Is the victimhood culture psychologically healthy?
I have been thinking about where the current focus on victimhood will ultimately take society as a whole. How do you run a successful society on the constant amplification of aggrieved difference between groups?
Microaggressions are sometimes used as a form of social control. Participants gain social status by emphasising victimhood. Someone who is a member of multiple categories that are perceived as disadvantaged will be afforded greater moral status than a member of just one or two, also known as the = purity spiral
Culture and identity
Culture and identity have become the main ideological battlegrounds of our era, where once they were class and the economy. Defining our identities has become all-important in a world where it is so easy to fade away and become just a ‘number’.
New terminology has emerged too. We have ‘mansplaining’, ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘straightsplaining’ (describing – a man, a white person, or a heterosexual explaining something to a woman, a person of colour, or a non-heterosexual in a laborious and patronising way).
Opposition to the victimhood culture
Those, however, who oppose the growing expansion of ‘political correctness’ (over-policing of speech and thought under the justification of social equity and diversity) have made counter-accusations of ‘snowflake’ (one who believes themselves to be unique and precious but disintegrates easily) and ‘crybully’ (one who uses their alleged victimhood as a way to dominating and intimidating others.)
Individuals are too scared to say anything without fear of recrimination. An unintentional clumsiness may have major personal and career repercussions that would never have happened five years ago. I experienced this recently and was trolled online for 5 solid days.
Individuals vilified and judged unfairly
An example of public shaming: The Nobel-prize winning British scientist Tim Hunt made a silly, jokey remark about ‘girls in labs’ during a 2015 speech encouraging women into science. Labelled a sexist, Hunt later admitted to suicidal thoughts in the midst of the social media storm his comments had triggered. He is now living and working with his wife in Japan.
Sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning are concerned about the rise of victimhood and laying blame Much of their concern about ‘victimhood culture’ in fact appears to stem from the belief that, long-term, it will deliver acrimony and division
Example: Northern Ireland is an example of “‘competitive victimhood’, in which both sides of a conflict vie to present themselves as the truly victimized party.” There is a strong measure of truth in that.
Vigilance against perceived offense
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy promotes the exact opposite for mental health and reduced anxiety and depression. Instead of being hypervigilant to any perceived slight, individuals are encouraged not to make assumptions. Persecutory thoughts will lead to feelings of anger/unhappiness and this in turn will lead to unhelpful destructive behaviour. In essence, this new culture will exacerbate levels of anxiety not reduce them. Of course, when there is intentional damage or persecution – everyone has a right to protect their rights but it seems we might be oversensitive.
The current culture actively “promotes constant vigilance and outrage” in response to perceived microaggressions and divergences from approved opinion. The commitment to ideological purity – as evidenced by always being seen and heard to say ‘the right thing’ – can be tricky territory even for activists: with a single slip, one can attract social shaming. One graduate student, Frances Lee, is quoted as saying in 2017:
“The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of a fast-moving activist community is enormous…at times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism.”
‘Victimhood culture’ divides people into groups that are privileged and those that are not, on the basis that only those who are not privileged are fully deserving of courtesy. But privilege can be a slippery concept to define, as we are now discovering: for example, do we also include questions of social class, age, income and parenting? Do you get victimhood points for an absent father, an alcoholic mother, or losing a sibling?
I share with Campbell and Manning an anxiety about where ‘victimhood culture’ will take us. Appeals to ‘fairness’ – a concept even young children can understand – are historically much more successful than the ringing denunciation of particular groups.
Meanwhile, big issues of poverty and equality of opportunity are neglected: culture wars rule the debate as the wealth gap widens. Along the way, however, one thing is certain: the steady erosion of the principle of universal respect and courtesy will eventually damage all of us, ending in a fragmented and angry society.