Victimhood as Virtue
America’s Single Most Dangerous Cultural Trend
One of the softer perils of growing older is the reflexive suspicion of the new, scary cultural norms of younger generations.
When I hear songs by contemporary popular artists and proclaim their work more “noise” than “music,” I’m at least self-aware enough to know that part of my distaste stems purely from my increasingly grizzled status. It happens.
But I draw a line between annoying (but ultimately harmless) cultural shifts and shifts that lead to measurable societal decline.
Of those in the latter category, the one that probably poses the most danger is the rampant conflation of virtue and victimhood.
The movement that led to this confusion began with the best of intentions. There was a time when certain conditions, maladies, and struggles remained hidden from view due to embarrassment or fear of reprisal, which prolonged suffering. Let’s take mental health as a prime example.
I certainly agree with the idea that those who battle mental health issues should be encouraged to seek help. People who have disorders and face psychological challenges should get professional assistance in order to make their lives happier and healthier.
Let’s put aside for the moment the shifting definition of what constitutes “trauma,” and the question of what is and isn’t a mental disorder. I would hope that most of us could find common ground in believing that a person suffering from, say, chronic depression should be encouraged to speak to a medical professional and pursue treatment.
However, there is a crucial difference between understanding and celebration, between tolerance and lionization. That difference matters a great deal, particularly in a culture in which social media is a catalyst for the spread of social contagions.
Today, most media voices and celebrities, and many politicians, adopt a stance that stretches far beyond mere compassion and extends into strange, laudatory virtue signaling.
This is perhaps best exemplified by sports media-who often have the same ideological positions as their political journalist brethren, but do not express them with as much subtlety. Within the world of athletics, “mental health” has become an instant conversation-stopper in the face of any sort of criticism. Once a person announces that he’s dealing with his “mental health,” this declaration not only shields him from critique, but it initiates a guaranteed wave of outspoken support.
This is a bizarre and unfortunate overcorrection. Sympathy for weakness, yes. Compassion for people who need help, yes.
But weakness is not strength, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.
Skewing too far in this direction has serious and terrible consequences. The higher virtue is not admitting vulnerability, but, rather, resilience in the face of vulnerability. Overcoming vulnerability. Rising above vulnerability.
And, yes, resilience may begin with or include asking for help, but merely admitting that you are afflicted cannot itself be the only endpoint.
Yet, that is largely where we are now as a culture. To use a different example, a healthy culture would applaud an obese person for beginning a diet and exercise program, and celebrate such a person who ultimately achieved his fitness goals, serving as an example to other obese people.
We certainly do that to some extent, but, more often, the most prominent voices in our culture instead lecture us that any weight can be healthy, and that all body types should be celebrated, and that praising people who get in shape too vigorously is “toxic” because it makes the still-obese feel bad.
These are lies. They are particularly consequential lies in the face of a global pandemic whose disease is typically far more dangerous for those with excessive BMIs. And that’s to say nothing of long-term health problems created by obesity, such as heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and so on.
Instead of the proper calibration along the lines of “not everyone will look like a supermodel, but everyone who is able-bodied should attempt to be active and generally eat healthy,” the prevailing message today is closer to “you do you, and never feel shame or guilt about any of it.”
Going back to the mental health realm, Time declared U.S. gymnast Simone Biles its 2021 Athlete of the Year. Now, Simone Biles is almost indisputably the greatest women’s gymnast in history, and her credentials are beyond reproach.
But, despite the award’s name, she earned this particular honor not for athletic excellence, but, rather, because Time wanted to celebrate her for not competing.
Naturally, the authors tie the story into race, name-checking George Floyd and Colin Kaepernick and connecting all of it to pseudoscience around the effects of slavery(!), checking off several other social-justice boxes in the process. But they also unwittingly reveal a deeper truth when they say:
At a time when anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing-the CDC reports a 50% rise in suicide attempts by teenage girls during the pandemic-and many people are struggling with what they owe themselves vs. what others demand of them, Biles made clear the importance of prioritizing oneself and refusing to succumb to external expectations. With the eyes of the world upon her, she took the extraordinary step of saying, That’s enough. I’m enough.
Mental health issues are “skyrocketing” at precisely the same moment in history when the “stigma” associated with mental health has never been weaker.
The authors, and most of our cultural and political leaders, have this relationship exactly backwards. They believe that navel gazing and being more selfish will slow the wave of mental-health diagnoses-even as an increasingly narcissistic society “tolerant” of mental health is the cultural ecosystem in which mental health issues have exploded.
Likewise, obesity rates have reached crisis levels in the same era in which “fat-shaming” and “body positivity” have entered our lexicon. While not precisely analogous, this, again, is not a coincidence. In both cases, “tolerance” gone too far removes the disincentive for correcting these conditions. In fact, to even suggest these are conditions that need to be “corrected” would be outrageous in some circles.
And all of this comes before we broach the destructive racial and gender politics of intersectionality, which prioritizes various groups in a hierarchy based on their cumulative victim status, further cementing the importance (and benefit) of victimhood.
Combining the newfound “virtue” of mental health challenges with the poisonous ideology so common on contemporary college campuses produces horrifying results: According to Pew, a of liberal white women under 30 have already been diagnosed with a mental health issue.
This is a marriage of the subconscious desirability of victim status with an ideology that has convinced these women that not only is our country evil, but it is evil as a result of them and their ancestors.
Pairing those two forces creates a devastating effect that is-unsurprisingly-seen far less in other groups, who find these weak arguments less convincing.
Perhaps the most macabre example of this larger phenomenon is “ transableism,” in which healthy people “identify” as disabled, up to and including desiring medical procedures that leave them handicapped.
The solution to incentivizing victimhood is a simple one: recalibrate.
Treat medical afflictions as neither cause for celebration nor cause for irrational fear. Treat racial and ethnic categories exactly the same way.
And, if someone has a problem that needs to be solved, stop pretending like the best advice we can give them is “don’t change a thing,” or “you go, girl.”
True compassion often means tough love and harsh-but-constructive truths. Our country would be far better off if we were willing to confront and embrace those truths, rather than being a nation of enablers.
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