Tuesday 29 December 2015

Victimhood: Life is unfair to me and it's your fault

A disturbing trend of victimhood is taking hold in the United States, with people feeling entitled to behave selfishly because they feel they are victims of society
By Arthur C. Brooks, Published The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2015

Back in 1993, the misanthropic art critic Robert Hughes published a grumpy, entertaining book - Culture Of Complaint - in which he predicted that America was doomed to become increasingly an "infantilised culture" of victimhood.

It was a rant against what he saw as a grievance industry appearing all across the political spectrum.

I enjoyed the book but, as a lifelong optimist about America, was unpersuaded by Hughes' argument. I dismissed it as just another apocalyptic prediction about our culture.

Unfortunately, the intervening two decades have made Hughes look prophetic and me, naive.

"Victimhood culture" has now been identified as a widening phenomenon by mainstream sociologists. And it is impossible to miss the obvious examples all around us.

We can laugh off some of them: For example, the argument that the design of a Starbucks cup is evidence of a secularist war on Christmas.

Others, however, are more ominous. On campuses, activists interpret ordinary interactions as "microaggressions" and set up "safe spaces" to protect students from certain forms of speech. And presidential candidates on both the left and the right routinely motivate supporters by declaring that they are under attack by immigrants or wealthy people.

Who cares if we are becoming a culture of victimhood? We should.

To begin with, victimhood makes it more and more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts. The culture feeds a mentality that crowds out a necessary give and take - the very concept of good-faith disagreement - turning every policy difference into a pitched battle between good (us) and evil (them).

Consider a 2014 study in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, which examined why opposing groups, including Democrats and Republicans, found compromise so difficult.

The researchers concluded that there was a widespread political "motive attribution asymmetry", in which both sides attributed their own group's aggressive behaviour to love, but the opposite side's to hatred. Today, millions of Americans believe their side is basically benevolent, while the other side is evil and out to get them.

Second, victimhood culture makes for worse citizens - people who are less helpful, more entitled and more selfish. In 2010, four social psychologists from Stanford University published an article titled Victim Entitlement To Behave Selfishly in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology.

The researchers randomly assigned 104 human subjects to two groups. Members of one group were prompted to write a short essay about a time when they felt bored; the other, to write about "a time when your life seemed unfair. Perhaps you felt wronged or slighted by someone". Afterwards, participants were interviewed and asked if they wanted to help the scholars in a simple, easy task.

The results were stark. Those who wrote the essays about being wronged were 26 per cent less likely to help the researchers and were rated by the researchers as feeling 13 per cent more entitled.

In a separate experiment, the researchers found that members of the "unfairness" group were 11 per cent more likely to express selfish attitudes. In a comical and telling aside, the researchers noted that the "victims" were also more likely than the "non-victims" to leave trash behind on the desks and to steal the experimenters' pens.

Does this mean that we should reject all claims that people are victims? Of course not. Some people are indeed victims in America - of crime, discrimination or deprivation. They deserve our empathy and require justice.

The problem is that the line is fuzzy between fighting for victimised people and promoting a victimhood culture. Where does the former stop and the latter start?

I offer two signposts for your consideration.

First, look at the role of free speech in the debate. Victims and their advocates always rely on free speech and open dialogue to articulate unpopular truths. They rely on free speech to assert their right to speak. Victimhood culture, by contrast, generally seeks to restrict expression in order to protect the sensibilities of its advocates. Victimhood claims the right to say who is and is not allowed to speak.

What about speech that endangers others? Fair-minded people can discriminate between expression that puts people at risk and that which merely rubs some the wrong way. Speaking up for the powerless is often "offensive" to conventional ears.

Second, look at a movement's leadership. The fight for victims is led by aspirational leaders who challenge us to cultivate higher values. They insist that everyone is capable of - and has a right to - earned success. They articulate visions of human dignity. But the organisations and people who ascend in a victimhood culture are very different. Some set themselves up as saviours; others focus on a common enemy. In all cases, they treat people less as individuals and more as aggrieved masses.

Hughes turned out to be pretty accurate in his vision, I'm afraid. It is still in our hands to prove him wrong, however, and cultivate a nation of strong individuals motivated by hope and opportunity, not one dominated by victimhood.

But we have a long way to go. Until then, I suggest keeping a close eye on your pen.


"So who cares if we are becoming a culture of victimhood? We all should."Read more from The New York Times Opinion Section.
Posted by The New York Times on Saturday, December 26, 2015

Negative trends to avoid in next 50 years

As we end this year celebrating our jubilee, we need to be mindful of two trends developing in our society which may not augur well for the next 50 years.

The first was articulated in yesterday's commentary ("Life is unfair to me and it's your fault").

While it is good to care for those who are victimised, we must guard against developing a victimhood mentality, which invariably leads to selfishness, a sense of entitlement and an outlook that everyone owes one a living.

In my medical practice, for instance, I have come across seniors who withdrew their Central Provident Fund savings and spent them indiscriminately on frivolous living, then blamed their siblings, friends and the authorities for not helping them with their basic essentials when all the money was gone.

I have interacted with children who blamed their parents for their poor academic results and their lack of what they considered essentials, such as mobile phones and trendy clothes and shoes, because their parents could not afford to hire them tuition teachers and give them extra pocket money.

There seems to be a lack of gratefulness, an absence of healthy contentment and a tendency to blame others for our lack of diligence and discipline.

This certainly is not helpful for individuals and society.

The second negative trend was highlighted in yesterday's report ("Rising trend of self-harm among the young").

I have previously written letters about increasing depression and suicides among the young at the prime of their lives ("Work culture a factor in depression among the young"; Feb 1, and "Growing trend of depression"; Jan 15, 2004).

Pressure to excel is positive to a certain extent, but excessive pressure to achieve academically and in careers, and be "successful" from society's point of view may do more harm than good.

Parents who are absent from the home because of their own relentless pursuit of such goals, who replace their absence with gifts and "sweet-nothings", and who wish to see their own ambitions fulfilled in their children, are contributing to young ones feeling dejected, unloved and increasingly isolated and depressed.

Self-harm is just one expression of such a condition.

Parents need to transmit to their children, by word and deed, the importance of true success and what is in line with wholesome moral development, as well as the importance of concern for others and those deprived in society.

Paradoxically, when we care for others and love our neighbours, we find our true fulfilment and "success" in life.

Quek Koh Choon (Dr)
ST Forum, 29 Dec 2015

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