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Abstract

Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures
Bradley Campbella and Jason Manningb
Abstract
Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or
other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use
various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by
drawing from Black’s theories of conict and from cross-cultural studies
of conict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other
conict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third
parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social
conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of
these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence
of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity
cultures of the past.
Note: is article appears in the journal Comparative Sociology (Vol.13, No.6,
pp.692-726). When citing, please use the page numbers from the published
version. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning contributed equally. ey
wish to thank Donald Black and Joseph Michalski for comments on an earlier
version.
a. Department of Sociology, California State University, Los Angeles. 5151
State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032. (323) 342-2218. bcampbe3@
calstatela.edu
b. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia University. P.O.
Box 6326, Morgantown, WV 26506. (304) 293-8237. jason.manning@mail.
wvu.edu
2Campbell and Manning
Introduction
Conict occurs when someone denes another’s behavior
as deviant – as immoral or otherwise objectionable. People might
object to assaults, robberies, lies, insults, heresy, non-payments of
debt, or any number of things, and they might react in a number
of ways, from arguing to calling the police to ghting a duel.
Drawing from the work of sociologist Donald Black (1998: 4), we
refer to the handling of conict as social control.1 Conict and
social control are both ubiquitous and diverse, as the issues that
spark grievances and ways of handling them vary enormously
across social settings. Here we address changing patterns of
conict in modern societies by focusing on a new species of social
control that is increasingly common at American colleges and
universities: the publicizing of microaggressions.
Microaggressions, as dened by Derald Wing Sue, a
counseling psychologist and diversity training specialist, are
“the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and
environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional,
that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender,
and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the
target person or group” (Sue 2010: 5). e term dates to the
1970s, but it has become more popular recently, mainly due to
the eorts of academics and activists wishing to call attention to
1 is conception of social control is broad and does not refer only to
society- or group-enacted punishment such as law. Since it includes any
response to deviant behavior, even behaviors that are themselves deviant
might also be social control and can be explained as such. A number of
scholars have therefore begun to examine deviant behaviors such as crime
(Black 1998: Chapter 2), genocide (Campbell 2009; 2010; 2011; 2013),
suicide (Manning 2012; 2014; forthcoming a; forthcoming b), interpersonal
violence (Cooney 1998; Jacques and Wright 2011; Phillips 2003), lynching
(Senechal de la Roche 1996; 2001), terrorism (Black 2004; Hawdon and
Ryan 2009), and employee the (Tucker 1989) as social control. e publi-
cizing of microaggressions is similarly a form of social control – a reaction
to the deviant behavior of others – as well as a form of deviant behavior – a
behavior that many others condemn.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 3
what they see as the “subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and
other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse
culture” (Vega 2014). Oand remarks and questions might be
microaggressions, such as, in an example Sue gives, when people
ask him where he was born and then are unsatised when he tells
them Portland. “e underlying message here,” says Sue, “is that
I am a perpetual alien in my own country” (quoted in Martin
2014). Here are some other actions identied by Sue or others as
microaggressions:
• Saying “You are a credit to your race” or “You are so
articulate” to an African American (Sue et al. 2008: 331).
• Telling an Asian American that he or she speaks English
well (Sue et al. 2008: 331).
• Clutching ones purse when an African American walks
onto an elevator (Nadal et al. 2013: 190).
• Staring at lesbians or gays expressing aection in public
(Boysen 2012: 123).
• Correcting a student’s use of “Indigenous” in a paper by
changing it from upper- to lowercase (Flaherty 2013).
Increasingly, perceived slights such as these are
documented on websites that encourage users to submit posts
describing their own grievances, many involving purportedly
oensive things said by the posters’ co-workers, friends, or
family members. For example, at e Microaggressions Project, a
blog founded by two Columbia University students, one person
describes a mother (the poster’s sister) telling her son to “stop
crying and acting like a little girl” (Microaggressions 2013a).
Another tells of a lesbian who says, “I don’t date bisexuals.
ey’re never faithful” (Microaggressions 2013b). e website
Oberlin Microaggressions likewise encourages submissions from
“students who have been marginalized at Oberlin [College].
One anonymous Hispanic student calls attention to a white
4Campbell and Manning
teammate’s microaggressions, which included using the Spanish
word “futbol.“Keep my heritage language out of your mouth,
writes the poster, who vows never to play soccer with whites
again (“Futbol, and White People” 2013). Following the example
of Oberlin Microaggressions, a growing number of websites
are dedicated to documenting oensive conduct at particular
educational institutions, including Brown University, Carleton
College, Dartmouth College, St. Olaf College, Swarthmore
College, and Willamette University.
As these sites have proliferated, so have academic studies,
news articles, and opinion pieces about microaggressions
(e.g., Boysen 2012; Etzioni 2014; Martin 2014; McCabe 2009;
McWhorter 2014; Nadal et al. 2013; Nigatu 2013; 2014; Torres
2014; Vega 2014). e concept has entered into mainstream
discourse, though not without controversy. Sociologist and
communitarian Amitai Etzioni, for example, has suggested we
instead “focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro,
and linguist and political commentator John McWhorter
cautions against using the concept in a way that is “just bullying
disguised as progressive thought” (Etzioni 2014; McWhorter
2014). e documenting of microaggressions is controversial
because it represents an approach to morality that is relatively
new to modern America and is by no means universally shared.
Whatever our moral stance, though, it is a phenomenon that the
sociology of conict can help us to better understand.2
Here we seek to explain the practice of documenting
microaggressions in terms of a general theory of social control.
We do so much in the spirit of seventeenth-century Dutch
biologist Jan Swammerdam, who once said, “Here I bring
2 So far nearly all the discourse on microaggressions has been moralistic– ei-
ther taking part in the documenting of microaggressions or reacting
against it. What we oer – a social scientic analysis of the phenomenon –
is dierent. Social science cannot tell us what position to take in the debate
about microaggressions (Campbell 2014). What it can do, though, is help
us explain the phenomenon and contextualize the debate.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 5
you proof of Gods providence in the anatomy of a louse”
(quoted in Weber 1958: 142). In this case it is the anatomy of
microaggression that has broader implications – revealing much
about the patterning of moral conict and about the nature of
ongoing moral change in contemporary societies. As we dissect
this phenomenon, then, we rst address how it ts into a larger
class of conict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and
mobilize the support of third parties. We note that these tactics
sometimes involve building a case for action by documenting,
exaggerating, or even falsifying oenses. We address the social
logic by which such tactics operate and the social conditions likely
to produce them – those that encourage aggrieved individuals to
rely on third parties to manage their conicts, but make obtaining
third party support problematic. We then turn to the content
of the grievances expressed in microaggression complaints and
related forms of social control, which focus on inequality and
emphasize the dominance of oenders and the oppression of
the aggrieved. We argue that the social conditions that promote
complaints of oppression and victimization overlap with those
that promote case-building attempts to attract third parties.
When such social conditions are all present in high degrees, the
result is a culture of victimhood in which individuals and groups
display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle
conicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate
an image of being victims who deserve assistance. We contrast
the culture of victimhood with cultures of honor and cultures of
dignity.
Dependence on Third Parties
ose who deem someones conduct deviant or oensive
might react in many ways. ey could use direct aggression,
verbally berating or physically assaulting the oender. ey
could exercise covert avoidance, quietly cutting o relations with
the oender without any confrontation or overt complaint. Or
they could conceptualize the problem as a disruption to their
6Campbell and Manning
relationship and seek only to restore harmony without passing
judgment. In any case much of the social control that occurs
in day-to-day life involves only the aggrieved and the oender.
Microaggression websites are dierent. As a form of social
control, perhaps the most notable feature of microaggression
websites is that they publicly air grievances, inviting and
encouraging users to broadcast their knowledge of oensive
conduct to readers who would be otherwise unaware of the
incident. Creating and contributing to such websites thus belongs
to a larger class of conict tactics that seek to attract the attention,
sympathy, and intervention of third parties.
Gossip, Protest, and Complaint
Of the many ways people bring their grievances to
the attention of third parties, perhaps the most common
is to complain privately to family, friends, co-workers, and
acquaintances. is is called gossip – “evaluative talk about a
person who is not present” (Eder and Enke 1991: 494; cf. Black
1995: 855, n. 129; Hannerz 1967: 36; Merry 1985: 275). Gossip
is ubiquitous, and as anthropologist Max Gluckman points out,
“for a large part of each day, most of us are engaged in gossip
(1963: 308). Much gossip involves complaints against particular
individuals known to both gossipers, but those with collective
grievances (such as political grievances or complaints on behalf of
an ethnic group) also commonly seek the attention and sympathy
of third parties. One way of doing so is through various types
of protest. Rallies, strikes, marches, and even terrorist acts may
express grievances and punish adversaries directly, but they may
also help communicate information to third parties (Gibbs 1989:
332, n. 4; Reiss 2007: 2-3). And both individualized and collective
conicts might be brought to the attention of authority gures
asked to punish the oender or otherwise handle the case. Small
children oen bring their complaints to adults, for example,
while adults might bring their complaints to the legal system
(e.g., Baumgartner 1992). Explaining the rise of microaggression
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 7
complaints, then, requires that we explain the conditions that
lead individuals to bring their problems before third parties.
We suggest that the same factors that increase reliance on
third parties in general encourage the public documenting of
grievances in particular.
The Structural Logic of Moral Dependence
ere are several circumstances that make individuals
more likely to rely on third parties rather than their own devices.
One factor is law. Historically, the growth of law has undermined
various forms of unilateral social control. In times and places
with little or no legal authority to protect property, settle disputes,
or punish wrongdoers, people frequently handle such problems
on their own through violent aggression – a phenomenon that
students of law and social control refer to as “self-help” because
it involves the aggrieved taking matters into their own hands
rather than relying on the legal system (Black 1998). One of the
most dramatic manifestations of self-help is vengeance killing,
which may spark a cycle of retaliatory killings in the form of a
blood feud. Violent self-help of this kind is more common in
stateless societies, such as those in which autonomous bands
or homesteads interact without any overarching authority
system (Erickson and Horton 1992; Cooney 1998: 50-56). e
growth or external imposition of state authority involves a
“pacication process” in which the ruling authorities come to
increasingly forbid and supplant violent self-help, at least in its
most extreme manifestations (Cooney 2009: 7-10; Pinker 2011:
31-36). In medieval England, as in other locations, the growing
state began by outlawing private vengeance, using the threat of
punishment to compel aggrieved individuals or families to handle
oenses – including homicide – through peaceful negotiation
and compensation. But gradually the state moved beyond
encouraging and ratifying such private justice to handling all
suciently severe cases itself, deciding the right and wrong of
the issue and levying punishments and other sanctions (Cooney
8Campbell and Manning
2009: 8-9). us the state increasingly dominated the handling of
conict, and the growth of law led to a decline in violent self-help
throughout most segments of state-dominated societies, helping
produce a historical decline in homicide and other severe violence
(Black 1998; Cooney 1998: 45-66; Pinker 2011: 59-116).
e growth of legal authority, and the increasing
involvement of law in everyday disputes, does not necessarily end
with the elimination of feuding. Legal authority can potentially
supplant other mechanisms of social control, from milder forms
of self-help to negotiated compromise and mediation. Insofar
as people come to depend on law alone, their willingness or
ability to use other forms of conict management may atrophy,
leading to a condition Black refers to as “legal overdependency”
(1989: 77). e highest degrees of legal overdependency occur
in totalitarian societies, where “the rank and le members of
society . . . can and do use the state freely for the settlement of
private disputes” (Gross 1984: 67). e result is that “to bring a
grievance to anyone but a government ocial can be dangerous,
particularly if it is expressed directly to the oender, which might
lead to a retaliatory complaint. . . . Hence, the choice is oen
between bringing an ocial complaint and doing nothing at all”
(Black 1989: 79). But lesser degrees can still occur in democratic
societies, where state ocials may eectively conscate conicts
from those who would otherwise handle them privately (Christie
1977).
People may also become dependent on other kinds of
authorities. Resorting to police and courts is only a special case
of relying on a social superior to settle the conict (Black and
Baumgartner 1983). Settlement is generally more likely when
disputants have access to a third party who is at least somewhat
higher in status, and people everywhere bring their complaints to
social superiors, from tribal villagers who bring their case before
a respected elder to modern employees who report a coworker’s
misconduct to their supervisor (Baumgartner 1984; Black 1998:
85-88). Similarly, a college or university administration might
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 9
handle conicts among students and faculty. Educational
institutions not only police such academic misconduct as
cheating and plagiarism, but increasingly enact codes forbidding
interpersonal oenses, such as Fordham University’s ban on
using email to insult another person, or New York University’s
prohibition of mocking others (Lukiano 2012: 41). When two
students at Dartmouth College were insulted by a third student
who “verbally harassed them by speaking gibberish that was
perceived to be mock Chinese,” they reacted not by confronting
the oender but by reporting the incident to the College’s
Oce of Pluralism and Leadership, leading both the school’s
Department of Safety and Security and its Bias Incident Response
Team to launch an investigation into the identity of the oender,
who might face such sanctions as a ne, compulsory sensitivity
training, or expulsion (Owens 2013). In other social settings,
the same oense might have met with an aggressive response,
whether a direct complaint to the oender, a retaliatory insult, or
physical violence. But in a setting where a powerful organization
metes out justice, the aggrieved relied on complaint rather than
action. In sum, the availability of social superiors – especially
hierarchical superiors such as legal or private administrators – is
conducive to reliance on third parties.
But note that reliance on third parties extends beyond
reliance on authorities. Even if no authoritative action is taken,
gossip and public shaming can be powerful sanctions. And
even those who ultimately seek authoritative action might have
to mobilize the support of additional third parties to convince
authorities to act. Indeed, the core of much modern activism,
from protest rallies to leaet campaigns to publicizing oenses
on websites, appears to be concerned with rallying enough
public support to convince authorities to act. But why do either
authorities or the public need convincing? Why broadcast
grievances to a wide audience, and why go through the trouble of
documenting a whole series of seemingly unrelated oenses?
10 Campbell and Manning
Campaigning for Support
A second notable feature of microaggression websites is
that they do not merely call attention to a single oense, but seek
to document a series of oenses that, taken together, are more
severe than any individual incident. As the term “micro” implies,
the slights and insults are acts that many would consider to be
only minor oenses and that others might not deem oensive
at all. us those who support and contribute to these projects
state that their aim is to call attention to numerous oenses
in order to demonstrate the existence of a larger pattern of
inequality. As noted on the Oberlin Microaggressions site, for
example, its purpose is to show that acts of “racist, heterosexist/
homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, ableists, sexist/cissexist
speech etc.” are “not simply isolated incidents, but rather part of
structural inequalities” (Oberlin Microaggressions 2013). ese
sites hope to mobilize and sustain support for a moral crusade
against such injustice by showing that the injustices are more
severe than observers might realize – that posters are not, as some
critics charge, merely being oversensitive because, as another
microaggression website puts it, the “slow accumulation” of such
oenses “during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what
denes a marginalized experience” (Microaggressions Project
2014). e oenses in question are not individual oenses,
but a repeated pattern of oppression said to contribute to the
marginalization of entire collectivities. us these websites
publicize grievances, informing third parties of oensive conduct,
and they present the grievances as a serious problem aecting
large numbers of victims, making the case that the oenses merit
a serious response. In this manner the microaggression websites
resemble other campaigns to convince reluctant third parties to
take sides and take action, from the evidence presented in courts
of law to the propaganda of political parties.
ose who seek the assistance of third parties to handle
a conict do not necessarily always go to the trouble of building
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 11
a case in this manner. In many tribal and village societies, for
instance, aggrieved individuals can count on the nearly automatic
support of their close kin in any conict (Black 1998: 128-131;
Cooney 1998: 79).3 ey might have to inform these allies of
the conict, if it is not already known, but they have little or no
need of widely publicizing their grievances or building a case
by accumulating a list of oensive acts and identifying many
separate victims. e conditions that undermine such quick
action increase the likelihood that aggrieved individuals will
accumulate, shape, and create evidence to bolster their case. us
to understand why such campaigns occur, as well as why they
succeed or fail, one must understand the social conditions that
encourage or hamper partisanship.
The Structural Logic of Partisanship
Black’s theory of partisanship identies two conditions
that make support from third parties more likely. First, third
parties are more likely to act as partisans when they are socially
closer to one side of the conict than to the other, as they take the
side of the socially closer disputant (Black 1998: 126). ey may
be relationally closer to, or more intimate with, one side, or they
may be culturally closer, meaning they share social characteristics
such as religion, ethnicity, or language. Any social tie or social
similarity a third party shares with one disputant but not the
other increases the chance of partisanship. Second, third parties
are more likely to act as partisans when one side of a conict is
higher in status than the other, as they take the side of the higher-
status disputant (Black 1998: 126). us those with grievances
against a social superior are less likely to attract strong and
3 Among the foraging !Kung people, for instance, ghts between individuals
quickly escalate into camp-wide brawls as people rush to intervene on behalf
of their closest relatives (Lee 1979: 372). In other societies, solidary clusters
of male kin are so willing to oer strong support that conict between fami-
lies frequently escalates into a blood feud (Cooney 1998: 67-89; Senechal de
la Roche 2001; oden van Velzen and van Wetering 1960).
12 Campbell and Manning
uncompromising support, though they potentially have the most
to gain from it.
We propose that active campaigns to convince third
parties for support – that is, to convince them that the cause is
just or the oensive behavior severe – are most likely to arise in
a structural location conductive to slow and weak partisanship.
Eorts to produce and shape evidence operate most frequently
and eectively in conicts where third parties are willing to take
a side, but are not in a social location that makes their support
quick or certain.
For example, Black’s theory tells us that those pursuing
complaints against a social superior are less likely to attract strong
support from third parties, even though attracting a sucient
degree of support might be their best chance for success against
a more powerful opponent (Black 1998: 127; Baumgartner
1984). us those who wish to attract such support might go
to great lengths to sway public opinion. is could include the
accumulating and promulgating of evidence against the adversary
– the “consciousness raising” eorts that oen occur alongside
campaigns of public protest. Like most protest campaigns,
microaggression complaints typically have an upward direction,
expressing grievances on behalf of a lower-status group (such as
African Americans) toward those with higher aggregate status
(such as American whites).
But note that these campaigns for support do not
necessarily emanate from the lowest reaches of society – that
they are not primarily stocked or led by those who are completely
lacking in property, respectability, education, or other forms of
social status. Rather, such forms as microaggression complaints
and protest demonstrations appear to ourish among the
relatively educated and auent populations of American colleges
and universities. e socially down and out are so inferior to
third parties that they are unlikely to campaign for their support,
just as they are unlikely to receive it. Slaves might occasionally
rebel, but they do not protest or document their complaints.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 13
For that matter, slave-owners do not engage in consciousness-
raising to convince their peers to help put down rebellions or
punish runaways. Campaigns for support emerge not where
the structure of partisanship favors only strong allies or strong
enemies, but somewhere in between, where third parties oer
only weak or potential support.
Reliance on authorities encourages such campaigns partly
because authoritative settlement occurs in a weakly partisan
structure. When social superiors handle a conict between their
subordinates, they usually take on the role of a neutral third
party that hears the case and then renders a judgment. But while
friendly peacemakers or mediators remain neutral throughout,
more authoritative settlement agents – such as the judges in
modern criminal courts – eventually declare one side right and
the other wrong (Black and Baumgartner 1983; Black 1998: 146).
us Black (1998:139) argues that modern legal settlement is
eectively “slow partisanship.” It is a structure in which third
parties are distant from both disputants and would tend toward
cold non-partisanship” – nonintervention and indierence
(Black 1998: 134). But if these parties can be convinced that an
adversary is suciently oensive, they will intervene in a partisan
manner. us the presence of such authorities not only deters
aggrieved individuals from using aggression or other unilateral
forms of social control, but also encourages the use of tactics
geared toward attracting attention and winning support.4
Another factor that undermines strong partisanship is
social atomization – the lesser involvement of people in stable
and solidary groups (Senechal de la Roche 2001). Western
industrial societies increasingly lack the kind of highly solidary
4 Black predicts that authoritativeness of settlement tends to increase with
the superiority of the settlement agent to the alleged deviant (Black 1998:
145-149). us large, centralized organizations are more likely to apply
formal rules, pick sides, and inict punishments. is applies not only to
the modern bureaucratic state, but also to the administrative apparatus of
large business corporations or modern colleges and universities.
14 Campbell and Manning
and interdependent kin groups that provide individuals in tribal
and traditional settings with an ever-present source of relatively
strong partisan support. Even stable, non-familial groups – such
as fraternal organizations and mutual aid societies – have declined
(Putnam 2000). us we might expect mass campaigns for public
support to increasingly replace action by a core group of die-hard
supporters.
ese campaigns for support can take many forms
besides the public documentation of oenses, and people in
weakly partisan structures may sometimes go to much greater
lengths to convert potential partisanship into actual support. For
example, in many patriarchal societies various factors mitigate the
willingness of a womans kin to act as her partisan during marital
disputes. Her social inferiority to her husband, military alliances
between the husband and his male in-laws, or a lack of physical
proximity to the marital homestead might all reduce their
willingness or ability to provide support (Baumgartner 1993).
ey will still do so if the conict becomes suciently severe,
but this may require drastic action on her part, perhaps even
attempting or committing suicide. Given her suicide, the relatives
who were once reluctant to defend her will demand compensation
and perhaps even take vengeance upon her husband. us in
many patriarchal societies, such as various parts of New Guinea
and rural China, local women recognize that self-destructive
measures are an eective way of mobilizing partisans who would
otherwise be slow to react (Brown 1986; Counts 1980, 1987;
Liu 2002; see also Manning forthcoming a). Modern political
protestors, campaigning against a superior adversary on behalf of
a less powerful collectivity, might likewise turn to self-destructive
extremes to convince others to support their cause. Many
instances in which activists publicly burn themselves to death are
aimed explicitly at attracting the support of third parties (Kim
2008). For example, when Buddhist monk ich Quang Duc
committed self-immolation in 1963 to protest the Vietnamese
government’s oppression of Buddhists, his fellow monks ensured
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 15
that Western journalists would be present at the event and, as he
prepared to light the re, distributed leaets written in English
that explained the nature of their cause. ey thus hoped to
sway opinion in the United States so that the U. S. government
would withdraw its support of the oppressive regime – and they
succeeded (LePoer 1989: 61-64; Biggs 2005).
Partisanship and Conict Severity
If social structure predicts who will take sides in a conict,
why is it possible for campaigns for support to have an eect?
And why might tactics such as documenting a list of oenses
be eective? Black’s more recent theory of conict tells us that
structure alone is not enough to explain how a conict is handled:
e nature of the underlying conict also matters. Some oenses
are more serious than others, and third parties are more likely to
intervene in the case of a more serious oense. is is obvious
enough, but it is not obvious what makes some oenses more
serious. Black’s (2013) theory tells us, though, that social changes
cause conict. Someone’s status rises or falls, a relationship begins
or ends, or someone accepts or rejects a new idea. All moral
oenses, then, involve some social change – a change in intimacy,
stratication, or culture – and the greatest oenses involve the
greatest changes. Peeping Toms and rapists are both deviant
because they increase intimacy, then, but a rapist is more deviant
because he increases intimacy more. Concerning partisanship,
this means the victims of rape receive more support than the
victims of Peeping Toms. at is, third parties are more likely to
act as partisans when the oense underlying a conict is more
serious — when it involves a greater social change.
Insults lower the status of the recipient and so are seen as
deviant, but they generally result in much smaller losses of status
than, say, a major the, a severe assault, or enslavement. Because
the change in status is smaller, the conict is less severe and is less
likely to attract the attention and intervention of third parties.
Black notes, however, that social changes can be cumulative, and
16 Campbell and Manning
the severity of the conict might reect the cumulative eect of
many smaller incidents. us a history of thes and insults is
more severe than a single incident. is means that aggrieved
individuals can, by accumulating or documenting a variety of
grievances, make third parties aware of a larger degree of loss,
increasing the apparent severity of the conict and the likelihood
that third parties will intervene.
e degree of social change, and thus the severity of the
conict, also varies with the number of people aected. If a
million people suer a loss in status, it is a greater change than
if only one person does. us Black’s theory helps explain why
conicts over culture are apt to be treated as more severe and
to attract partisan support on one or both sides (Black 2011:
108,121). Cultural characteristics are shared with others, so any
oense against an ethnicity, language, or religion – blasphemy,
ridicule, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, or genocide – is an
oense against all who identify with that ethnicity, speak that
language, or practice that religion. And so third parties are more
likely to act as partisans toward culturally close victims when
the underlying conict involves an attack on the victims culture.
One implication of this is that any oense that can be construed
as an oense against a distinct cultural group will attract more
third party intervention. is helps explain why slights against
widely shared characteristics like ethnicity and religion are more
likely to attract attention and interest in the form of websites
and other campaigns. And it implies that those who wish to
combat oensive behavior can eectively campaign for support by
drawing attention to the collective nature of the oense.
Other strategies for swaying third parties have the same
core logic: ey increase intervention by magnifying the actual
or apparent severity of the conict. While some aggrieved
individuals increase the apparent severity by documenting a larger
pattern of oense, in other cases the manipulation of information
is more extreme: Not content merely to publicize the oensive
behavior of their adversaries, the aggrieved might exaggerate its
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 17
extent or even make it up whole cloth. In interpersonal disputes
someone might make a false accusation against an adversary,
as when a woman who is spurned by a man falsely accuses him
of rape or when someone falsely accuses an ex-spouse of child
abuse (Kanin 1994; Faller and DeVoe 1995). Some might frame
an interpersonal dispute as being an intercollective one, claiming
that an oense was motivated by cultural factors such as race and
ethnicity even if it was not.5 In other cases a real intercollective
conict can breed false accusations. For example, in hate crime
hoaxes people falsely claim that someone – apparently a member
of the enemy group – has victimized them because of their
cultural identity. For example, in 2011 Jonathan Perkins, a law
student at the University of Virginia, published a letter to the
editor in the law schools student newspaper, Virginia Law Weekly,
in which he described being the victim of mistreatment by two
white police ocers. Perkins, who is black, claimed the ocers
pulled him over as he was walking home to an apartment near
campus, saying he “t the description of someone we’re looking
for.” ey asked for his identication, laughed when he told them
he was a law student, frisked and searched him, and then followed
him home. “I hope that sharing this experience,” he concluded,
“will provide this community with some much needed awareness
of the lives that many of their black classmates are forced to lead
(Perkins 2011). Later Perkins acknowledged that “the events in
the article did not occur” and that he had made up the story “to
bring attention to the topic of police misconduct” (quoted in
Jaschik 2011).6
5 Any conict that crosses the boundaries between dierent groups has a
greater potential to be framed as an intercollective conict (Brubaker 2004:
16-17, 111; Campbell 2013: 471). And so any intercultural conict, whether
the underlying oense was cultural or not, has a greater potential to collec-
tivize.
6 Like microaggression complaints, hate crime hoaxes are common on college
campuses, which some see as a breeding ground” (Pellegrini 2008: 97) or
“petri dish” (Zamichow and Silverstein 2004) for this type of behavior (see
also Campbell 2014: 450, n. 70; Gose 1999; Leo 2000; Parmar 2004; Sanders
1998; “When a Hate Crime Isn’t A Hate Crime” 1998-1999; Wilcox 1996: 31).
18 Campbell and Manning
In still other cases, activists who campaign for support
against injustice might change not the apparent severity of the
conict but its actual severity. Suicide, for instance, is a drastic
social change that commonly provokes strong reactions, and so by
committing suicide an aggrieved individual can quickly escalate
the severity of a conict. In the patriarchal settings discussed
above, a womans kin are unwilling to intervene on her behalf
when her husband subjects her to “mere” beatings, but if she kills
herself, her loss is a suciently large change that they may react
much the same way as if her husband had killed her with his own
hands. Suicide, whether in a personal or political conict, can
attract the attention and partisanship of third parties because it
magnies the social consequences, and thus the severity, of the
conict. Other varieties of self-destructive protest tactics follow
the same principle. Prisoners protesting their living conditions,
for example, might mutilate themselves (such as by slashing an
Achilles’ tendon) to win support for their cause (Baumgartner
1984: 330; Beto and Claghorn 1968: 25). Or they might go on a
“hunger strike,” refusing to eat, as hundreds of California inmates
did recently to protest being held in solitary connement (St. John
2013; see also Baumgartner 1984: 317).
ough tactics such as hunger strikes, hate crime
hoaxes, and protest suicides might seem very dierent
from microaggression websites, we argue that they all share
fundamental similarities. Flourishing where social conditions
undermine self-help and in conict structures that breed
only latent or weak partisanship, these forms of social control
implicitly rely on the relationship between conict severity and
partisanship to attract the attention and sympathy of third parties.
Another similarity shared by these behaviors is their concern
with a particular kind of grievance: the domination of one social
group by another.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 19
Domination as Deviance
A third notable feature of microaggression complaints
is that the grievances focus on inequality and oppression
– especially inequality and oppression based on cultural
characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. Conduct is oensive
because it perpetuates or increases the domination of some
persons and groups by others. Contemporary readers may take
it for granted that the domination of one group by another, or
for that matter any substantial kind of intergroup inequality, is
an injustice to be condemned and remedied. But people might
have grievances about many other kinds of issues. For instance,
they might condemn others for vices such as drunkenness,
sloth, and gluttony. ey might criticize or punish people for
illicit sexual acts such as sodomy, incest, or bestiality. And
cross-culturally and historically, people might harshly judge and
persecute religious, ethnic, and other cultural minorities merely
for being dierent. Such grievances are largely absent from
microaggression complaints, and those who promulgate such
complaints would surely consider criticism of cultural minorities
and unconventional sexual practices to be examples of the very
oppression they seek to expose and eradicate. e phenomenon
thus illustrates a particular type of morality that is especially
concerned with equality and diversity and sees any act that
perpetuates inequality or decreases diversity as a cause for serious
moral condemnation.
Microaggression as Overstratication
According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes
in stratication, intimacy, and diversity cause conict.
Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in
stratication. ey document actions said to increase the level
of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as
overstratication.” Overstratication oenses occur whenever
anyone rises above or falls below others in status. ey include
20 Campbell and Manning
any attempts to bring about such changes, too, such as insults,
slights, or any attempt to disparage or dominate another. Such
incidents are oen deemed oensive, but the seriousness of the
oense varies across social settings. Black (2011: 139) proposes
that overstratication conict varies inversely with stratication.
In other words, a morality that privileges equality and condemns
oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already
have relatively high degrees of equality. In rigidly hierarchical
settings or relationships, even subordinates might take dominance
and subordination for granted. In some highly patriarchal
societies, for example, women as well as men accept the right of a
man to beat his wife for misbehavior (Counts 1980; Hindin 2003;
Rani, Bonu, and Diop-Sidibe 2004). e higher status of men
is largely taken for granted, and even macroaggressions are not
necessarily considered deviant. Similar patterns exist in societies
with rigid class or caste systems, such as the division between
nobles and commoners. Moral codes in such settings emphasize
duty, loyalty, and knowing one’s station (Leung and Cohen 2011).
Egalitarian hunter-gatherers, however, are quick to censure or
ridicule anyone who claims any kind of status superiority, and
they will ostracize anyone they deem aggressive or domineering
(Boehm 1999).
In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have
developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As
women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became
increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions
such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent
in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly
deviant. Similarly, the success of the civil rights movement in
dismantling the Southern racial caste system and the increased
representation of African Americans in professional and public
life has been associated with the transformation of racism into a
highly stigmatized behavior. e taboo has grown so strong that
making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the
careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno,
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 21
Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013).
Microaggression as Underdiversity
Microaggression oenses also tend to involve what
Black calls “underdiversity” – the rejection of a culture. Large
acts of underdiversity include things like genocide or political
oppression, while smaller acts include ethnic jokes or insults. e
publicizers of microaggressions are concerned with the latter, as
well as more subtle, perhaps inadvertent, cultural slights. ey
do not label all incidents of underdiversity as microaggression,
though, but only those that increase stratication by lowering
the status of inferiors or equals – in other words, underdiversity
combined with overstratication. ey are concerned with
oenses against minority or otherwise less powerful cultures,
not oenses against historically dominant ethnic groups
such as whites or historically dominant religious groups
such as Christians. Still, the cultural nature of these oenses
helps us further specify the context in which they are seen as
oensive. Just as overstratication conict varies inversely with
stratication, underdiversity conict varies directly with diversity
(Black 2011: 139). Attempts to increase stratication, we saw,
are more deviant where stratication is at a minimum; likewise,
attempts to decrease diversity are more deviant where diversity is
at a maximum. In modern Western societies, an ethic of cultural
tolerance – and oen incompatibly, intolerance of intolerance
– has developed in tandem with increasing diversity. Since
microaggression oenses normally involve overstratication and
underdiversity, intense concern about such oenses occurs at the
intersection of the social conditions conducive to the seriousness
of each. It is in egalitarian and diverse settings – such as at
modern American universities – that equality and diversity are
most valued, and it is in these settings that perceived oenses
against these values are most deviant.
22 Campbell and Manning
Victimhood as Virtue
When the victims publicize microaggressions they
call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the
oenders. In doing so they also call attention to their own
victimization. Indeed, many ways of attracting the attention
and sympathy of third parties emphasize or exacerbate the low
status of the aggrieved. People portray themselves as oppressed
by the powerful – as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy. is is
especially evident with various forms of self-harm, such as protest
suicides and hunger strikes. Other such gestures include the
ancient Roman practice of “squalor,” where the aggrieved party
would let his hair grow out, wear shabby clothes, and follow his
adversary through the streets, and the Indian practice of “sitting
dharna,” where he would sit at his adversary’s door (Baumgartner
1984: 317-318; Bondurant 1965: 118; Lintott 1968: 16). But why
emphasize ones victimization?
Certainly the distinction between oender and victim
always has moral signicance, lowering the oender’s moral
status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression
catalogs, though, where oenders are oppressors and victims are
the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. is
only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means
aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as
victims, emphasizing their own suering and innocence. eir
adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves
are pitiable and blameless.7 To the extent that others take their
7 e moral status conferred by victimhood is evident in how social scientists
describe and explain those they view as victims, leading them to engage in
a kind of “blame analysis” in which they reject any theories that “blame
designated victims by attributing to them any causal role in their predica-
ment (Felson 1991). ey might reject cultural explanations of poverty as
blaming the poor, for example. Or they might reject the concept of vic-
tim-precipitated violence as way of understanding violence directed toward
women, such as violence by men against their wives, even while accepting it
as a way of understanding violence toward men, such as violence by women
against their husbands (Felson 1991: 11-12, 15-16).
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 23
side, they accept this characterization of the conict, but their
adversaries and their partisans might portray the conict in the
opposite terms. is can give rise to what is called “competitive
victimhood,” with both sides arguing that it is they and not their
adversaries who have suered the most and are most deserving of
help or most justied in retribution (Noor et al. 2012; Sullivan et
al. 2012).8
But note that the moral status conferred by victimhood
varies across social settings and from one conict to another.
In other words, victimhood is not always a virtue. Even those
calling attention to their adversaries’ wrongdoing might wish
to downplay how much they are aected by it. ey might
still portray their adversaries as evil or dangerous, but avoid
portraying themselves as weak or oppressed. In warfare, for
example, as in many other conicts, it is common for each side
to circulate stories of the other’s “atrocities” and for neutrals
to become fewer as the conict escalates (Collins 2012: 2-10).
Atrocity stories are a staple of wartime propaganda, but note
that while such stories necessarily acknowledge some degree of
victimization, the focus is on the enemy’s wrongdoing rather than
the nations weakness or neediness. Rather, state propagandists
tend to portray their own side as strong and able to win. For
example, during World War II German propagandists saw
their primary task as “spreading good news . . . and setting an
example of indomitable condence in nal victory” (Bytwerk
8 Competitive victimhood is a kind of moral polarization that increases with
the social distance between the disputants (Andrighetto et al. 2012, see
also Black 1998: 144-156). It also increases with partisanship: For example,
respondents who described themselves as victims of Northern Ireland’s
“Troubles” were more likely to place the blame for the conict entirely on
the opposing faction rather than assigning blame to both (Brewer and Hayes
2011). Sometimes adversaries in a conict agree about the victim status of
third parties, and in these cases they may each claim or compete for the
victims’ support. In debates about U.S. human rights policy toward China
in the late twentieth and early twenty-rst centuries, for example, both sides
viewed Chinese dissidents as having “moral authority” and argued about
who accurately represented their position (Chan 2011: Chapter 4).
24 Campbell and Manning
2010:100). us “public media were understandably cautious
in printing information on damage done by Allied bombing”
and propagandists rushed to combat exaggerated (or sometimes
accurate) accounts of casualties (Bytwerk 2010:108-109).
Imperial Japan likewise maintained a policy that “the public was
not to be informed of defeats or damage on the Japanese side.
Only victories and damage imposed on the Allies were to be
announced” (Sasaki 1999: 178). ey hid defeats and announced
victories to captured enemy soldiers, too, attempting to convince
them Japan was winning. ey even invented “stories of Allied
losses and ridiculously implausible Japanese defeats,” such as
on one occasion when they told a group of POWs that Japans
military “had shot Abraham Lincoln and torpedoed Washington
D.C.” (Hillenbrand 2010: 204-205).
Appeals that emphasize the victimhood status of the
aggrieved appear to arise in situations where people rely on
authorities to handle their conicts. Even relatively wealthy
or powerful litigants might approach the court by presenting
themselves as victims in need of assistance against a bullying
adversary (see, e.g., Bryen 2013: Chapter 4). Most state
propaganda, on the other hand, is not aimed at superiors or
equals, but at subordinates. It seeks to inspire not sympathy,
but loyalty, fear, and respect. is is also largely true of the
communications between states, particularly those of similar size
and military power. Warring states have no central authority to
which they might appeal to handle their conict or deter violence,
and so they handle their conicts directly through aggression and
negotiation. In this respect states resemble individuals living in
settings where legal authority is weak or absent.
The Social Structure of Microaggression
In sum, microaggression catalogs are a form of social
control in which the aggrieved collect and publicize accounts
of intercollective oenses, making the case that relatively minor
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 25
slights are part of a larger pattern of injustice and that those who
suer them are socially marginalized and deserving of sympathy.
e phenomenon is sociologically similar to other forms of social
control that involve airing grievances to authority gures or the
public as a whole, that actively manage social information in a
campaign to convince others to intervene, and that emphasize
the dominance of the adversary and the victimization of the
aggrieved. Insofar as these forms are sociologically similar,
they should tend to arise in under similar social conditions.
ese conditions include a social setting with cultural diversity
and relatively high levels of equality, though with the presence
of strongly superior third parties such as legal ocials and
organizational administrators. Furthermore, both social
superiors and other third parties are in social locations – such as
being distant from both disputants – that facilitate only latent or
slow partisanship. Under these conditions, individuals are likely
to express grievances about oppression, and aggrieved individuals
are likely to depend on the aid of third parties, to cast a wide net
in their attempt to nd supporters, and to campaign for support
by emphasizing their own need against a bullying adversary.
Such conditions can be found to a greater or lesser extent
in many social settings. But the advent of the microaggression
phenomenon suggests that these conditions have increased
in recent years, particularly in the social location inhabited
by college and university students – a social group that is also
prone to protest demonstrations, hate crime hoaxes, and various
campaigns to raise awareness of injustice.
Several social trends encourage the growth of these forms
of social control. 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. e 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
26 Campbell and Manning
administrators and the creation of specialized agencies of social
control, such as oces whose sole purpose to increase “social
justice” by combatting racial, ethnic, or other intercollective
oenses (Lukiano 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.
is last trend has been especially dramatic during
the past decade, with the result that aggrieved individuals can
potentially appeal to millions of third parties. In our experience
with media services such as Twitter and Facebook, we have
noticed that many use these forums to publicly vent grievances
and to solicit sympathetic responses not only from friends but
also from distant acquaintances and total strangers. Sometimes
such grievances “go viral” as they are spread and endorsed by
millions of sympathetic parties. For instance, in reaction to the
kidnapping and enslavement of hundreds of Nigerian girls by
the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, numerous celebrities,
politicians, and private individuals expressed their condemnation
of the militants and support for their victims through a series
of Twitter posts dubbed the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign
(Mackey 2014). Such Twitter campaigns – sometimes referred
to as “hashtag activism” – are eectively episodes of mass gossip
in which hundreds, thousands, or perhaps millions of third
parties discuss deviant behavior and express support for one
side against another. Like gossip in the small town or village,
such public complaining may be the sole way of handling the
conict or it might eventually lead to further action against the
deviant, such as dismissal by supervisors or investigation by legal
authorities. As social media becomes ever more ubiquitous, the
ready availability of the court of public opinion may make public
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 27
disclosure of oenses an increasingly likely course of action.9 As
advertising one’s victimization becomes an increasingly reliable
way to attract attention and support, modern conditions may
even lead to the emergence of a new moral culture.
The Evolution of Moral Culture
Dierent forms of conict and social control may be more
or less prevalent in a given social setting. Sometimes observers
will characterize an entire society or segment of society according
to which forms of moral life are most prominent – what we might
refer to as its “moral culture.” For example, social scientists have
long recognized a distinction between societies with a “culture of
honor” and those with a “culture of dignity” (Berger 1970; see also
Aslani et al. 2012; Ayers 1984: Chapter 1; Cooney 1998: Chapter
5; Leung and Cohen 2011).10 e moral evolution of modern
Western society can be understood as a transition between these
two cultures.
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
9 e creation of this massive audience of potential partisans is the culmi-
nation of a process that has altered the third-party structure of conicts
throughout the past century. For example, the proliferation of print media
in the twentieth century allowed those with grievances against the powerful,
such as corporations or state agencies, to publicly disclose their wrongdo-
ing in a phenomenon popularly known as “whistle-blowing” (e.g., Westin,
Kurtz, and Robbins 1981). e iconic photograph of Buddhist monk ich
Quang Duc’ self-immolation in 1963 was seen by millions around the world,
and the continued growth of media can help explain why self-immolation
has become an increasingly common tactic of political protest (Biggs 2005).
10 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 sim-
plication. And the prevailing moral ideas oen draw in even those who
would rather reject them.
28 Campbell and Manning
members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery
by engaging in violent retaliation against those who oend them
(Cooney 1998: 108-109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly,
those who engage in such violence oen say that the opinions of
others le them no choice at all. For example, aer an exchange
of insults between two men in 1830 Greece led to a knife ght,
legal ocials asked the victorious ghter, eodoros, why he cut
the other man’s face. eodoros said that “no man would call his
wife and daughters whores and get away with it. His reputation
would not allow it” (Gallant 2000: 359). Certain kinds of insults
might require violence by the one insulted, as in that case, but
it is also true that someone who has insulted another might
have to accept a challenge to ght. Alexander Hamilton, killed
in a duel by United States Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804,
wrote a letter before the duel explaining why he believed he had
to accept Burr’s challenge. Like eodoros, he referred to the
necessity of protecting his reputation, writing that “the ability to
be in [the] future useful . . . would probably be inseparable from
a conformity with public prejudice in this particular” (quoted in
Seitz 1929: 100-101).
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 ght 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,
oen responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as
minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998: 115-119; Leung
and Cohen 2011). It might seem that knowing people would
respond this way would lead to people to “walk on eggshells”
so as to avoid oending others, but this would be a sign of
cowardice. So because insulting others helps establish ones
reputation for bravery, honorable people are verbally aggressive
and quick to insult others (Leung and Cohen 2011). e result is
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 29
a high frequency of violent conict as participants in the culture
aggressively compete for respect (e.g., Anderson 1999: Chapter 2).
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 eective 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
oen 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 aairs (Cooney 1998: 122-129). But
historically, as state authority has expanded and reliance on the
law has increased, honor culture has given way to something else:
a culture of dignity.
A Culture of Dignity
ough enclaves of honor exist even in the contemporary
United States, such as among street gangs and other groups of
poor young men, 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 oense, 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 o 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
30 Campbell and Manning
of self-restraint prevails (Elias [1939] 1982: 230-28).
When intolerable conicts 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 oense is suciently severe,
people are to go to the police or appeal to the courts. Unlike
the honorable, the dignied approve of appeals to third parties
and condemn those who “take the law into their own hands.
For oenses like the, 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
rst resort, and they might condemn many uses of the authorities
as frivolous. People might even be expected to tolerate serious
but accidental personal injuries. In “Sander County,” Illinois, for
example, legal scholar David M. Engel (1984) found that personal
injury litigation was rare and that longtime residents stigmatized
those few who did use courts to try to get compensation in such
cases. e ideal in dignity cultures is thus to use the courts as
quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible.
e 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. e culture of dignity existed in perhaps
its purest form among respectable people in the homogeneous
towns of mid-twentieth century America, where the presence of
a stable and powerful legal system discouraged the aggressiveness
and hostility toward settlement seen in honor cultures, while
social closeness – ties of culture and intimacy – encouraged an
ethic of toleration or peaceful confrontation. Social relations
in late-twentieth century suburbs were oen similar, though
without the ties of intimacy, and here a variant of dignity culture
prevailed, an avoidance culture where toleration is also common
but negotiation less so (Baumgartner 1988). But the rise of
microaggression complaints suggests a new direction in the
evolution of moral culture.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 31
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 oenses that
demand a serious response. But honor cultures value unilateral
aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that
advertise or even exaggerate ones own victimization and need for
sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor – tantamount
to showing that one had no honor at all.11 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 oenses. Instead they would likely
counsel either confronting the oender directly to discuss the
issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.
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.
11 Members of honor cultures might call attention to oenses against them-
selves, but only as a way of pressuring the oender 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, and so honorable South-
erners 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).
32 Campbell and Manning
is 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.
us 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.
e 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 ones own oppression – from protest
demonstrations to the invented victimization of hate-crime
hoaxes – are prevalent in this setting as well. at victimhood
culture is so evident among campus activists might lead the reader
to believe this is entirely a phenomenon of the political le, and
indeed, the narrative of oppression and victimization is especially
congenial to the leist 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
le. In 2007, for example, a Princeton University student who
belonged to the Anscombe Society, a socially conservative campus
group, scratched and bruised his own face before claiming two
men in ski caps beat him because of his political views (Hu 2007).
Naturally, whenever victimhood (or honor, or anything else)
confers status, all sorts of people will want to claim it. As clinical
psychologist David J. Ley notes, the response of those labeled as
oppressors is frequently to “assert that they are a victim as well.
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 33
us, “men criticized as sexist for challenging radical feminism
defend themselves as victims of reverse sexism, [and] people
criticized as being unsympathetic proclaim their own history of
victimization” (Ley 2014). An example of the latter can be seen
in an essay in e Princeton Tory by student Tal Fortgang, who,
responding to the phrase “check your privilege,12 which he says
“oats around college campuses,” recounts his own family’s many
victimizations – a grandfather who did hard labor in Siberia, a
grandmother who survived a death march through Poland, and
others shot in an open grave (Fortgang 2014). Examples such as
these suggest that, at least in some settings, the culture of dignity
has given way to a culture of victimhood.
Conclusions
If it is true that the phenomenon of microaggression
complaints heralds a new stage in the evolution of conict and
social control, we should be aware that changing a moral culture
also reshapes social life beyond the realm of conict. Moral
ideas orient one’s entire life. In an honor culture, for example,
they aect people’s leisure and self-presentation: Ever concerned
with appearing brave and strong, the honorable oen gamble,
drink heavily, and openly boast about their exploits (Cooney
1998: Chapter 5). Contrast these behaviors with the socialization
toward restraint found in dignity cultures, which do not value
reckless behavior and abhor boasting in most contexts (Elias
[1939] 1982: 230-286; Pinker 2011: 59-116). e emerging
victimhood culture appears to share dignity’s disdain for risk,
but it does condone calling attention to oneself as long as one
is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses
rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits.
12 Just as cowardice is the opposite of honor, “privilege” is the opposite of
victimhood. Interestingly, then, admonitions to “check your privilege” are
ways of shaming the “privileged” within a victimhood culture, just as cow-
ards might be shamed in an honor culture.
34 Campbell and Manning
For example, students writing personal statements as part of
their applications for colleges and graduate schools oen write
not of their academic achievements but instead – with the
encouragement of the universities – about overcoming adversity
such as a parent’s job loss or having to shop at thri stores (Lieber
2014).13 And in a setting where people increasingly eschew
toleration and publicly air complaints to compel ocial action,
personal discomfort looms large in ocial policy. For example,
consider recent calls for “trigger warnings” in college classes or on
course syllabuses to forewarn students they are about to exposed
to topics that cause them distress, such as when a guide for faculty
at Oberlin College (later withdrawn aer faculty complaints)
suggested that the novel ings Fall Apart, because it takes place
in colonial Nigeria, could “trigger students who have experienced
racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and
more” (quoted in Medina 2014). Similarly, at Rutgers University
an article in the student newspaper suggested that an appropriate
trigger warning for e Great Gatsby would notify students that
it depicted suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence (Wythe
2014; see also Jarvie 2014).
Another inevitable consequence of cultural change
is conict – in this case, the clash between competing moral
systems. As we noted at the beginning of this article, the practice
of publicizing microaggressions has attracted controversy and
criticism even from within the academic communities that
generate it. So too have various social media campaigns and
pushes for trigger warnings (e.g., Schmidt 2014). What we are
13 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 suering.’” 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).
Microaggression and Moral Cultures 35
seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and
victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between
honor and dignity. Looking at those clashes, we know that when
contradictory moral ideals exist alongside one another people
may be unsure how to act, not condent of whether others will
praise or condemn them. Believing his public reputation would
otherwise suer, Alexander Hamilton felt compelled to ght a
duel even though he wrote that his “moral and religious principles
are strongly opposed to the practice of dueling” (quoted in Seitz
1929: 98). Yet aer Hamilton was killed the public vilied his
opponent Aaron Burr as a murderer and denounced the practice
of dueling – certainly not the reaction either man would have
expected. Today among the poor in inner cities and in other
environments where honor lives on, conict and confusion about
honor and dignity continue. Outsiders who enter such settings
might misunderstand the local standards of provocation to their
own detriment, while insiders who seek success in mainstream
society might nd their reaction to slights viewed as a sign of
immaturity and low self-control.14 At universities and many
other environments in modern America the clash between dignity
and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion:
One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social
control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional
oenses abound.
And the conict will continue. As it does each side
will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing
various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side
invokes are not free-oating ideas; they are reections of social
organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens
of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are
14 In these settings, individuals who can successfully “code-switch” between
moral systems can achieve success both on the streets and in mainstream
society (Anderson 1999: 93-96). And it might be the case that the ability
to code-switch between dignity and victimhood will become increasingly
important to the success of university students.
36 Campbell and Manning
fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable
authority. In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or
demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly
minor, but in this context even minor oenses – or perceived
oenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and
others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic. Add
to this mix modern communication technologies that make it
easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the
rise of a victimhood culture. is culture arose because of the
rise of social conditions conducive to it, and if it prevails it will be
because those conditions have prevailed.
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48 Campbell and Manning
Further Discussion
Haidt, Jonathan. 2015a. “Where Microaggressions Really Come From.
Righteous Mind Blog, September 7. http://righteousmind.com/
where-microaggressions-really-come-from/
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mind.com/campbell-and-manning-respond-to-readers-com-
ments/.
Campbell, Bradley and Jason Manning. 2015b. “e New Milennial
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vember 17. http://time.com/4115439/student-protests-microag-
gressions/
National Public Radio. 2015. “Sociologist: Open Discussion of Micro-
aggressions Reect Cultural Shi.Here & Now Audio Podcast,
September 28. http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2015/09/28/micro-
aggressions-cultural-shi
... Though widely accepted as pejorative, microaggressions remain distinct in their relation to more overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racial epithets. That is, those who micro-aggress often lack ill-intent and, thusly, are unaware of the harm they are inflicting Campbell & Manning, 2014;Dovidio, Gaetner, Kawkami, & Hodson, 2002;Flagg, 1993;Lau & Williams, 2010;Paludi et al., 2010;Rowe, 2008;Sue et al., 2009;Sue, 2010;Wells, 2013;Yosso et al., 2009). These acts, according to Sue and colleagues (2009), tend to affirm or reaffirm stereotypes about the marginalized group or demean them in an understated, subtle manner. ...
... The denial of the perpetrator's own bias, or the minimalizing of real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture (Campbell & Manning, 2014;Paludi, 2012;Sue et al., 2010). ...
... Higher education administrators must exercise leadership that prioritizes proportional representation of faculty (e.g., race, gender, and sexual orientation). In this way, we take the necessary steps toward establishing an academic environment that is advantageous to and for faculty and students of all backgrounds (Campbell & Manning, 2014;Lau & Williams, 2010;Nordmarken, 2014;Sommers-Flanagan, & Sommers-Flanagan, 2015). The authors assert that this must begin with the active and overt work involved in addressing, on a palpable level, the microaggression-inducing behaviors that are currently pervasive both systemically and systematically. ...
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... Collective guilt increases the desire to apologize and to provide restitution or compensation to the victimized minority (for a review, [59] The majority's concern about their unblemished moral identity is one of the factors enabling the emergent moral power of minority groups (Pérez and Molpeceres, 2018). Social movement denouncing hierarchical microaggressions is a confirmation of this new moral power of minorities [60][61][62][63]. ...
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... Collective guilt increases the desire to apologize and to provide restitution or compensation to the victimized minority (for a review, [59] The majority's concern about their unblemished moral identity is one of the factors enabling the emergent moral power of minority groups (Pérez and Molpeceres, 2018). Social movement denouncing hierarchical microaggressions is a confirmation of this new moral power of minorities [60][61][62][63]. ...
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Gypsies have been a marginalized and persecuted minority for more than five centuries. The experiment carried out compares the influence of a victimized minority-which accommodates itself to the prevailing society of victims-with an active minority that opts for vindicate the rights that are already guaranteed to the majority of individuals by social system and by political or religion values. Following a hypothesis derived from pluralistic ignorance in racial attitudes, i.e. the belief that most are racist but not me, it was shown that when the majority in-group was accused of being racist, a victimized minority triggers more favorable attitudes toward Gypsies (i.e., support for affirmative action and other forms of compensation and transforms lay explanations of the causes of their marginalization) than an active minority. However, when the accusation of being racist is made at the individual level, then the minority with a victimizing style triggers less favorable attitudes than the active minority. We discuss the societal ethos that the new victimized minorities have introduced as regards majority-minority relationships.
... Because these are subjective, perpetrators may deny insult, and counteraccusations of oversensitivity or misinterpretation are common. Campbell and Manning (2014) also argue that the term itself promotes a culture of victimhood, while Lilienfeld (2017) challenged the concept as being too widely applicable to have meaning, serving instead to over-represent threat to ethnic minority people and possibly aggravate hostilities (Haidt & Jussim, 2016). Such denial of discriminatory experience and its impact potentially undermines scientific initiatives that aim to investigate it. ...
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... (Sue & Spanierman, 2020, p. 201) Students who take this view that people who report microaggressions should "grow thicker skin" are not alone. Prominent psychologists have offered popular criticisms to efforts aimed at combating microaggression, arguing, for instance, that such efforts may help create a culture of victimhood, not only in college campuses, but in society at large (Campbell & Manning, 2014). Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2015) have even argued that instead of encouraging students to look for microaggressions left and right, universities should be training students to be more resilient to these supposed slights and insults. ...
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... Woke identity politics holds that members of the "white race" are collectively and innately oppressors, which makes them analogous to the capitalist or bourgeois class in Marxism (Campbell & Manning, 2014;Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002;Pluckrose & Lindsay, 2020b). Because it is assumed, in wokism, that white males have benefitted from "privilege" both racially and sexually, they are not allowed to claim victim status even though they may be victims in many ways. ...
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