Really, then, there are two sides of the coin when it comes to convincing yourself that you’re fighting a hero’s fight.
The first is the idea that your side is the persecuted underdog, the scrappy band of dissidents bravely taking a stand against oppressive forces stronger than itself. Every group uses this paradigm to represent itself – from liberals fighting against the exploitation of corporate overlords, to conservatives fighting against the heavy hand of the state; from Christians fighting against the replacement of prayer in public schools with secular curricula, to secularists fighting against the use of religious justifications to deny sexual and reproductive rights. And mind you, a lot of the people making these claims really are the victims of various forms of mistreatment. Some of them really are persecuted underdogs. In fact, it’s even possible to have two opposing groups both feel like they’re being marginalized, and both be right at the same time, just in different ways. (As Ezra Klein notes, for instance, a fairly consistent rule of thumb is that the allocation of America’s political power tends to run a decade behind its demographics (i.e. it tends to skew older, whiter, more conservative, and more Christian than average), while cultural power – the messaging in academia and popular media and so on – tends to run a decade ahead of demographics (i.e. it tends to skew more toward younger, more diverse, more liberal, and more secular sensibilities). So both sides feel like they’re on the defensive, because they’re focusing on the areas where they actually are on the defensive – conservatives in terms of popular culture, and liberals in terms of political power. As Klein writes, “the Left feels a cultural and demographic power that it can only occasionally translate into political power, and the Right wields political power but feels increasingly dismissed and offended culturally.”) But regardless of who actually is the underdog in any given situation, every group identifies as such. And they try their best to ensure that they’re widely perceived as such, for reasons that aren’t hard to understand. After all, when you’re part of an unjustly oppressed group, it gives you the moral high ground. When you’re being persecuted for your ideas or your identity in a way that’s clearly undeserved, it no longer matters as much what your ideas or your identity actually are – it’s self-evident that you’re the good guy and your oppressor is the bad guy.
The thing is, though, more and more people are starting to realize this (if only subconsciously), and the result is that we now have this strange culture in which there’s a kind of competition for victimization. As McWhorter puts it, people are coming “to treat victimhood not as a problem to be solved but as an identity to be nurtured.” Adopting the role of the persecuted underdog has become the go-to tactic for ideological groups; and consequently, every debate quickly devolves into what Alexander calls a “bravery debate”:
There’s a tradition on Reddit that when somebody repeats some cliche in a tone that makes it sound like she believes she is bringing some brilliant and heretical insight – like “I know I’m going to get downvoted for this, but believe we should have less government waste!” – people respond “SO BRAVE” in the comments. That’s what I mean by bravery debates. Discussions over who is bravely holding a nonconformist position in the face of persecution, and who is a coward defending the popular status quo and trying to silence dissenters.
These are frickin’ toxic. I don’t have a great explanation for why. It could be a status thing – saying that you’re the original thinker who has cast off the Matrix of omnipresent conformity and your opponent is a sheeple (sherson?) too fearful to realize your insight. Or it could be that, as the saying goes, “everyone is fighting a hard battle”, and telling someone else they’ve got it easy compared to you is just about the most demeaning thing you can do, especially when you’re wrong.
But the possible explanations aren’t the point. The point is that, empirically, starting a bravery debate is the quickest way to make sure that a conversation becomes horrible and infuriating. I’m generalizing from my own experience here, but one of the least pleasant philosophical experiences is thinking you’re bravely defending an unpopular but correct position, facing the constant persecution and prejudice from your more numerous and extremely smug opponents day in and day out without being worn-down … only to have one of your opponents offhandedly refer to how brave they are for resisting the monolithic machine that you and the rest of the unfairly-biased-toward-you culture have set up against them. You just want to scream NO YOU’RE WRONG SEFSEFILASDJO:IALJAOI:JA:O>ILFJASL:KFJ
Bravery debates tend to be so fun and addictive that they drown out everything more substantive. Sometimes they can be acceptable stand-ins for actually having an opinion at all. I constantly get far-right blogs linking to my summary of Reactionary thought, and I hope I’m not being too unfair when I detect an occasional element of “Oh, so that’s what our positions are!”. There seem to be a whole lot of Reactionaries out there who are much less certain of what they believe than that they are very brave and nonconformist for believing it.
Despite Alexander’s mention of right-wingers, most of the popular discussion of this phenomenon recently has focused on how it’s been embraced by the left, particularly on college campuses and in certain online spaces. This criticism is definitely justifiable in many cases; it may be annoying for liberals to admit, but there’s no shortage of compulsive offense-takers within their ranks who have taken their martyr complex well beyond what’s reasonable, and who are hypersensitive to anything and everything that could conceivably be interpreted as hinting at some subtle underlying prejudice or affront. As Tamler Sommers puts it:
I think one of the things you [have to] acknowledge is that there are certain people who have a kind of hysterical, overwrought reaction to, just, life – and I think it’s overhyped by the media often, but those students do exist; [and] they’re not always right; they’re not always reasonable in how they respond to what they consider to be offensive or aggressive speech.
We’ll get into this a bit more later. But like I said, this kind of behavior is far from exclusive to the left. In fact, even groups on the extreme opposite end of the political spectrum, like neo-Nazis – who you’d think would be the last people in the world to claim the mantle of victim – are doing so emphatically. As Jesse Singal observes:
When violence [against neo-Nazis] does break out, videos of it race through the internet’s white-supremacist underbelly, serving as incredibly valuable PR material. It doesn’t matter who gets the better of a given confrontation: When the Nazis get punched, it’s “proof” that anti-fascists or liberals or [insert minority group] or whoever else did the punching have it in for “innocent white Americans just trying to protest peacefully.”
To which one commenter, notallowedtopost, adds:
Yeah, this is why the “make racists afraid again” slogan I’ve seen in quite a few places around the internet doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If racists weren’t already afraid of all the scary black and brown people, they wouldn’t be racists. A huge part of their ideology is their own victimhood. Making them more afraid is just going to make them more racist.
It may be easy to scoff at these claims of victimhood and dismiss them as being rooted in ulterior motives – to think that these people are obviously just exaggerating their problems solely for cynical reasons. But it seems to me that most of the people claiming to be persecuted underdogs – whether on the left or the right, whether part of a religious sect or some other ideological group – have genuinely convinced themselves that they really are victims of at least some form of oppression. A persecution mindset, like any other form of motivated reasoning, has a way of feeding on itself; as Maria de la Guardia puts it, “If you constantly hear people say you should be outraged, offended, and traumatized, you’re more likely to be so.” (And again, it’s worth stressing that some groups really are being persecuted, so they’re right to feel oppressed – but even those who aren’t can genuinely feel like they are, and their feelings may even be perfectly understandable. Even the most privileged groups sometimes have to deal with negative backlash as a result of their privilege, and from their perspective that can feel like they’re being persecuted themselves.) So the end result is that you keep having these bizarre disputes where both sides are constantly claiming to be oppressed by the other side, and neither side is willing to grant any credibility to the other’s claims. From the perspective of a neutral onlooker, the whole situation can just seem bewildering.
For agitators on each side, though, that’s no reason to tone down or moderate their claims of victimization; on the contrary, it’s all the more incentive to escalate them as much as possible. After all, if you feel like your side really is being victimized, but the other side is proclaiming their own victimhood just as strongly, it’s not like you can just unilaterally back down; that would give the impression that your side has nothing to complain about, and that the other side really must be the oppressed one. If you want to show that your side is in fact the oppressed one, you have to show that your grievances outweigh those of the other side – and that means you have to find and draw attention to as many incidents of wrongdoing being committed against your side as you possibly can, and to claim that the severity of the oppression in each of these cases is as extreme as possible – even in cases where the offense isn’t actually all that outrageous. (This incentive can exist even if you aren’t in a victimization arms race with an opposing side, but are simply trying to capture and maintain maximal attention for your cause in its own right.) The way this often plays out, a particular group might start off with some legitimate grievances – and because they’re legitimate, these grievances will capture the popular attention and will ultimately be resolved in the group’s favor – but then, feeling like they need to continue having some cause that they can fight for, group members will turn their attention to more marginal issues that aren’t quite as open-and-shut, and will start protesting them as if they were every bit as urgent and clear-cut as the more egregious causes they had been protesting previously. (So this is how you end up with people on the left equating unpaid college football with slavery, for instance, or people on the right saying that requiring a permit to own a bazooka is tantamount to totalitarianism. One of the most popular ways of drawing people’s attention to issues that might otherwise be considered relatively minor is to exaggerate the stakes to make them look much more major.) Ultimately, what might initially start off as the group genuinely feeling like their side is under attack can subtly morph into something that’s less authentic in its urgency but still wants to portray itself as a full-blown crisis. Inevitably, though, this disparity proves unsustainable. Once the claims of victimization escalate to the point where they reach the limits of credibility, they start to overreach those limits, and at that point they start to delegitimize their own cause rather than bolstering it. In the end, relying too much on this tactic of exaggerating your grievances tends to be self-sabotaging – because although it might win you some support in the short term from onlookers who don’t know any better, it also means that the ones who do notice the disparity between the intensity of your protests and the degree to which you really are being oppressed will be that much more likely to stop taking you seriously and tune you out in the future. And when that happens, you’ll have not only undermined your own cause – you’ll have also drawn attention away from those who really are being most severely victimized.
Mark Manson gives his take on the subject:
“Victimhood chic” is in style on both the right and the left today, among both the rich and the poor. In fact, this may be the first time in human history that every single demographic group has felt unfairly victimized simultaneously. And they’re all riding the highs of the moral indignation that comes along with it.
Right now, anyone who is offended about anything – whether it’s the fact that a book about racism was assigned in a university class, or that Christmas trees were banned at the local mall, or the fact that taxes were raised half a percent on investment funds – feels as though they’re being oppressed in some way and therefore deserve to be outraged and to have a certain amount of attention.
The current media environment both encourages and perpetuates these reactions because, after all, it’s good for business. The writer and media commentator Ryan Holiday refers to this as “outrage porn”: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population. This triggers a kind of echo of bullshit pinging back and forth between two imaginary sides, meanwhile distracting everyone from real societal problems. It’s no wonder we’re more politically polarized than ever before.
The biggest problem with victimhood chic is that it sucks attention away from actual victims. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. The more people there are who proclaim themselves victims over tiny infractions, the harder it becomes to see who the real victims actually are.
In other words, just like everything else, persecution – when used as an indicator of general righteousness – is subject to Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
Nevertheless, every group persists in using this tactic – because as far as they’re concerned, they really are the victims, and claiming such doesn’t undermine their credibility, it bolsters it. For them, claiming victimhood status reinforces their favored narrative that their side is the long-suffering hero of the story fighting against formidable odds. It helps them win sympathy among neutral observers, making it easier to recruit allies for their fight. And last but not least – and most worryingly of all – it provides a moral justification for them to take retaliatory action against their opponents.
(Quick footnote, by the way: Roy Baumeister has a chapter in his book Evil, in which he discusses how even violent criminals, wife-beaters, serial killers, and genocidal regimes often regard themselves as victims in a sense – justifying their actions not as spontaneous outbursts of violence, but as righteous retribution for the cruel wrongdoing that had previously been inflicted upon them by the people they would later end up targeting. The chapter is too long to include here, but I’ll provide this link to the relevant section and highly recommend that you check it out (in fact, the whole book is worth reading).)