“This puts me in a strange position as someone who can be unequivocally categorized as a victim and yet who has always had a difficult time seeing myself as one.”
t is no secret that our political and cultural moment is entrenched in pervasive feelings of victimhood and grievance that are weaponized to achieve institutional and social power. The problem is that it often works. The bitter outrage and resentment that arise from feelings of oppression are potent resources with which to craft compelling narratives, galvanize collective action, and ultimately assuage personal insecurities by shifting the locus of control over to external problems rather than internal ones.
Whatever psychological toll is exacted by identifying with our own subjugation can be momentarily outweighed by the warm embrace of our peers and the attendant sense of participation in a larger story that provides meaning to our lives. Although victimology creates inward inertia that prevents personal development, it also can generate outward momentum to advance political goals.
From woke identity politics to white racialism to radical Islamism to Antifa, there is power in the cultivation of victimhood. Virtually every major social movement is compelled to believe in its own victimization, regardless of how mainstream its ideas actually are—or how much power it actually has. If progressives were to acknowledge their cultural hegemony over major institutions it would necessarily weaken their message, just as far-right identitarians acknowledging that whites still predominate in most positions of power would necessarily weaken theirs.
Weaponized victimhood is a natural result of the relationship between power and innocence. Given the moral instincts of human beings, we cannot justify taking power over others unless we first convince ourselves of our own innocence. On the other hand, feelings of guilt only stifle the pursuit of power. As the African American author Shelby Steele has written:
“The human animal almost never pursues power without first convincing himself that he is entitled to it. And this feeling of entitlement has its own precondition: to be entitled one must first believe in one’s innocence…By innocence I mean a sense of essential goodness in relation to others and, therefore, superiority to others. Our innocence inflates us and deflates those we seek power over. In this sense, innocence is power.”
Likewise, a society that falls under the spell of collective guilt cannot successfully utilize its strengths, just like the individual overwhelmed by guilt cannot meet his potential in the world.
This applies to individuals as well as collectives. Just as every burgeoning activist necessarily thinks of himself as being on “the Right Side Of History,” every revolutionary movement begins with a belief in the fundamental corruptness of “the system,” as well as the fundamental purity of its own ideals, to the extent that it would be irresponsible not to take power. Whether the ensuing outcome is horrifying or transcendent is largely dependent on the accuracy of that belief. Likewise, a society that falls under the spell of collective guilt cannot successfully utilize its strengths, just like the individual overwhelmed by guilt cannot meet his potential in the world.
Moral innocence is the prerequisite to the acquisition of power, and guilt is the prerequisite to giving away power. And who is more innocent and less guilty than a long-suffering victim?
This puts me in a strange position as someone who can be unequivocally categorized as a victim and yet who has always had a difficult time seeing myself as one. When I first became chronically ill at 18 years old, just a week into my first year of college, the feeling was not one of noble victimhood or righteous indignation but of shame, paralyzing fear, and humiliation.
I went from being a perfectly healthy young adult to a walking cesspool of pain and debilitation overnight, as a consequence of a reactivated viral infection. Activities I once enjoyed such as exercising, reading, and socializing became practices in futility, and attempts at doing them only worsened my self-esteem. It is like living through a slow motion nightmare where one is trying to do something that one knows he is capable of doing but which one just cannot seem to manage no matter how hard he tries, like seeking to sprint at the bottom of a swimming pool. It is a nightmare from which I have yet to awaken.
The physical reality has been dispiriting—something that I would not wish upon my worst enemies. However, the psychological reality has been much scarier. Having an invisible disability as a young person is similar to what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” On one level, I exist in a state of ongoing physiological distress that I am convinced most healthy people could not imagine. On another level, I am still a social being who needs to present a facade of normalcy to have any hope of connecting with other people. Navigating between these separate identities—as Sam the chronically sick person and Sam the writer, friend, family member and so on—has been the quintessential struggle of this experience.
Detailing my actual state of being to other people—the migraines, the fatigue, the brain fog, the stomach pain—usually just leaves them feeling guilty or otherwise freezes them in self-awareness. Afterwards, I am the one left feeling guilty for burdening them with a condition that is inexorably mine. It is alienating never to be fully honest with others without unintentionally creating an interpersonal barrier.
Given the contours of my experience, it is easy to imagine how I might be receptive to the gravitational pull of victimhood culture. According to the logic of what Matt Breunig calls “Identitarian Deference,” where membership in a marginalized identity group grants us greater moral authority to speak on issues pertaining to that identity than those who are not, having a chronic illness hypothetically gives me carte blanche on many subjects. Like anyone, I wanted to cash in. When I first started getting into political arguments with progressive friends about the issues I saw with social justice activism, I could always appeal to their health privilege to trigger the guilt of their unearned advantage and shut down the conversation, if I did not like how it was going. Yet, though appeals to experience seem like a winning move in the moment, I always walked away from these exchanges feeling vaguely queasy (and not from my illness!). It felt like I had taken advantage of their good will and receptiveness for my own rhetorical benefit, without regard for what was actually true. Deferring to identity might be polemically effective, but it is philosophically and morally barren.
In a way, my illness spared me from the grips of victimhood culture. The fact of actually being a victim staves off the sexiness that is associated with oppression.
I also began to notice that some identities were given more weight than others, specifically ones that were more readily identifiable and had a particular historical context. This gets to the heart of the issue with the politics of identity: It is necessarily selective about which identities it highlights. If we are meant to believe, as identitarianism posits, that our degree of victimization is a consequence of the intersection of our various social identities, then it is necessary to take all factors into account in our existential arithmetic to determine which identities and experiences are worth paying attention to. However, since many of the experiences that form our identity go unseen, the general tendency is just to fall back on race and gender because those are the most obvious. Left-wing identity politics, thus, becomes a photonegative of right-wing identity politics by reinforcing the essentialism of immutable characteristics. One side of the aisle injects meaning into identity according to a genetic natural order of things, while the other according to history itself. Both view demographics as destiny.
If we are truly concerned about—or interested in—a given experience, there is only one way to learn about it: Ask people who have lived it. Of course, tailoring our sense of who suffers most in society to the diverse and specific struggles of individual human beings—instead of vast generalizations according to attributable group membership—is a terrible way of leveraging victimhood to harness grievance into political power. It is no wonder that some identities get more attention.
At a certain point, one begins to question the whole identitarian project. Should we not be developing policies to improve the lives of fellow citizens regardless of their particular identity rather than because of it? Does having a given experience really give someone special knowledge about how to change society? Does my experience as a chronically ill person give me inherent authority to speak on the ins and outs of healthcare or welfare based on my experience? Maybe but not necessarily. And there is a major gap between relative experience and hard knowledge that cannot be filled by moralizing platitudes or good intentions.
It is certainly frustrating when someone refuses to take into account the reality of my experience with this illness , but it is equally—if not more—frustrating when someone assumes that I have a certain opinion because of my experience. It seems like whichever option we see as the lesser of two evils is often a determining factor in which kind of politics we assimilate: condescension on the one hand and ignorance on the other. We could avoid this impasse altogether simply by judging arguments on their own merits and avoiding identity deference on principle.
In a way, my illness spared me from the grips of victimhood culture. The fact of actually being a victim staves off the sexiness that is associated with oppression. One realizes that even if one is able to leverage his identity to win arguments and score political points, there is a spiritual vapidness beneath it that invariably undermines the change we wish to see in the world. Moreover, most suffering happens in silence without anyone’s knowing. There is nothing beautiful about living in agony and dying alone. When media, academia, or the wider culture attempt to romanticize human suffering and toil, we should be skeptical. Again, innocence is the precondition to seizing power, and the reality or unreality of that innocence impacts outcomes. Innocence must be earned through sacrifice. It is necessary for a healthy culture to challenge and investigate its own innocence without devolving into self-flagellating and self-perpetuating guilt.
Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.