Suffering Chic: The Longing To Claim Membership In The Victim Class
Professing victimhood as a way to get attention is a form of "covert narcissism" -- a term I once heard from a professor friend. It describes people who use "Oh, downtrodden me!" and awful things that have befallen them to get others to feel sorry for them, attend to their needs, and generally put the spotlight on them.
There's a whole lot of that going on on campus, with so many students claiming to be traumatized. This being America in 2017, with more comforts and ease for all than at any other time in human history, what is there to be traumatized by?
There are people -- of course -- who have suffered actual trauma. But for the rest, hurt feelz will have to do. This ends up causing students who feel in need of attention and something to be a part of to claim microaggressions and all other manner of bullshit to be injuring them. Deeply, deeply.
Microaggressions include, "Where are you from?", which supposedly is an insult meaning you're not quite American.
What silly tripe. A great many Americans, for quite some time, have largely been white Christians from England, Ireland, and Europe.
So, if you are not of that ancestry, somebody might ask you that "Where are you from?" question.
Oh, and by the way, people have asked me for years whether I'm Irish. It's nice that they're interested. (Note the healthy psychology at work!)
But I'm not Irish, so I clear that up: "No, Eastern European peasant shithole Jew." But thanks for asking!
All of this pantywaist-ism leads to the inspiration for this post -- a piece in The Hedgehog Review, "The Strange Persistence of Guilt," by Wilfred M. McClay.
Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns--sometimes even demands--to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is always looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be "right with the world." One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it had to do so in odd and perverse ways.
Which brings me to a very curious story, full of significance for these matters. It comes from a New York Times op-ed column by Daniel Mendelsohn, published on March 9, 2008, and aptly titled "Stolen Suffering."10 Mendelsohn, a Bard College professor who had written a book about his family's experience of the Holocaust, told of hearing the story of an orphaned Jewish girl who trekked 2,000 miles from Belgium to Ukraine, surviving the Warsaw ghetto, murdering a German officer, and taking refuge in forests where she was protected by kindly wolves. The story had been given wide circulation in a 1997 book, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, and its veracity was generally accepted. But it was eventually discovered to be a complete fabrication, created by a Belgian Roman Catholic named Monique De Wael.
Such a deception, Mendelsohn argued, is not an isolated event. It needs to be understood in the context of a growing number of "phony memoirs," such as the notorious child-survivor Holocaust memoir Fragments, or Love and Consequences, the putative autobiography of a young mixed-race woman raised by a black foster mother in gang-infested Los Angeles.12 These books were, as Mendelsohn said, "a plagiarism of other people's trauma," written not, as their authors claimed, "by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes." Interestingly, too, he noted that the authors seemed to have an unusual degree of identification with their subjects--indeed, a degree of identification approaching the pathological. Defending Misha, De Wael declared, astonishingly, that "the story is mine...not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving."
What these authors have appropriated is suffering, and the identification they pursue is an identification not with certifiable heroes but with certifiable victims. It is a particular and peculiar kind of identity theft. How do we account for it? What motivates it? Why would comfortable and privileged people want to identify with victims? And why would their efforts appeal to a substantial reading public?
Or, to pose the question even more generally, in a way that I think goes straight to the heart of our dilemma: How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world?
I believe that the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one's moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution--or even of keeping the range of one's responsibility for one's sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries--are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one's innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as De Wael and her fellow hoaxing memoirists. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously. It is not something as simple as hypocrisy that we are seeing. Instead, it is a story of people working out their salvation in fear and trembling.
That bit in the last paragraph, again:
Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one's innocence affirmed.
I really think it has more to do with being somebody than wanting to be somebody innocent.
There's a kind of celebrity in being somebody with a horrible story to tell. And with that kind of celebrity comes attention. You can almost be a Kardashian -- just without the sex tape, the Beverly Hills turbo stage mom, and the ass party guests can set drinks on.