Playing the Victim

Over on The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting write up on “Victimhood Culture” as described by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.

Contemporary American society has, they argue, evolved away from past modalities based on shame, honor, or dignity into a new paradigm in which people are motivated to fiercely, and typically publicly, decry the harmful affects of oppression, aggression, and microaggressions against them, their ethnic groups, religious affiliations, or other subgroups.


I’ve seen a lot of online memes lately celebrating how notoriously fickle our sensibilities have become in the early 21st century (though I often catch those same people expressing outrage over some other slight). From Gamergate to the culture wars swirling around transgender issues and which bathrooms they should use, there’s been a lot of outrage and misunderstanding flowing through the veins of cyberspace.

Campbell and Manning, though, are talking about this behavior as a reflection of assumptions about behavior underlying the conversations we have about issues and identity. Their insights have a lot to say, I think, about the polarized politics of our day. Both sides of the aisle are guilty of playing the victim to defend their ideologies, but this sociological research suggests that this has become more than just a rhetorical strategy and has crept into our deeper selves. I have seen conservatives who complain about political correctness run amok turn around and immediately deploy violent rhetoric at anything they deem to be “Unamerican” (or at anyone who suggest that maybe we should have some, you know, new gun control regulations). Likewise, the left wing is generally quite vocally in favor of tolerance and free expression, unless you’re pointing out the excesses of the tolerance and free expression police, in which case you’re probably a cultural chauvinist or something.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the outrage cycle in our public and political discourse lately. About a week ago I ended up in a spat with someone after posting some negative comments about a video on her Facebook page. The video featured someone knocking Black Lives Matter protests for telling black people to “hate white people,” coupled with some cherry picked videos of black (and even one white person) saying nasty things about police and a clip of Farrakhan saying his followers should “kill those who kill us” or something like that.

I said it was a straw man and an attempt to deflect attention from a real issue.

My reaction really upset her in a way that puzzled me. I was “slamming” and “trolling” and she took it all quite personally. In fact, I was accused of, along with the “liberal minority,” trying to silence her.

It reminded me of what has also happened with my father, who is more conservative than I am. Once upon a time we used to discuss political and social issues with aplomb even though we disagreed on many, many things. A few years back, though, I felt as though he was drifting, along with the majority of American conservatives, into strange territory–the things he was saying seemed less and less rational to me.

Finally, it reached a point where I literally couldn’t even think of what to say to him. It was, he told me, Obama who, rather than being the victim of entrenched prejudice as America’s first black president, was the racist. Obama. Half-black, half-white, Mr. Compromise-so-much-that-even-my-liberal-backers-will-end-up-hating-me. He was the racist. The American Dream Embodied, son of both immigrants and middle-America Kansas-born. He was the problem. My brain locked up. It pissed me off. I told my dad we should not talk about politics, ever again.

Looking through Campbell and Manning’s lens, though, I wonder if my father might not have been turned off to Obama, not through Fox Newsy brain washing like I’d assumed, but by “microaggressions” toward older white males. When Obama used that phrase “typical white woman” to describe his grandmother and pondered the way in which angry whites “cling to their guns,” was he insulting them in a way that in an honor culture might have resulted in a gauntlet being thrown down but today results in years of smoldering political animosity. Was it micro aggressions like this that could make someone so offended by both Black Lives Matter and my support for it?

I’ve been looking through my feed and past posts, looking for such offenses. I guess it’s hard to see your own sins.

The same is often said about our privilege. Me, I’ve long since come to terms with just how snugly enconsced in white privilege I am. Knowing that has not left me much claim to any kind of victimhood. I suppose I am conscious of many things that feel like microaggressions toward atheism, my sole claim to anything resembling “minority” status, but I don’t often step out and solicit outrage on my behalf. Reviewing my past posts and writings, I can admit I’m certainly guilty of defending my profession, but in that case we really are victims!

When all is said and done, we’re probably all guilty of this behavior–both giving and taking offense–to some extent.

Campbell and Manning’s work argues that all of it comes back to questions of culture, but in ways we don’t usually think about. We’re quite accustomed to being fractured along lines of gender, race, religion, orientation, but maybe deep down we have a cultural similarity we’re not paying attention to and which, ironically, is tearing us apart.

We should take stock about what is and what isn’t constructive about this victimhood culture. How is it serving us and how is it not? And, ultimately, should we be pushing back against this thinking in which each of is constructing a self-serving narrative about the wrongs done to us?

First, there is something encouraging in this development. Sociologists point out that these sorts of cultures can only emerge in society’s with a substantial degree of equality, where all parties believe they can find some receptive audience when they air their grievances.

We can at least take some pride in that fact.

However, and I really think this should be obvious, there really are some substantial inequalities that continue to exist in our culture. White privilege, for example, is quite real. The statistics about our justice systems treatment of African Americans make it crystal clear–for the same offense blacks are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive maximum penalties; and of course, there’s the evidence that minorities are more likely to be shot when involved in altercations with the police. Only someone who is being willfully ignorant will argue that our society is not still vexed by racial inequalities.

And therein lies the real danger of Victimhood Culture. It reinforces our own biases, insulates us in echo chambers of those similarly aggrieved, and may ultimately retard progress toward a healthier dialogue as a society.

What kind of culture do we want to shape for our progeny? Do we want to perpetuate this landscape of dueling victimhood narratives? Or do we want to move in another direction?

Not backward to shame or dignity cultures, but forward to something more constructive.

What that might be I’m hardly qualified to say, but there are two values I would nominate to take greater eminence in our culture.

What if our conversations could be filled with less finger pointing and more fact-checking? Would an empirical culture serve us better? One where–when it comes to politics–instead of arguing about amorphous economic ideologies, we could look at empirical evidence about what kind of government spending really does create jobs and at what rates to people really use and grow dependent upon government assistance. Psychologists and neuroscientists have now shown how prone to defending our beliefs we humans (with our newly developed cerebral cortexes) are, and how we must take great pains to actually think through an issue. Can we imagine a society, like More’s Utopia, where careful, rational consideration of all issues is the norm.

Of course, an empirical culture might be a bit cold.

Perhaps the real cultural shift we need–and I will sound like a broken record here–is toward greater empathy, toward a society where our conversations are more about listening and understanding one another than shutting one another down.

Dare I even hope for both working in concert: Listening, and then Thinking.