Victimhood Culture’s Impact on Academic Education and Science

| by Lucas Bergkamp, Ph.D. |

In modern society, victims of crimes and other forms of injustice have rightly received special attention. Under traditional criminal law, the victim did not play much of a role, except possibly as a witness or as evidence. A crime was seen as a breach of an obligation vis-à-vis the state. The state’s prosecutor brought criminal charges against the suspected perpetrator, and a court would decide on the appropriate sentence. The victim had no right to participate in the trial and could not assert claims to compensation.

This deficiency has been remedied in some countries. Under pressure from the victims’ rights movement, victims of crimes have been given much stronger rights.[1]

Victimhood, however, is not limited to crimes. People can be victims of a range of acts, including discrimination, insult, social exclusion, bullying, exploitation, indignation, and so on. Some suggest that people can also be victims of unjust historical arrangements that no longer exist but still exert some indirect influence, such as slavery. Once people have been recognized as victims, they might qualify for some special status, privilege, or treatment.

At all sorts of social institutions, procedures have been established to give victims a voice and enable them to raise concerns, file complaints, and pursue a remedy. With the broadening of the concept of victim to include objectively minor burdens, also known as ‘micro-aggressions’ or ‘nano-oppressions,’ the subjective tendency to self-identify as victim became stronger.[2] Victimhood became a strategy and tactic in emancipatory movements and power struggles.[3]

Victimhood Culture at Universities

Nowhere is the tendency to pursue victimhood stronger than in academic institutions. At universities, a ‘victimhood culture’ has been facilitated, if not actively promoted, by the rise of the social sciences. The social sciences and humanities have endorsed an explicit social progress agenda,[4] which pushed victimhood as part of social justice. In addition to the social sciences, as discussed below, the social justice movement pushed victimhood culture. In the biological and environmental sciences, the precautionary principle facilitated the rise of victimhood culture by focusing attention on possible uncertain or unknown effects and changing the default rule: risk is assumed, safety must be proven.[5]

A defining feature of victimhood culture is the emphasis not on facts, but on individual victims’ feelings or ‘emotional trauma,’ which then become the relevant facts, and the putative external causes of such feelings or trauma. In this culture, subjective knowledge trumps objective knowledge. Truth is relegated to an afterthought in the struggle for justice. Slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics, as Campbell and Manning explain, are labelled as ‘microaggressions’ or ‘oppression,’ amplified in echochambers, and peddled widely.[6]

These conflict tactics are aimed at seeking the recognition and support of third parties; conversely, the presence of supportive administrative bodies within an egalitarian and diverse culture, intensifies efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim.[7] This has caused substantial moral change, which occasionally inspired visions of suffering that are illusions or lies.[8] The emergence of a victimhood culture has displaced the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.

In academia, victimhood culture is now widespread. It has already made its way from US colleges to European universities.[9] Although victimhood culture is most visible as a feature of campus life, it also has a broader impact on science through its effects on the academic environment, and the beliefs and mindset of scientists.

Beware of Thinking

Victimhood culture is visibly at work in the spreading adoption of academic policies regarding political correctness, racial and ethnic diversity, micro-aggression, inclusion,[10] and ‘safe spaces.’ Identity-political concepts, such as “cultural appropriation,” by and large, go unchallenged on campuses, and further embolden the proponents of the culture.[11] Due to such policies and leadership failures,[12] academic debate and free speech have been curtailed.[13]

Academies champion racial, gender and cultural diversity, but not as a way to accomplish their mission of producing objective knowledge. At a general level, the influential economist Thomas Sowell has questioned the unthinking pursuit of these kinds of diversity – “if there is any place in the Guinness Book of World Records for words repeated the most often, over the most years, without one speck of evidence, ‘diversity’ should be a prime candidate.”[14] More importantly, however, the kind of diversity universities should have a real interest in, viewpoint diversity, receives little attention.[15] The lack of intellectual and ideological diversity is a problem in all fields of science,[16] but more so in social, biological and environmental sciences, i.e. those areas that produce policy-relevant science.

The effects of the cultural phenomena discussed here are not limited to academic campus policies, however. With some of its roots in the social sciences and humanities, victimhood culture also found a philosophical basis in post-modern ‘textuality.’ Textuality involves a belief that spoken and written language determines the fate of the world; “as if there were nothing but texts.”[17] An important implication is that words can both hurt and do good. The proposition that words can hurt, however, comes dangerously close to the idea that knowledge can hurt; it would seem to be a small step from hurtful knowledge to “forbidden knowledge,” i.e. “knowledge considered too sensitive, dangerous, or taboo to produce.”[18]

Through stigmatizing ‘politically incorrect’ speech, victimhood culture also affects the research and knowledge, indeed, the practice of science itself. Indeed, it has already compromised scholarship in a number of areas.[19] Science’s motto no longer is “dare to think” but “beware of thinking.” Instead of the open mind, the cautious mind prevails. Science’s lodestar no longer is human ingenuity, creativity, and the infinity of possibilities, but the vulnerability of people and the planet, and the urgent need for protection, precaution, and sustainable development.[20]

Social Justice and Its Adverse Effects

Victimhood culture, as noted, is not an isolated phenomenon; it is part of the social justice movement. Social justice involves the pursuit of a just society by challenging injustice, valuing diversity, and demanding a right to equal outcomes, respect for human rights, and a fair allocation of resources.[21] Pursuant to the social justice imperative, Yale University has declared that the use of free speech may reflect “the lack of sensitivity to others, the lack of consideration for the community, and the lack of responsible concern for the University as an institution,” and, as such, “seem to [b]e reprehensible.” Science’s pursuit of social justice is consistent with what have been called the “counter-norms of science,” such as organized dogmatism.[22]

Under social justice dogma, it is “entirely appropriate” for a university “to attempt to persuade a group not to invite a speaker who may cause serious tension on campus.”[23] Such policies encourage the staging of serious tension and the denial of the university’s responsibility for dealing with the root causes. But they are also likely to affect science. After all, the “social justice” imperative of preventing tension applies not only to invited speakers, but also to faculty members, research proposals, publications, and the entire scientific enterprise.

Victimhood and social justice culture rejects knowledge for reasons unrelated to its objectivity and veracity. As a logical culmination, claims are now made that science is racist, colonial, or imperialistic, and that it should be decolonized: “[d]ecolonizing the science would mean doing away with it entirely and starting all over again to deal with how we respond to the environment and how we understand it.”[24] Although such proposals are obviously irrational, they are entertained in an academic environment where subjectivity and the “lived experience” are valued over the pursuit of an objective reality (truth).

This change in culture has had profound implications for universities. Instead of studying history, philosophy, and sociology, resources have been dedicated to new identity politics programs, such as women’s studies, black studies, and gender studies,[25] which apply a novel set of standards to academia and knowledge. No longer is science’s objective the explanation of phenomena, it is all about shaping and changing society to advance liberation, emancipatory, and other social justice objectives. In a drive to be policy-relevant, other areas of science are also exposed to the risk of activism. Through its unavoidable effects on both the mindset of scientists and the environment within which science is conducted, this culture stifles the ability of science to advance innovation and technology, and move society forward.

As Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Moral Psychology at NYU, has suggested: “The decision universities now have to make is between a pursuit of Social Justice and a pursuit of Truth.”[26] Although Haidt’s argument centers on education, the social justice movement is likely to exercise also a strong influence on research. The pursuit of social justice, as I argued above, is likely to affect the generation and dissemination of knowledge in a broad sense. Exposed to academic environments and administrations that have embraced social justice, academics, in turn, have broadly internalized its ideals, and in some cases actively promoted them. Even if they do not agree with social justice’s demands, the unfree academic environment tolerates no serious deviations. As a consequence, whole fields of science seem to have been captured by identity Leftists and ‘social justice warriors.’[27] These bodies of knowledge may serve special interests, but do not advance scientific, objective understanding.

The new social justice-driven science might produce information relevant to political debate and policy-making, but does not necessarily improve the lives of the people. Scientists involved in this kind of science tend to “have no doubt of [their] premises, and want a certain result with all [their] heart,” and therefore “naturally sweep away all opposition.”[28] Both social sciences and natural sciences are exposed. Once doom scenarios and grave injustice become the drivers, little is too extreme if it advances the good cause, and ‘noble cause’ bias washes the remaining bits of mental resistance away.[29]

Quite possibly, the kind of science that is aimed at saving the world and establishing a just society, is also less likely to deserve the label ‘science.’ In other words, victimhood culture works to make academies and research an extension of politics. This ‘politicization’ of science is now becoming visible to the body politic.[30]

If academic education and research are to continue to play valuable roles in society, the problem of ideology and politics must be remedied.


Lucas Bergkamp is a partner at Hunton & Williams, Brussels, and is emeritus Professor of Environmental Liability Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam. You can connect with him on Twitter @lbergkamp


Header Photo: Matt Shiffler


[1] Cf. Andrew Karmen, Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology, Cengage Learning, 8th Ed., 2012.

[2] Cf. Frank Furedi, What’s Happened To The University?, Routledge, 2016 (explaining why campus culture is undergoing such a dramatic transformation and why the term moral quarantine refers to the infantilising project of insulating students from offence and a variety of moral harms).

[3] Cf. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, Microaggression and Moral Cultures, Comparative Sociology, Volume 13, Issue 6, 2014, pp. 692 – 726. B. Campbell and J. Manning, Microaggression and changing moral cultures, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 9, 2015.

[4] See, e.g., ASCN, How social sciences can contribute to changing a society (undated).

[5] In risk society, science, guided by the precautionary principle, is mindful of the side effects of industrialization and pursues a “new ecological morality.” Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Translated by Mark Ritter (Risikogesellschaft: Auf dem weg eine andere Modern. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986), London: Sage, 1992. For a critique, see Lucas Bergkamp, Understanding the Precautionary Principle, Parts I and II, Environmental Liability, 2002, pp. 18-30 and pp. 67-82.

[6] Cf. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, Microaggression and Moral Cultures, Comparative Sociology, Volume 13, Issue 6, 2014, pp. 692 – 726. B. Campbell and J. Manning, Microaggression and changing moral cultures, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 9, 2015.

[7] Jonathan Haidt, Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account, The Righteous Mind, http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/

[8] Robert Stacy McCain, The Cult of Social Justice, The American Spectator, December 21, 2015, https://spectator.org/65000_trump-vs-putin-do-likes-attract/

[9] Events at Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam confirm the spread of victimhood culture to Europe. Frank Furedi, What’s Happened To The University?, Routledge, 2016.

[10] “Democrats adopted a strategy of inclusiveness that excluded a hefty share of Americans and consigned many to a “basket of deplorables.”” Frank Bruni, The Democrats Screwed Up, New York Times, NOV. 11, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/opinion/the-democrats-screwed-up.html?smid=tw-share

[11] This culture has contributed to further polarization. Cf. Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 59, No. 3, July 2015, pp. 690–707.

            [12] George Leef, Free Speech and Its Campus Enemies, National Review, November 17, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/442241/ (arguing that administrators should not balance freedom of speech with concerns such as “diversity” and “inclusivity).

[13] An organization called “The College Fix” reports on these issues. See ‘The College Fix,’ http://www.thecollegefix.com/ An exception to this trend is the University of Chicago. See Geoffrey R. Stone, Aims of Education Address, Sep. 24, 2016, available at https://aims.uchicago.edu/page/1995-geoffrey-r-stone According to Stone, “[t]oday, the principal challenge to academic freedom turns on issues of so-called political correctness. As in the past, these can be difficult issues. Does academic freedom protect the professor who teaches his students that homosexuality is a disease, that gays are depraved, and that they do not belong in a “civilized” university? Does it protect the student who runs for student council on a “Free Speech” platform and displays campaign posters on campus that incorporate Playboy or Hustler centerfolds to make his point? Does it protect the feminist student who defaces these posters as a form of “counter-speech”? Does it protect students who establish an organization on campus that aggressively espouses the view, both in and out of class, that blacks are genetically inferior?”

[14] Thomas Sowell, Is diversity truly a societal strength?, The Desert Sun, June 18, 2016, http://www.desertsun.com/story/opinion/columnists/2016/06/18/sowell-diversity-truly-societal-strength/86055068/ (arguing that “[t]oo many people have too much invested in their own particular position to change”).

[15] “We’re big on diversity, but not when it comes to conservatives in academia. That’s wrong.” Nicholas Kristof, A Confession of Liberal Intolerance, New York Times, MAY 7, 2016 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0 (quoting Haidt as saying “Universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals.”). Heterodox Academy is “a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities. We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.” Heterodox Academy, http://heterodoxacademy.org/ Clay Routledge, We Champion Racial, Gender and Cultural Diversity–Why Not Viewpoint Diversity?, Scientific American, October 24, 2016, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/we-champion-racial-gender-and-cultural-diversity-why-not-viewpoint-diversity/

[16] Jonathan H. Adler, Academia’s rejection of ideological diversity has consequences, The Washington Post, October 31, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/10/31/academias-rejection-of-ideological-diversity-has-consequences/?utm_term=.39931e1b3ae1 Cf. Jonathan H. Adler, On the causes of ideological imbalance in the academy, The Washington Post, November 1, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/11/01/on-the-causes-of-ideological-imbalance-in-the-academy/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.9d6944e58a17

[17] Saul Cornell, Splitting The Difference: Textualism, Contextualism, and Post-Modern History, American Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1: Spring 1995, pp. 57-80.

[18] Joanna Kempner, Jon F. Merz, and Charles L. Bosk, Forbidden Knowledge: Public Controversy and the Production of Nonknowledge, Sociological Forum, Vol. 26, No. 3, September 2011 (arguing that the “social processes that create forbidden knowledge are embedded in the everyday practices of working scientists”).

[19] George Yancey, Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education, Baylor University Press, 2011 (finding that politically and religiously conservative academics are at a distinct disadvantage in academic institutions threatening the free exchange of ideas to which academic institutions aspire and leaving many scientific inquiries unexplored). Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers , Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology, Perspectives on Psychological Science, XX(X), 2012, pp. 1 –8 (“In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.”) Nicholas Kristof, A Confession of Liberal Intolerance, New York Times, MAY 7, 2016 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0

[20] Sustainable development has been laid down as a guiding principle in a wide range of international law documents.

[21] Matthew Robinson, What is Social Justice?, available at http://gjs.appstate.edu/social-justice-and-human-rights/what-social-justice

[22] Cf. Melissa S. Anderson, Normative Orientation of University Faculty and Doctoral Students, Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol. 6, No. 4, 2000, pp. 443 – 461 (probing how committed university faculty and Ph.D. students are to Merton’s norms and to the anti-norms — and how this commitment compares to reported behavior).

[23] Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale (1974), available at http://yalecollege.yale.edu/deans-office/policies-reports/report-committee-freedom-expression-yale

[24] Robby Soave, Watch Leftist Students Say Science Is Racist and Should Be Abolished, Reason, Oct. 14, 2016, available at http://reason.com/blog/2016/10/14/watch-leftist-students-say-science-is-ra

[25] Malhar Mali, A University Professor Speaks Out, Oct. 6, 2016, https://www.allthink.com/1759743

[26] Jonathan Haidt, Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice, Oct 21, 2016, available at http://heterodoxacademy.org/2016/10/21/one-telos-truth-or-social-justice/

[27] For an argument regarding the influence of identity politics in social sciences in India, see Rajen Harshe and Sujata Patel, Identity Politics and Crisis of Social Sciences, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 38, No. 6, 2003, pp. 525-527.

[28] Andrew Cohen, The Most Powerful Dissent in American History, Aug 10, 2013, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/08/the-most-powerful-dissent-in-american-history/278503/

[29] Noble cause bias is not identical to noble cause corruption, since the conscious intent is missing. Cf. Shannon Merrington et al., AN EXPLORATORY STUDY OF NOBLE CAUSE CORRUPTION: THE WOOD ROYAL COMMISSION NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA 1994-1997, International Journal of Management and Administrative Sciences, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2014, pp. 18-29.

[30] Lucas Bergkamp, Politics and the Changing Norms of Science, Climate Etc., October 25, 2016, https://judithcurry.com/2016/10/25/politics-and-the-changing-norms-of-science/ Lucas Bergkamp, The Erosion of the Ethos of Science: Ideology Undermines New Science’s Legitimacy (forthcoming).


  1. Joshua

    ==> Nowhere is the tendency to pursue victimhood stronger than in academic institutions. ==>

    How do you determine the relative size of one victimhood culture compared to another? . For example, how big is the victimhood culture of the large #s of rightwingers who see themselves as victims of a *war on Christmas” or a “war on Christians?” . How about the many climate “skeptics” who see themselves subjected to persecution like the targets of McCarthy is or Lysenkoist.

    How do you show that your assertion of a relatively larger “culture if victimhoid” on college campuses, is something other than an extension of your own identification with those who claim “victimhood” as a way to coalesce a group identity as the victims of a “culture if victimhood?”


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