A paper that came out in 2014 by two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, made the argument that with the rise of a more diverse and egalitarian culture, particularly in the academic world, combined with the rise of powerful administrative sectors therein, a new form of social morality has emerged that they referred to as the victim culture. They contrasted this with previous eras of social morality in the West, an honour culture which predominated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a dignity culture which emerged in the twentieth century. Since the time Cambell and Manning published their findings, it is fair to say that this victim culture has come to dominate in virtually all areas of society, certainly in the anglophone West.
Campbell and Manning drew a structural similarity between these three moral cultures in seeing that they each comprise of three main elements: a sensitivity to offense; a response to offense; and a relationship to authority. It is differences in relation to these elements that the differences in the three cultures are expressed.
In an honour culture, which is still today the dominant moral culture in the undeveloped non-Western world, and some isolated parts of the nominally western world, often with strong agrarian roots and customs, there is high sensitivity to personal offence and retribution is sought personally and frequently violently, usually without recourse to the organs of authority, which are often ineffective. In the past duels were fought over matters of personal affront in many European countries and in the ‘Wild West’ of America. In the twentieth century, with the spread of effective law enforcement throughout the developed world such things became (and are now) largely restricted to the criminal fringes, to gang warfare, mafia strongholds and the like. Honour killings are still common in parts of rural Asia, particularly of women who are thought to have brought shame on the family honour, which are notably shocking because of the violent negation of such a close family bond. Though mercifully rare, these also sometimes occur in some Asian communities in the West.
A dignity culture, which became the dominant moral culture in the West during the twentieth century, and also in parts of the non-Western world where systems of democratic politics and economic meritocracy became the norm, together with effective laws, policing and an non-corrupt judiciary, such as Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, there is a relatively high threshold to low-level insult, a tendency to resolve matters non-violently such as through personal negotiation and appeal, and recourse only to authority in the case of serious or persistent offence. Such a culture is based on the notion of personal dignity, that is of a self-worth that transcends what others think or say. Many would have been brought up with admonitions like “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me” which aimed to instil a resilience to personal affront. Such a culture was also comfortable with freedom of speech, the expression of views that might be offensive, but also held to the idea of the self-regulation of speech so as not to be gratuitously or excessively offensive.
As mentioned, this culture of dignity is, according to Campbell and Manning, gradually being replaced by a culture of victimhood, although this is likely to be largely generational. A victim culture returns to the high sensitivity and low threshold to offence of the honour culture, but in a society dominated by bureaucratic and administrative apparatus in every institution, recourse for redress for offense is to authority structures rather than personal overtures and the aim is reputational damage or destruction rather than physical violence and death. In the culture of the academy, in particular the humanities and the social sciences, which are overwhelmingly left-leaning, and from which this culture emanated, egalitarian aspiration means that deviance is highlighted and punished. The application of a variation of Marxist dialectic, categorising collective traits, such as within race, gender and sexuality, as belonging to oppressor or oppressed camps, assigns moral virtue to the oppressed as victims. This creates a perverse moral incentive to identify as a victim, as someone with little power or control over their own circumstances, who must appeal to authority for intervention and band together for collective action, such as protesting against those deemed to be furthering the interests of the oppressor group, often employing intimidation, vandalism and sometimes outright violence.
Although this moral culture of victimhood has its roots in left wing ideology, there is evidence that it is reactively spreading to right wing groups, such as political conservatives, or those, often academically and professionally successful ethnic groups, whose cause is not celebrated within left wing activism, such as Jews and ethnic Chinese, who are making similar claims of collective identity and victimhood under the hegemony of the left. Although for reasons of political expediency and realistic redress, it may be necessary to band together under the banner of a shared identity, this does not address the problems of the psychological impact of victimological thinking or illuminate the moral landscape that we ideally aspire to.
According to the authority one consults, between 50 and 70% of teenagers and young adults, especially those referred to collectively as Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) self-describe as being wracked by anxiety and depression and, according to one source, 42% of this generation have a diagnosis of a mental health condition. There are a lot of problems in the world, and this is a time of uncertainty to be sure, but there have always been, and always will be, an unlimited number of problems, and humanity has passed through times as uncertain and definitely more dangerous than this (which is not to say that things cannot get worse, because they definitely can). Two things of importance to the argument have changed: one is the ubiquity of information, which makes even remote events have an immediate emotional impact; the other is the change in the moral culture within this generation to that of victimhood.
According to psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, the combination of overdramatization of events in the media, which refers to virtually every problem as a “crisis”, and the cult of the victim, both of which are amplified on social media, results in a mental state referred to as catastrophising. One of the first principles of good counselling on mental health is to prevent exactly that, but this has now become the default position of many of our institutions – cultural, media and political – so in addition to the many wars and conflicts, we have a ‘climate crisis’ (even ‘catastrophe’ or in some cases ‘apocalypse’), a ‘housing crisis’, an ‘NHS in crisis’, an ‘economy in freefall’, and so on. To the catastrophising mind, these are not simply facts, rather than matters of selection and interpretation, but they are prone to leaving the individual in a state of helplessness in the face of what seem overwhelming events.
The corollary to this sense of personal helplessness is the belief that, rather than the problems of our age being complex, nuanced and the outcome of multiple factors and the interaction of multiple persons with their own motivations and agendas, there is a tendency to settle on a blame mentality, falling into the belief that causes are singular and arising from nefarious causes, and that the solutions are similarly simple, singular and unimpeachably good. Clearly, this conforms well to some ready-made ideological perspectives, such as the dialectic of oppressor and oppressed, which is, ironically, often the precursor of such a catastrophising outlook.
After reviewing this rather bleak moral landscape, the aim in this article, as its title suggests, is to argue for a very different perspective on life. The admonition to not be a victim has two interlinked senses. The first is, as should be clear from the foregoing discussion, not to think of oneself as a victim, which is disempowering, psychologically damaging and results in unappealing personality traits and often destructive and self-harming behaviours. The second is to avoid, life’s happenstances notwithstanding, being a victim in a literal sense, that is not to suffer the consequences of one’s own or others’ carelessness or misdeeds.
Volumes have been written along these lines that anyone can find reference to, but in what might seem to be a contradiction to what I implied earlier that the solution to problems are not singular, all good approaches in this area actually reduce pretty much to a single idea: that is the idea of taking responsibility. As will be seen, though, taking responsibility is itself rather complex in scope. However, at its core there are three principles.
The first principle is to see oneself as an individual who has freedom. There is much debate within the cognitive sciences about whether freedom really exists and all sorts of evidence is put forward about how determined we actually are. But while that might be true in different ways at the level of physics, chemistry and biology, human choices are experienced as real and human societies can only be sustained by the acceptance of individual responsibility, for example in the punishment of crime. I am with Kierkegaard and the existentialists on this point, that we are metaphysically radically free. Of course, there is no absolute freedom in the real human world because the metaphysical will bump up against all manner of physical and social constraints, which if violated may result in the lessening or negation of the freedoms we do have. There is, in other words, a related subsidiary principle, enunciated by philosophers like Karl Popper, along the lines that freedom cannot be self-undermining.
The second principle follows on naturally from the first, which is that one must accept the consequences of one’s own actions. All the world’s religions and moral systems teach this, though some better and in more socially useful ways than others in my opinion. It is important to stress, though, that this principle should be taken literally, as an existential decision, not as an other-directed justification or a dogmatic assertion of societal norms; we are all familiar with the trope of the dictator, criminal or the domestic tyrant who believe their victim ‘deserved it’. If it does have a social dimension, it would be better to think of it as the basis of rehabilitation, the acceptance of personal fault as the basis of change. What is vital here is to see the divergence of the culture of responsibility from that of victimhood. The aetiology of typical victimological thinking is to live one’s life according to one’s own wishes, freely as one supposes without moral or other constraints, then to blame any negative consequences that arise as the fault of others or an abstract other, such as ‘society’ or ‘capitalism’ or some such, and then to deny that one was ever free in fact but a member of an oppressed group and simultaneously to prohibit others in society the right to express any critical opinion of one’s collective identity.
The acceptance of consequences for one’s actions is not a denial that discrimination and oppression exist, some of which may be systemic, particularly if encoded in laws. What it is, fundamentally, is an acceptance that we are all capable of error, from careless words, to mistakes of judgment, and even great evil, and there are no exceptions to this rule. Dealing with the avoidance of being a victim is the content of the third principle, which builds upon this insight.
This third principle of responsibility is the necessity of developing practical wisdom. The term wisdom is used specifically to distinguish it from knowledge. Knowledge, of course, is important and it is a part of, but not the whole of wisdom. Wisdom as used here very specifically builds upon the insight of the second principle and the implicit paradox that, while it is important to trust and be trusted by people – society relies explicitly on the building of such relations of trust – no one, including myself, can be completely or absolutely trusted; therefore, safeguards need to be put into place. When I was learning to drive, a friend who had a lot of experience driving professionally offered to take me out for driving practice. The first thing he told me when we got in the car together was “Remember, everyone on the road is an idiot” (or words to that effect). While in some sense an exaggeration, it encapsulates a truth that while we must have faith in the good sense of the majority most of the time, we must be ever vigilant against error.
Practical wisdom encapsulates everything, from the simple rules we follow, or sometimes create ourselves, to guide and control our use of machines and other implements, to protect ourselves and others, to the laws and regulations one might put in place (or leave alone) to protect a nation and its people, socially, militarily and economically. Getting a good education is an important step, remembering that education is fundamentally something you do to yourself, only incidentally (and often accidentally) what happens in school. Taking care of your health and wellbeing, being financially literate, developing practical, professional and social skills, developing a circle of good friendships, with people who do not simply bolster your own views and prejudices, getting involved in the community: all of these (and more) are part of the development of practical wisdom. One of the normally dour celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson’s more amusing injunctions is, “Before trying to change the world, tidy your bedroom”. Amusing because true; there are a lot of steps to becoming a person who can become an asset to society, as this is what I believe we should be aspiring to. The first step is to not be a liability. To that end, we should both renounce the thinking of victim culture and have the foresight and strive to not be a victim of circumstances ourselves.
If the above is an argument for a fourth form of moral culture, a culture of responsibility, I think there is a case for a fifth, one found in the world’s totalitarian regimes, which is the culture of submission. This is virtually the inverse of the culture of responsibility, because, firstly, there is an ideological commitment of obedience to the dictates of the state, philosophy or religion, and in practice the denial or severe restriction of the rights and freedoms of individuals and, hence, their capacity to act responsibly; secondly, an assumption that all citizens are guilty of crimes which have not yet been uncovered; and, thirdly, that any benefits or necessities the citizens do have are in pursuit of the glorification of the regime and its leadership, rather than the flourishing of the citizens themselves. It hardly needs pointing out that such tendencies can also be found increasingly in societies that we think of as being democratic.