Honor vs Dignity vs Victimhood Cultures

Jonathan Haidt posted a really interesting article that puts the recent increased focus on microaggressions into a larger context. He posted the paper Microaggressions and Moral Culture by Bradley Campell and Jason Manning. The basic thesis is that the increased policing of microaggressions could herald another major cultural transition akin to the transition that occurred in Western societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The cultures displaced in the 18th and 19th century West were cultures of honor. Honor was something that had to be earned and protected. The classic example of defending honor would be the duels that were fought to defend honor. These duels were fought even if the slight that caused the duel was unintentional. Members of honor cultures would be less likely to appeal to the law for help and are more likely to settle disputes themselves.

This culture of honor was displaced by a culture of dignity, where it is assumed that all humans have dignity that does not have to be earned or personally defended. People socialized into cultures of dignity rely more on centralized authority to settle major disputes, and will be more likely to shrug off minor slights that would need to be addressed in honor cultures. Campell and Manning point out that "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is a concept that is foreign to honor cultures.

In settings where censuring those who engage in microaggressions is becoming common, this culture of dignity is being supplanted by a culture that Campell and Manning label a culture of victimhood. In their words:

"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."

The last transition from a culture of honor to a culture of dignity occurred during a step function upwards in economic growth. Cause and effect are messy, but the culture of dignity reinforced things that are beneficial to economic growth. The rule of law and the ability to trust strangers enough to work with them are both more difficult to implement in cultures of honor. 

This current potential transition from a culture of dignity to one celebrating victimhood is occurring during a time period of potentially slowing long run economic growth. Again, cause and effect are messy but there are obvious ways that a more enshrined culture of victimhood could retard economic growth. To take one example, the process of documenting and aggregating small offenses to punish people will eventually incentivize people to interact with out-group strangers to a far smaller degree than they have in the past. The act of sending a stranger a message will become a very risky. Transaction costs are increased when every little action is potentially going to be monitored and might lead to severe punishment.

It's important to note that this is not an inevitable transition. Even in our current society, there are many pockets where cultures of honor dominate. The culture of victimhood that is prevalent on college campuses today is not yet the dominant culture. 
11 responses
Very interesting. Now if only there was a way to announce and initiate a defense of honor and supercede the region's laws for that single incident. Even something as simple as having a witness to your announcement and the opponent's acceptance to handle the matter in a court of honor rather than law, and guarantee the prevention of the law enforcement's inevidible intervention, especially after the fact.
It's difficult to get any government to officially accept people infringing on the state's monopoly on official violence. But we see versions of this where warring gangs might refuse to use the police against their enemies. It could also be applied via jury nullification if all of the local population is on board with the honor culture approach.
In reading your essay I am left with the impression that the economic forces responsible for transforming Western honor culture into a dignity culture are now breaking down and leading to the rise of victimhood culture, which is similar to honor culture in that it demands compensation or punishment for even minor slights. This strikes me as a self-destructive evolution. It behooves people of intelligence and conscience to defend the culture of dignity that permits a peaceful, productive, individually fulfilling society to persist, and to fix the system that has led to this dissolution of the social fabric. Few benefit from the return of honor culture, and even those at the top suffer more and sacrifice more than they do in a dignity culture.
8 visitors upvoted this post.