISTS!” (I Too Am Sydney 2014).

  2. 2.

    It can be misleading to talk about moral cultures if it leads us to gloss over the moral variation within a society, but otherwise it can be a useful simplification. And the prevailing moral ideas often draw in even those who would rather reject them.

  3. 3.

    For practical reasons we focus here on Western societies and their major moral cultures. Scholars such as Angela Leung and Dov Cohen (2011) argue that east Asian societies typically share a moral framework—a culture of face—that is distinct from the moral cultures we discuss here.

  4. 4.

    Of course the term “honor” is used to refer to other things, such as honesty and integrity (McKay 2016). These meanings will probably be more familiar to most Western readers—for example, some universities have “honor codes” that forbid cheating on exams. But these connotations of honor are a vestige of an earlier time when the same word that was used to refer to bravery and willingness to fight was extended to other virtues. Also note that even within honor cultures, honor might mean different things to men and women. Female honor was usually tied to sexual modesty rather than bravery. But since it was a man’s duty to violently defend the honor of female kin, and their dishonor would lead to his own, female virtue was still connected to physical bravery (Nye 1993; Vandello and Cohen 2003).

  5. 5.

    While everyone has inherent dignity, conduct might be more or less dignified. To act in a dignified manner is to exercise self-control and display a quiet assurance in one’s own worth, neither abasing oneself nor aggressively pursuing recognition (Meyer 1989). One may also fail to recognize others’ dignity by treating them badly—though in dignity culture, this is considered immoral and undignified (Rosen 2012).

  6. 6.

    Members of honor cultures might call attention to offenses against themselves, but only as a way of pressuring the offender to agree to a violent confrontation. In the antebellum American South, for instance, aggrieved parties might take out advertisements in newspapers calling attention to insults. One such advertisement read, “Sir—I am informed you applied to me on the day of the election the epithet ‘puppy.’ If so, I shall expect that satisfaction which is due from one gentleman to another for such an indignity” (quoted in Williams 1980:22–23). Again, touchiness goes hand in hand with verbal aggression in such settings, so honorable Southerners might also use newspapers to insult others. In 1809, for instance, the Savannah Republican printed this: “I hold Francis H. Welman a Liar, Coward, and Poltroon. John Moorhead” (quoted in Williams 1980:22).

  7. 7.

    As the concept has spread, the kinds of controversies discussed earlier follow. The article produced in the Japan Times led to a flood of responses from Americans, Europeans, and Australians who have lived in Japan. Many of these agreed with the author that such microaggressions were a major problem, but others viewed his complaint as a form of offensive behavior in its own right. One disapproving commenter stated that he would “never let [such microaggressions] get to me” (Von Jettmar 2012), while another explains that “when Japanese compliment my chopstick use, I tell them thank you, and then politely let them know that some non-Japanese might not take it as a compliment…. I’d say this is much more effective than … bitterly complaining … to other non-Japanese” (Ben 2012).

  8. 8.

    As with the microaggression program, critics of these other manifestations of victimhood culture describe the activists as overly sensitive, bullying, and the like, and sometimes this takes the form of mockery. After the University of Massachusetts event, a video of one of the student protesters was posted online, and the student became known as Trigglypuff, a combination of trigger (student activists often say they are triggered by the events they are protesting) and Jigglypuff, the name of a Pokemon character (Dillon 2016).

  9. 9.

    Gender studies scholar Hugo Schwyzer (2006), in an essay critical of this phenomenon, complains that “too many of my students insist on writing essays that I can only describe as ‘narratives of suffering.’” As he puts it, possibly exaggerating in describing the logic of the students’ letters, “If your parents are immigrants, mention it. If one of your parents drinks, or is in prison, don’t hide it—wallow in it! If you moved around a lot, if you grew up surrounded by drugs or violence—share, share, share!” (Schwyzer 2006).

  10. 10.

    Having one’s work on microaggression called a microaggression was surreal—much too pat and predictable—but we had experienced a similar reproach before. After our initial article on microaggression appeared in the journal Comparative Sociology in December 2014, Jonathan Shieber, a Senior Editor at the online magazine TechCrunch asked us to write an op-ed piece based on the article. We wrote a piece we called “Microaggressions and the Moralistic Internet,” and on May 1, 2015, Shieber called it a “fascinating topic” and thanked us for submitting it. On May 11 he told us it would run it within the next two weeks, and then we heard nothing from him until June 17, when in response to our inquiry he said they “had to ultimately pull it, because of some concerns about microaggression and bullying that arose from some of our staff” (Shieber 2015). Neither Shieber nor anyone else from TechCrunch ever told us what those concerns were, but it sounds as if the staff members found our analysis morally offensive in some way.

  11. 11.

    Sometimes this leads to the use of what philosopher Nicholas Shackel (2005) has called motte and bailey doctrines. A motte and bailey castle consists of the courtyard, or bailey, the desirable land where people spend their time, and the motte, a mound in the center with a stone castle on top. When under attack, people may retreat to the motte and lose the bailey, but always return to the bailey when it is safe. In the same way people may hold doctrines that are difficult to defend when challenged (bailey doctrines), so rather than attempt to defend them, they retreat and talk only about their less controversial ideas (motte doctrines), returning to the more exciting ideas when the challenge is over (Shackel 2005; see also Alexander 2014). Thus on campus, activists might busy themselves arguing outright against free speech and academic freedom as impediments to protecting the disadvantaged from verbal harm (e.g., Dean-Johnson et al. 2015; Korn 2014), while elsewhere their supporters claim no one is talking about limiting free speech or academic freedom.


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Campbell, B., Manning, J. (2018). Microaggression and the Culture of Victimhood. In: The Rise of Victimhood Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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