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The Culture of Victimhood

Hoaxes, trigger warnings, and trauma-informed care.

“Trauma-informed care” is the current therapeutic buzzword these days. Developing research suggests that a history of trauma and neglect can lead to emotional and psychological difficulties which may be mistaken for other problems such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, and other psychological disorders. Informed therapists should be better able to identify these subtle symptoms, and diagnose and treat more effectively and accurately.

Increased social attention to these subtle effects of trauma inevitably leads to more identification of trauma (a good thing), and to greater social attention to the issues of trauma and victimization (a mixed thing). For many years, victims have been bullied, shamed, and blamed, which worsens the effects of their experience. Unfortunately, in a swing to the opposite side, victimhood has now become a protected class in our society, a trend fed by well-intended, but potentially harmful, therapists, activists, and daytime talk shows.

The media is inundated with “victim hoaxes,” where there is a great flutter over someone being wronged and victimized. Waitresses are slandered over their sexuality, teenagers harassed, scarred children turned away from restaurants. Society gets all atwitter over these events, standing up for the wronged party. The alleged victim often receives financial support and other secondary gains as a result of the nationwide uproar. Unfortunately, further attention to these events reveals that some details of the story don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Some college students are demanding “trigger warnings” in syllabi at some universities. Trigger warnings are a concept which began in Internet discussions, where a poster might write “Trigger warning: RAPE,” at the beginning of a discussion, so that individuals who might be triggered to re-experience their traumatic history could then avoid that discussion. The concept is laudable and respectful of those who have suffered. But, as this trend spreads, problems arise. If a student can’t read Faulkner without being triggered by the depictions of rape in his works, should they be excused from that assignment? Is that fair, to them, and to other students? Is that beneficial to their education and growth?

Critics of our culture of victimhood are often attacked as abusers themselves, perpetuating a culture of harm and assault. Frequently, the response of that embattled critic is to assert that they are a victim as well. Men criticized as sexist for challenging radical feminism defend themselves as victims of reverse sexism, people criticized as being unsympathetic proclaim their own history of victimization. In courts, during sentencing, it is common, even de rigeur, for felons to proclaim that their history of victimization contributed to their harmful, illegal actions. In our culture of victimhood, victims can be excused for victimizing others, taking away the rights, freedoms, and autonomy of others, in service to their victimization.

Why would people loudly and publicly proclaim themselves as victims? Perhaps a better question, based upon the level of secondary gain, attention, protection, and support received by these people, is why wouldn’t they? With all of the attention on the issue, why are we surprised when people are exaggerating, using, or downright lying, about victimization? Of course, when we attach benefits to identification as a victim, we will hear from more victims, both real and exaggerated.

That's not to say that all these hoaxes and questionable claims were created by people who schemed their way into calculated exploitation. In fact, I think most of these stories start as just that, stories. The narratives we tell others, and ourselves, have a way of creating a momentum of their own and carrying us away with them.

In 2004, a gay teen in California was the center of a controversy over hate crime harassment, which ultimately turned out to be false. Her story, told in this amazing article, helps one to understand how this hoax started out small and took on a life of its own, fed by the strong, committed support she received from her community. When rallied in defense of victims, communities come together in powerful, positive ways, committed to trying to improve lives for our vulnerable members.

Do these benefits and protections actually help victims of trauma to recover? In fact, when we protect people from encountering stimuli that might trigger them to re-experience their trauma, we may in fact be inhibiting their healing, protecting them from the process by which people resolve the wounds of trauma. The effects of trauma can be worsened through well-intended, but damaging, therapeutic efforts. Crisis Stress Debriefing, once a standard post-trauma intervention, is now actively discouraged as it is recognized that such group debriefings can worsen, or create, symptoms of traumatic reaction in people who would otherwise have little lasting difficulties.

Trauma victims deserve the help to heal, the support to deal with their experiences, grieve, accept it as a part of their life, and move forward. The cry for trigger warnings, justice, and protection for victims is asking for that. But, it’s also asking for something impossible — it’s asking for the victims’ right to exist henceforth in a safe place, protected from harm, exploitation, and danger. We all deserve to exist in a place where we can’t be hurt. Perhaps that ideal is possible in the afterlife, but I’ve not seen it in this world.

Our reactions to cries of victimization must be tempered with a belief in supporting their resiliency. To continue with the way we are idealizing and rewarding victimhood creates more and more incentive for people to desire to be seen as victims.

We must instead encourage people in a way that supports their ability to move forward in their lives, without needing emotional bodyguards to protect them from the unpreventable pains of life. To do less is disrespectful of them, and it discounts the strength they have within. It treats victims as though they are less than, less than capable, less than independent, and less than whole. It treats victims as though their victimization is the most important thing about them.

More from David J. Ley Ph.D.
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