The Real Victims of Victimhood

Many people believe that American culture is slowly transforming into a culture of universal victimhood — an ecosystem where the preferred path to get attention and settle grievances is to file constant, competing claims that you or your group has been victimized.

Think this is an extreme assertion? Maybe so, but remember a major story from the latter months of 2015. Student activists were upending campuses, outraged at perceived slights they called “microagressions.” They insisted their universities set up “safe spaces” to shield them from hurtful ideas. And the issue runs far deeper than overheated campus controversies. This is the topic of my most recent New York Times column.

The culture of victimization treats public discourse like an auction of escalating grievances, which strangles our politics. It makes resolving political and social disputes much more difficult. Why? Well, selfishness and entitlement are both antithetical to good citizenship — but those attitudes are exactly what victimhood culture tends to promote.

In the column I highlight one very telling study from a group of social psychologists at Stanford:

“In 2010, four social psychologists from Stanford University published an article titled “Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers randomly assigned 104 human subjects to two groups.

Members of one group were prompted to write a short essay about a time when they felt bored; the other to write about “a time when your life seemed unfair. Perhaps you felt wronged or slighted by someone.” After writing the essay, the participants were interviewed and asked if they wanted to help the scholars in a simple, easy task.

The results were stark. Those who wrote the essays about being wronged were 26 percent less likely to help the researchers, and were rated by the researchers as feeling 13 percent more entitled.”

Comically, the researchers even noted in the paper that the “victims” were more likely to leave trash behind. And steal the experimenter’s pen.

But it’s important to state our case against victimhood culture very clearly and carefully. To be sure, some people in our society have completely legitimate grievances. Victims of crime, deprivation, and discrimination deserve our compassion and justice.

So what is a reasonable, good-hearted person to do? How should we distinguish between the individuals we want to help and the broad attitude we must reject? In short, how do we advance real social justice without fueling victimhood culture?

Tough questions — but critically important ones. In the piece, I offer two guidelines to guide our thinking:

  • Look at free speech.

    First, look at the role of free speech in a particular debate. Victims and their advocates always rely on free speech and open dialogue to articulate unpopular truths. They demand oxygen and assert everyone’s right to speak. Victimhood culture, by contrast, generally seeks to restrict expression in order to protect the sensibilities of its advocates. Victimhood is alleged to confer the power to say who is and is not allowed to speak.

  • Look at leadership.Look at the leadership of a given protest movement. The fight for true victims is led by aspirational leaders who challenge us to cultivate higher values. They insist that everyone is capable of — and has a right to — earned success. They articulate visions of human dignity. But the organizations and people who ascend in a victimhood culture? Those are very different. Some set themselves up as saviors; others focus on a common enemy. In all cases, they treat people less as individuals and more as aggrieved masses.

Some fear that our detour into victimhood culture is permanent. I admit that it’s easy to feel pessimistic. But we are emphatically not helpless, and the situation is far from hopeless. If we work hard to separate the struggle of real victims from the wider, toxic ecosystem of victimhood, we can turn the tide. We can promote a society that is instead based on hope and aspiration.

But until we succeed, I suggest keeping an eye on your pen.