Way back in the Stone Age of the 1980s, when I said a curse word, my Mother would wash my mouth out with soap. She also used to make me walk out to the woods to collect my own “switch” with which she would whip me. I’m fairly positive in some circles this punishment would classify me as a victim of some sort nowadays. The only problem is, I soberly view my Mother as the kindest, most nurturing, fair-minded and tolerant person I know.
No I’m not recommending these methods of parenting to anyone, though I think I turned out fine. I don’t have children so I can’t comment on the best ways to parent. What I am doing is bringing up a topic which is all too relevant these days: The Culture of Victimhood. I personally started to realize we were entering into a Culture of Victimhood when I had visited over 20 countries and I returned from one particular trip to Europe and noticed in my own country (where women are treated better by far than any other country) one political party had chosen a strategy of divide and conquer to garner female votes by promulgating the idea of a “War on Women” supposedly being waged by the other party.
Having just returned from much more traditionally minded Russia, Turkey, and Italy, this made me laugh. As a matter of fact, had this ‘War on Women” not been printed so often and discussed so often on TV, I would have thought it was a joke. Violence towards women does exist, and should be taken seriously, very seriously. But this type of rhetoric, where every person in a particular group is made out to be a victim, has the opposite effect from what is intended: it decreases communication, social trust, and goodwill. Even worse, it trivializes cases of true victimhood and hurts both men and women. You can only cry wolf so many times. Many men who instinctively want to treat women fairly and compassionately in the workplace and at home are going to become desensitized to all of the shouting and possibly ignore cases of true abuse, or even worse, check out of society completely. But the politically manipulative “War on Women” is only one example.
Over the last several years, the cry of victimization only seems to have gotten worse and is coming at us from all corners. Everyone wants in on the action. Blacks are constant victims of police violence, obese people are made fun of and subjected to “micro-aggressions”, Indians are labeled a certain way, and so on and so on. I even noticed in a strange turn of events that fellow Christians were starting to get in on the action and say “wait a minute, I’m the true victim”. Actually, I have no doubt that these groups and many others really have been treated unkindly and unfairly at times. I know I have at times, just like anyone else with a pulse. Whether life is tough and people get mistreated is not up for debate.
When I was a kid, I was made fun of. I’m pretty sure most kids were. I had a big head, I wore dorky glasses, and I was uncoordinated. I had terrible years growing up of awkwardness, entitlement issues, emotionality, and selfishness. I’m pretty sure most kids had the same problems. In supposedly “racist” Alabama where I grew up, I remember playing basketball and Nintendo with my black friend Dolan who lived down the street for hours in the afternoons and lamenting the trials and tribulations of growing up and all the ups and downs that go along with it. If you’ve ever seen the Wonder Years TV program, it was a lot like this. Not a terrible amount, but I was picked on, I got beat up or teased and I might have even teased some other kids. This used to be called growing up. As an adult, some people call me “Scotty” which I really don’t prefer as a nickname, but you know what- who cares?
Then what is this Culture of Victimhood all about? What is really going on? After studying this problem the last few years and assimilating some ideas, I’ve created a working model on how to understand and address this problem of perpetual victimhood. The reason I am truly concerned about this, and the reason I am speaking out, is I believe the problem of victimhood is tied up in a larger evolving problem in American society: The Culture of Narcissism and the rise of mental illness.
Christopher Lasch, in his classic groundbreaking work, The Culture of Narcissism, lays out his thesis that narcissism (a lack of a healthy identity) has reached epic proportions in the US. Considering this book was written in the 70s, it’s amazing that when I read it a couple of years ago, it seemed just as relevant today as ever and I outlined and highlighted it unlike any book I had ever read. It absolutely blew my mind and validated a lot of what I was feeling, seeing, and experiencing in the culture around me. Truthfully, I even noticed some of what Lasch wrote about narcissistic traits in my own character at times.
Many people, including me at one point, erroneously believe narcissism to be the same thing as selfishness, but it’s not. Selfishness is a character trait of someone who will not share, give, or cooperate but a narcissist is someone who has no sense of boundaries or identity. Narcissists feel omnipotent. From my experience, narcissism is a very seductive black hole and it has dangerous consequences because narcissists tend to prey on other people.
Lasch taught that religion and proper parenting had a role in minimizing the effect of narcissism because they taught people to identify as a faulty human being with limited capabilities. In other words, we are not God, and we are not omnipotent, we are human and thus we have boundaries, faults, weaknesses and limitations. Obviously theology is complicated, but when you have a large and ongoing cultural transition as we do now from a monotheistic God who is separate from us, to later on a God who is everywhere and in everything, to a current ethic of “I am God” you can easily see the danger of where this would eventually lead: feelings of limitlessness, infallibility, and illusions of grandeur rapidly on the rise. Social media is only contributing to the problem.
Paradoxically, some people living in our modern culture, instead of having a stronger identity, have no solid identity at all, thus the narcissist tendencies explode and potentially everything could be construed as offensive and dangerous. The narcissist is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, existing without boundaries, colliding with everything and everyone because he exists primarily in the whim of his own emotions. When these illusions of grandeur collide with the reality of getting a C on a test, getting rejected for a date, encountering prejudice, having to work at a crappy job, or getting made fun of, all hell could break loose and the amygdala (the fear processing center of the brain) could become overloaded in a hurry. The result: Hysteria.
Then what is the solution? Consider these 4 pivotal concepts:
1. Identity– people need to have an identity which answers the question, Who am I? This can be found in many healthy ways: in family, trades, hobbies, spirituality, nationalism, religion, or in an ethnic identity, or in a combination of all of these.
2. Boundaries– people need to establish boundaries to be healthy and maintain a strong identity. For example we need to decide that this is appropriate and this is not, and so the latter is beyond an acceptable boundary. In other words, this can hurt me, so it is beyond a healthy boundary. We can defend our boundaries whether they are emotional or physical or mental through a sense of:
- Honor– in some cases, we may need to physically defend ourselves. It’s not ok for someone to physically or emotionally attack us or hurt us.
- Values– what is MOST important to us.
- Dignity– in all cases, we need to realize that we have an identity, as imperfect as it is, which can’t be hurt. If you cut off an arm, there is still something there. This part of us, our spirit or soul, can’t be hurt by words, emotions we may feel, or even physical harm. Along with honor we need to maintain on an intellectual and moral level, a sense of dignity.
- Strength– in some cases, to defend our Honor, and Dignity, we may have to protect ourselves. We may need to be aggressive and assertive with someone or we may need to maintain our moral, emotional, intellectual or physical position and not be swayed by outside forces.
- Wisdom- lastly, we need to understand the best way to defend our honor and dignity and how to best employ our strength and treat other people. This comes with time.
3. Legal System Redress– serious cases of emotional or physical abuse, or discrimination particularly by someone in a position of authority, need to be dealt with swiftly and harshly. A good and moral society should deal out swift justice for someone who is evil or who abuses the power they’ve been given.
One of the more influential writers in my life is the popular psychiatrist Scott Peck, MD. Dr. Peck wrote a popular book in the late 1970s about spiritual growth which is called The Road Less Traveled. His follow up to this book was a book called People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. In the books, Peck makes the point that the opportunity for growth and maturity comes into our lives when we are faced with problems. When we have problems we can either avoid them, which in turn makes them worse, or we can deal with them and grow stronger. When we are faced with situations where we are tempted to feel like victims this teaching is invaluable. Growing to overcome a challenge is the opposite of helplessness.
The opposite of fragile is not robust but antifragile, as Dr. Nasim Taleb reminds us in his classic work called Antifragile. All living systems (like humans) when exposed to stress either avoid it and grow weaker and die out, they resist and become robust, or they adapt, change, and grow stronger. This is a law of nature: adaptation. We can adapt to our circumstances and grow stronger or wither away.
In past American generations, honor, dignity, strength, & wisdom played a key role in the protection of our identity and boundaries, particularly honor & dignity. Honor cultures emphasized reputation– don’t mess with me or I’ll mess with you, better known as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, or Old Testament justice. Dignity culture, which can be thought of as a more peaceful evolution of moral self-defense said: I am strong and nothing you can do to me can really hurt me. The Civil Rights leaders who marched and protested for the right to vote and participate in democracy employed this orientation and were consequently beaten, hung, and shot in many cases. Dignity says “I am a person of worth beyond temporary pain and I derive my worth from my own character, not from outside forces.” The biblical New Testament ethic of loving your enemies and not letting hatred for them consume you characterizes this type of dignity ethic. A dignified person sacrifices himself for a noble cause or ideals.
I’m sorry if this sounds harsh but nowadays, I’m afraid we are becoming pathetic, narcissistic and weak, and we’re using honor and dignity in a cowardly way. We have chosen to employ the legal system to defend our honor when it isn’t needed. This is cowardly. It is a case of “Let’s you and him fight.” We are essentially saying that every single person is a victim at all times and we are teaching helplessness, which again is highly related to mental illness. How much more fragile and sick of a mindset can we get than perpetual helplessness? The legal system is there when we need it, but more times than not we don’t.
In order to be mentally strong and to deal with stress, we need to be strong. We need to have boundaries. If someone says something mean or inappropriate we should call them out on it. If someone is being a bully, we should stand up to them on behalf of ourselves or others. If we really are a victim, we need to get help. But words that people say to you CANNOT hurt you. Your spirit is intact and untouchable. If you avoid having serious debates and avoid listening to certain teachers you disagree with because you can’t handle their point of view, you are only making yourself weaker intellectually and emotionally because you are avoiding a chance for growth. Other people have the right to disagree with us, and guess what? They have the right to be mean or nasty. You can’t control what other people do, only how you respond to it.
Several brilliant researchers are starting to delve deeply into this misguided perpetual victimhood psychology. Four come to mind: 1) Dr. Daniel Kahneman who is teaching and writing about our 2 main ways of thinking: Fast (emotional, impulsive, reactive, primitive) and Slow (critical, rational, and analytical). The fast and slow thinking dichotomy fits well in the unfortunate move towards a victimhood culture because cries of victimhood can be a quick and impulsive reactionary type of response to a supposed affront. 2) Jonathan Haidt, in his work The Righteous Mind, which shows that there can be worldviews on morality that are skewed too exclusively in one dimension and impinge on other moral goods. This book was very instrumental in me understanding how liberals / progressives think, and as a result I can feel more compassion for their point of view. It also illustrates how conservatives have a more comprehensive view on morality and what constitutes a good society. 3) Campbell & Manning at the University of Virginia in their work called Microaggression and Moral Cultures have studied this problem in depth and discovered the left-wing mono-culture which exists in academia and which breeds this type of psychological weakness in young people. And finally, 4) Dennis Prager, a Jewish Intellectual and cultural critic who contends that we have moved from a culture of the search for truth to a culture of respecting individual feelings, with implications reaching all the way to the court of law and how juries decide cases.
Free speech and free thought are the very foundation of a free society. Very few people nowadays who claim to be victimized or oppressed need to be treated like a victim. When I think back on what hardships, violence, and cruelty previous generations of Americans experienced, I am embarrassed that this is even an issue. What we should be teaching people about good healthy living is toughness, grit, setting boundaries, and having honor and dignity, and to be patient and fair with people who we disagree with and say things we don’t like. That way, when someone really is a victim of truly evil or illegal behavior they will be taken seriously.
Instead of thinking in terms of helplessness and victimhood, I say: Establish your identity and ask what is best in life to you? What is good? Are you a loyal person to those you love most? Are you disciplined? Are you passionate? Are you strong? Are you honest? When you look in the mirror and into your soul what do you see and do you like it? Are you afraid? What do you value? Where do you come from and where are you going? What are your limitations? When you leave, what will you leave behind?
No one can hurt you when your identity is intact and you know who you are and where you’re going.
Don’t take it from me, just ask Helen Keller, a woman from my home state who was born without vision or sight but who nonetheless became an inspiration to millions:
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”
The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt
Microaggression and Moral Cultures by Manning and Campbell
We Live in the Age of Feelings by Denis Prager in The State of the American Mind
Antifragile by Nasim Taleb
Thinking Fast & Slow by Dr. Daniel Kahneman
The Culture of Narcissism by Christophe Lasch
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