Victimhood: The new virtue

We live in an age where victimhood is the new currency, victims a new kind of aristocracy, and pity a cardinal virtue.

I’m writing this sentence (who can say where I’ll be in an hour) at the Brooklyn Diner off Times Square (the pastrami frittata is fantastic!). I’m about a block away from the set of Good Morning America, where hundreds of decent, normal Americans are willingly turning themselves into meat props for a three-hour spectacle, two hours and forty-five minutes of which is dedicated to something someone named Kanyé said about someone else; the troubling rise in Pilates injuries; J-Lo’s ass; and breaking news of a puppy making friends with a stuffed toy — from someone’s Facebook page somewhere out in America. I don’t actually know that’s what’s on today’s show, but I’m pretty confident it’s not that far off either. I don’t mean to single out Good Morning America — The Today Show is equally vapid. It’s just that Good Morning America is fresh in my mind because I happened to watch an hour or so of it earlier this week while waiting for my car at the shop. I would have blown my brains out, but the show depleted my IQ so rapidly I couldn’t manage even the most rudimentary tasks. I got so dumb, Debbie Wasserman Schultz could have beaten me at checkers. But I did learn how Victoria Beckham struggles to have it all as a working mom. I don’t know how she does it. She’s a trooper. And then there was the long segment on Suzy Favor Hamilton, the courageous former Olympic runner who married her college sweetheart, won a bunch of medals, started a family and a business, and then, “after one night with a Vegas call girl,” decided to become a hooker herself. “That light-bulb moment in my head, wow, why shouldn’t I get paid for sex?” she told GMA’s Lara Spencer. We then learn that her husband knew all about her moonlighting in Vegas, but he disapproved, as all decent husbands would, don’t ya know. You can read all about it in her new book (and so can her daughter). Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that — there’s a book. Contain your surprise.  We live in an age where having addictions, conditions, disorders, and issues is often a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. Now, I’m not going to get all judgey here — because that would be wrong. Hamilton says she had serious mental-health problems, and that certainly seems more than plausible. Besides, we live in an age where having addictions, conditions, disorders, and issues is often a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. I have my own “issues” with that. But that’s a topic for another day. What really vexes me is how we’re all expected to celebrate these things. Here’s an excerpt from the segment: LARA SPENCER: Well, the book is fascinating and very brave . . . just unflinching in how honest you are, Suzy. SUZY FAVOR HAMILTON: It was very difficult, because I share everything. And I know this is a difficult book for my family and the people that I’ve hurt with my behavior in Vegas. And that hurts me still. It’s something I will have to live with for the rest of my life. SPENCER: But something to remember, Christine Brennan, a sports columnist, said, of all of your achievements on the track, this might just be the greatest one with all the people it could help. HAMILTON: You know, with the 20/20 interview, when she said that, I just started crying at home. And what, what a great statement she gave me that . . . SPENCER: And one to keep in your heart and remember. And that was that. Hamilton betrayed her family and then compounded that “hurt” by splashing it all across the country — and somehow in a matter of seconds this becomes proof of her heroic struggle. She will have to live with this, but it was worth it because another journalist pandering to an interview subject said something that may or may not be true. I’m not a big consumer of bipolar tell-alls, but I kind of feel like there are already more than a few out there and that it’s possible — just possible — the genre didn’t need one more, at least this one more. I’m sure this book helped someone, somewhere. But I resent the idea that somehow we’re all expected to celebrate this woman’s struggle and honesty and heroism and blah blah blah. And if we don’t celebrate it, not only are we the bad guys, but our judgmentalism makes her more of a hero. It seems to me that if you don’t want people to judge you, maybe you shouldn’t herd your demons onto a public stage like they’re contestants in a beauty pageant? Yeah, maybe her book will help someone out there. But maybe her top priority should be helping her family? I’d bet the book tour isn’t doing that. FOR THE TIME BEING Longtime readers know that one of my favorite passages of poetry comes from Auden’s “For the Time Being” in which King Herod fears a new age where: Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions. . . . Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old. . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire. We may still be waiting for the Consumptive Whore, but the bi-polar one is already a heroine of today’s age. (For the record, I’m not actually siding with Herod here, but we can talk poetry another time.) We live in an age where victimhood is the new currency, victims a new kind of aristocracy, and pity a cardinal virtue. Of course, you could wait a day, even an hour, and a new hero or heroine will emerge from the churning media maw. Tomorrow it may be an accountant with Tourette’s syndrome or a dog groomer with such acute halitosis he can’t find work except as a taxidermist. To be sure, some of the victims are real and legitimate.  (Whatever you think of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock, it is now obvious that the best thing that ever happened to him was getting wrongfully arrested. If he’d brought in a baking-soda volcano, or had been a blond kid named Smith, he would not be heading to the White House or getting the royal treatment from Facebook and Google). The point is we live in an age where victimhood is the new currency, victims a new kind of aristocracy, and pity a cardinal virtue. Conservatives — who are by no means separate from, or immune to, this cultural shift — have at least been lamenting it for a very long time. What is interesting is that academia is finally catching up. Jonathan Haidt: I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling. Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.

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