It’s not your fault - - - Nobody’s to blame!

It’s not your fault - - - - Nobody’s to blame!

It’s not your fault - - - - - Nobody’s to blame!

  It’s not your fault - - - - - - - Nobody’s to blame!


By: Charles J. Sykes

The new culture reflects a readiness not merely to feel sorry for oneself but to wield one’s resentments as weapons of social advantage and to regard deficiencies as entitlements to society’s deference. Even the privileged have found that being oppressed has its advantages. On the campuses of elite universities, students quickly learn the grammar and protocols of power—that the route to moral superiority and premier griping rights can be gained most efficiently through being a victim—which perhaps explains academia’s search for what one critic calls the “unified field theory of oppression.”

Americans, of course, have a long tradition of sympathy for the downtrodden; compassion for the less fortunate has always been a. mark of the nation’s underlying decency and morality. But our concern for the genuine victims of misfortune or injustice is sorely tested as the list of certifiable victims continues to grow; victim status is now claimed not only by members of minority groups but increasingly by the middle class, millionaire artists, students at Ivy League colleges, “adult children,” the obese, co-dependents, victims of “lookism” (bias against the unattractive), “ageism,” “toxic parents,” and the otherwise psychically scarred-all of whom are now engaged in an elaborate game of victim one-upmanship. Celebrities vie with one another in confessing graphic stories of abuse they suffered as children, while television talk shows feature a parade of victims ranging from overweight incest victims to handicapped sex addicts. “A Martian would be forgiven for thinking,” columnist Barbara Amid. wrote in McLean’s, “that the primary problem of North Americans is a population of females totally absorbed with their personal misery-addictions, abuse experiences and pain. . . . We are suffocating in our own pain.”

Describing the new “politics of dependency” of the poor in the 1990s, Lawrence Mead notes that its practitioners “claim a right to support based on the injuries of the past, not on anything that they contribute now. Wounds are an asset today, much as a paycheck was in progressive-era politics. One claims to be a victim, not a worker.” Everybody wants in on this. But the competition is stiff: If you add up all the groups-women, blacks, youths, Native Americans, the unemployed, the poor, etc.- that consider themselves to be oppressed minorities, Aaron Wildavsky calculates, their number adds up to 374 % of the population. The media continue to create new categories of victimization. A recent CBS report, for example, breathlessly revealed the existence of “the hidden homeless”-people living with their relatives. As a reporter for The Washington Post pointed out, “Once we called these situations ‘families’

Despite its complicity in spreading the epidemic of disability, the popular press seems to sense that something is amiss. In 1991 alone, New York magazine featured a cover story on “The New Culture of Victimization” with the headline: “Don’t Blame Me!” Time followed with its own cover story on “Crybabies: Eternal Victims”; Esquire probed what it called “A Confederacy of Complainers”; while Harper’s asked, “Victims All?” Indeed, the new culture seems to grow by feeding on itself.

Armed with ever-more ingenious diagnoses of the therapeutic culture, we have multiplied the number of diseases exponentially. In place of evil, therapeutic society has substituted “illness”; in place of consequence, it urges therapy and understand-ing; in place of responsibility, it argues for a personality driven by impulses. The illness excuse has become almost routine in cases of public misconduct. When Richard Berendzen, the president of American University,. was caught making obscene phone calls, he attributed his conduct to his having been an abused child and checked himself into a hospital for “treatment.” Robert Alton Harris, a convicted murderer later executed for killing two sixteen-year-old boys, argued in court that he was the victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. San Francisco Supervisor Dan White invented the “Twinkie” defense during his trial for the murder of that city’s mayor and a fellow supervisor. (White claimed that his addiction to and steady diet of junk food had clouded his brain and induced his violent outburst.)

By one estimate, 20 % of Americans now claim to suffer from some form of diagnosable psychiatric disorder. The economic cost to society of such disorders comes to an estimated $20 billion a year. If addictive disorders and alcoholism are thrown in, the tab soars to more than $185 billion a year. Dysfunction is, in every

respect, a growth industry. In the 1990s, young people are ten tunes as likely to be depressed as their parents and grandparents were at their age. Depending on the criteria used, as many as half of all Americans can be described as either obese or suffering from an “eating disorder.” Experts peg the number of alcoholics at 20 million or more. If family members are added-as “co-dependents”- the number affected rises to 80 million.’- The National Association on Sexual Addiction Problems estimates that between 10 and 15 % of all Americans-or about 25 million people-are “addicted” to sex. The National Council on Compulsive Gamblers claims that 20 million Americans are addicted to games of chance, while as many as 50 million Americans are considered “depressed and anxious.” Premenstrual syndrome (PMS), once considered the disease of the Eighties, can theoretically be attributed to almost all women of a certain age.” Estimates for addicted shoppers and addicted debtors are less easily obtained, although both groups are busily forming support networks.

The movement to medicalize everything has meant literally everything. According to researchers Stan Katz and Aimee Litt, a national clearinghouse for self—help groups has even had inquiries about the possibility of a group for people who “drink a little too much but not too much Coca-Cola.”

In assigning responsibility for this explosion of victimization, there is a strong temptation to round up the usual suspects-simple demographics, for example. Baby boomers-who were assured they could have everything they wanted and came to believe they should have everything they wanted-now face a far less reassuring reality. Economically, the era of sustained growth that fueled postwar optimism is no longer guaranteed. Then, of course, there are the lawyers. In 1991, the United States had 281 lawyers per 100,000 population- compared with 82 per 100,000 in England and a meager 11 per 100,000 in Japan. In sheer volume, the United States had 70 % of the world’s total supply of lawyers. The evidence suggests that they were being kept busy. In 1960, fewer than 100,000 lawsuits were filed in federal courts; in 1990, 250,00() suits were filed there. But although the most seductive words in the English language may be Shakespeare’s injunction to “kill all the lawyers,” blame for the national glut of litigation cannot be laid solely at the feet of the barristers, the boomers, or even the economy. The impulse to flee from personal responsibility and blame others seems far more deeply embedded within the American culture.

Whatever the future of the American mind-and the omens are not propitious—the destiny of the American character is perhaps even more alarming. In the evolution of the modern American, Economic Man has been succeeded by Anxious Man; Other-Directed Man by Narcissistic Man; but all have seemingly evolved into An- noyed Man, or rather, Annoyed Person.

The National Anthem has become “The Whine.”

Increasingly, Americans act as if they had received a lifelong indemnification from misfortune and a contractual release from personal responsibility. The British Economist noted with bemusement that in the United States, “If you lose your job you can sue for the mental distress of being fired. If your bank goes broke, the government has insured your deposits. . . If you drive drunk and crash you can sue somebody for failing to warn you to stop drinking. There is always somebody else to blame.””[Emphasis added.1

Unfortunately, that is a formula for social gridlock: the irresistible search for someone or something to blame colliding with the unmovable unwillingness to accept responsibility. Now enshrined in law and jurisprudence, victimism is reshaping the fabric of society, including employment policies, criminal justice, education, urban politics, and, in an increasingly Orwellian emphasis on “sensitivity” in language. A community of interdependent citizens has been dis- placed by a society of resentful, competing, and self-interested individuals who have dressed their private annoyances in the garb of victimism.




The claim that we are all victims accounts not only for what one critic calls an outbreak of “emotional influenza” in the United States but also for the increasingly shrill and carping tone of social debate-and for the distrust and unease in our day-to-day relations. At times it seems that we can no longer talk to one another. Or rather, we can talk-and shout, demand, and vilify-but we cannot reason. We lack agreed-upon standards to which we can refer our disputes. In the absence of shared notions ofjustice or equity, many of the issues we confront appear increasingly to be unresolvable.

For many Americans, the politics of victimization has taken the place of more traditional expressions of morality and equity. “The simple act of naming and identifying victims becomes a substitute for conscience and public discourse,” writes Joseph Amato. “Identifying oneself with the ‘real suffering’ of a chosen class, people, group, race, sex, or historical victim is the conununion call of the twentieth-century secular individual. It is his sincerity, his holiness, his martyrdom.

Political discourse and academic research alike have become dominated by what University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman calls the politics of “conspicuous benevolence,” which is designed to “display, ostentatiously even, egalitarian intentions.” Among his academic colleagues, Coleman gibes, postures of conspicuous benevolence have replaced “the patterns of conspicuous consumption that Thorstein Veblen attributed to the rich They display, conspicuously, the benevolent intentions of their supporters.” This attitude may account not only for the paucity of serious public debate but also for growing divisiveness along lines of race, class, and gender, and for the tribalization of American society as groups define themselves not by their individual worth or shared culture but solely by their status as victims. Americans have long prided themselves on their pluralism and their tolerance of the incredible diversity of viewpoints and ideologies represented by this country’s various cultural groups. But insistence on the irreducible quality of

 one’s victimhood threatens to turn pluralism into a series of prisons. Only genuine victims can claim “sensitivity” and “authenticity,” and only victims can challenge other victims.

Increasingly, debates take place between antagonists who deny their opponents’ ability to understand their plight. Inevitably, that turns such clashes into increasingly bitter ad hominem attacks in which victim status and the insistent demands for sensitivity are played as trump cards. In a culture of sound bites and slogans substi- tuted for rational argument, the claim that one is a victim has become one of the few universally recognized currencies of intellectual exchange. Victimspeak is the trigger that permits the unleashing of an emotional and self-righteous response to any perceived slight. Charges of racism and sexism continue to be the nuclear weapons of debate, used to shout down nuanced approaches to complex issues. Victiinspeak insists upon moral superiority and moral absolutism and thus tends to put an abrupt end to conversation; the threat of its deployment is usually enough to keep others from even considering raising a controversial subject. Ironically, this style of linguistic bullying often parades under the banner of “sensitivity.” Of course, sensitivity to the needs and concerns of others is the mark of a civil and civilized society. But the victimist demand for iensitivity is more problematic. To be sensitive (in victimspeak) is not to argue or to reason but to feel, to attune one’s response to another’s sense of aggrievement. This politicized sensitivity (as distinct) from decency, civility, and honesty) demands the constant adjustment of one’s responses to the shifting and unpredictable demands of the victim. The greater the wounds, the louder the cries of injustice, the greater the demand for sensitivity-no matter how unreasonable. Asking the wrong questions can be perceived as insensitivity, but so can failing to ask the right ones. One can be insensitive without intending to be; only the victim can judge. Inevitably, this changes both the terms and the climate of debate. It is no longer necessary to engage in lengthy and detailed debate over such issues as affirmative action; it is far easier and more effective to simply brand a critic as insensitive.

This tactic tends to work as long as there is a consensus about who is the real victim and who the real oppressor. The hierarchy becomes less clear as victim groups begin to vie with one another for the right to define the nature of sensitivity. The dominance of victimspeak in American society was dramatically highlighted during the battle over the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, when both sides-accuser and accused alike-portrayed themselves as victims: one of sexual harassment, the other of racism and a “high-tech lynching.”

Increasingly, victim-vs.-victim politics seems to frame our social and political debates. There was a certain poignant inevitability about the headline in The Wall Street Journal that declared, “Tales From an Oppressed Class”-the oppressed class in question being white males. But the politics of racial resentment is not really all that different from the politics of racial grievance. White racist David Duke is not the opposite of black racist Louis Farrakhan; he is the mirror image. The same can be said of the relationship between the embryonic “men’s rights” movement and the feminist movement- the men’s movement is far closer to being a clone than a challenge.

Tragically, a victim’s rage that is redirected from the oppressor toward rival victim groups ultimately turns against the victim himself. For self-hatred is the final destination of any attempt to yoke one’s sense of identity and power to one’s weaknesses, deficiencies, and perceived victimization. Victimism debilitates its practitioners by trapping them iii a world of oppressive demons that they cannot, by definition, control. It is found at the interstices of self-assertion and self-loathing, of moral absolutism and self-doubt. But victimism’s larger sin is its reduction of human experience and the complexity of social relationships to a single monotonic world-view. Blaming one’s ills on oppression, on society, on psychological maladjustment, on racism, or on sexism is tempting because those complaints provide clarity and certitude-and perhaps even identity as part of a faux community of victims. Such self-diagnoses are perhaps inevitable for a society that has grown unwilling to judge itself in terms of moral order or personal responsibility. But they are also fatally misleading, especially for those members of society who can least afford to indulge in fashionable myths.

                        COMPASSION FATIGUE

There are, of course, real victims. Neither racism nor sexism are myths; too many men and women continue to experience the injustice of prejudice. The handicapped still face the daunting barriers of everyday life. But here is the rub. The attempt to appropriate the moral qualities of genuine victims for the aggrandizement of less deserving groups and individuals poses no moral or political dilemma for those who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the real victims. The challenge of the politics of victimization is to those who do care about genuine victims and who recognize that victimism reaps its advantage at the direct expense of those most deserving of compassion and support. If everyone is a victim, then no one is.

But this purposeful muddling is often a painful thing to acknowledge, especially when the reality of genuine victimization has so powerfully haunted our own times. What child of the 1960s was unaffected by the scenes of beefy white Southern sheriffs beating and bludgeoning peaceful civil rights marchers who had the temerity to ask that they be treated with dignity? For many of us, it has been easy to judge people simply by whether they have compassion for the underdog. Morality blends imperceptibly into empathy for the downtrodden. So when philosopher John

 Rawls suggested that no one should ever endorse a social order that he could not accept if he were in the shoes of its most disadvantaged member, he seemed merely to be restating a truism.

If only it were so easy. Chancy, Goodman, and Shwerner, the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi, were obvious martyrs to racism. But what about Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, who claimed he was a victim of racism after he was caught smoking crack cocaine? Or the student who insists that only racism would cause someone to prefer the novels of Saul Bellow to those of Toni Morrison? And should concern for the unfortunate really extend to indignant bicycle riders? Or men with sixty-inch waists and large butts who can’t fit into seats at fast-food restaurants? It often seems that there is a victimist version of Grcsharn’s Law: Bogus victims drive out genuine victims.

The need to start making careful distinctions between the legitimate objects of compassion and the products of the victimist culture is urgent. Beginning with Rousseau, progressive thinkers have imagined that it is possible to bind a society together not by self-interest but by compassion born out of equality. Victimism, however, has exacted a heavy tax on our compassion and on the sense of guilt that

is so integral a part of the politics of victimization. Americans remain an extraordinarily compassionate people, but it is difficult to escape the sense that we are suffering from compassion fatigue. The excesses of victim politics have generated new skepticism, not only about the more bizarre claims of putative victims but about the very idea that individuals bear moral obligations to the less

 fortunate. The gridlock of national politics, the refusal of interest groups to surrender their demands to the larger public good, the growing provincialism and parochialism of national politics-all indicate a ‘‘What’s in it for me?’’ mentality with troubling consequences for the future.

But if the middle class is truly feeling less guilty, won’t victim politics, deprived of that rich source of nutrients, simply wither away in time? No: Victimism’s influence is too pervasive. Draining the lake of universal compassion would reveal only the accumulated wreckage of the flight from responsibility and the culture of infinite entitlement. As compassion itself has diminished, society has degenerated into a community of insistent sufferers. What was once conferred compassionately is now demanded by self-proclaimed victims in tones that seem increasingly shrill and meanspirited.

How did this happen? This degeneration is especially puzzling if we regard victimism as a movement based on liberalism and compassion, deriving its roots from the Christian vision of the sanctified and suffering victim. But such a reading of the politics of victimization fundamentally misunderstands its nature. Although victimism can trace its lineage to liberalism, it is not itself liberalism. Nor is it updated Christianity. It militates against ideas of equity, fairness, and process; its natural tone is one of assertion of prerogatives, a demand for reparations.

                      THE NO-FAULT, NO-PAIN SOCIETY

The rise of the Annoyed Person is inseparable from our society’s attitude toward adversity and pain--but also toward happiness itself. In the tragic vision of life, pain was a central reality, part of the shared and inevitable suffering of the human condition. It marked the bounds of human possibility but also served as a goad to human progress. “Fear, pain, and grief,” notes Robert Grudin, “helped to provoke the medical advances that have exponentially increased the human presence on earth. . . . If pain is physiologically a defensive warning signal, it is historically a spur to the expansion, through technology, of human power.” But Grudin sees the driving impetus of the modern world as an attack on pain itself.


 As though in emulation of technology, other modern institutions have waged their own offensives against pain. Religious observances, once so full of suffering and awe, have become accommodating and benign. Teachers go out of their way to avoid embarrassing, insulting, overworking, or otherwise vexing their students. Each year public language is further purged of impurities that might injure sensitive groups. Prime-time television series seem dedicated to the comforting message that things are really okay.

But the world is not endlessly plastic; pain cannot always be anesthetized; the promise of happiness is often illusory. For a society that has substituted techniques for values, however, the response to personal setbacks is either to redouble the search for nostrums or to let out the plaintive cry “It’s not fair!” That attitude may be preferable to despair, but perhaps it is merely a byway that has the same destina- tion. In place of a recognition that human life is marked by disappointment and limitation, we have enshrined the infinite expectation-for psychological gratification, self-actualization, self-realization, and happiness- -not as a goal to be won but as an entitlement.

Although it is unfashionable to speak without derision of the values of bourgeois society, the bygone middle-class ethos had held such acquisitive tendencies in check by emphasizing archaic notions like self-restraint, probity, and character. Modernity can, in large measure, be described as the cultural assault on that ethos.

In his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow speculates: “You wondered whether . . the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attack it at its weakest moments-attacked it in the name of reason and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect and instant freedom. For what it amounted to was limitless demand---insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away front this world unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Non-negotiable. Recognizing no scarcity in any human department. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn’t it?’’ [ Emphasis added. ]

“It’s as if some idiot raised the ante on what it takes to be a normal human being,” remarks l)r. Martin Seligman.’ By raising our standards of felicity, we have radically changed the terms of the pursuit of happiness. “Expectations have always

run high in America, but in the last 30 years or so they have absolutely skyrocketed,” writes Dr. Bernie Zilbergeld in The Shrinking of America.

We want and expect far more than ever before. Parents expect more of their children and of themselves as parents and spouses; children expect more from their parents When our desires are not fulfilled, as is frequently the case, we are ready to complain, get assistance, try something else, or file a lawsuit to right the wrongs we think are done to us. Almost everyone seems to feel entitled to all sorts of successes, adventures, amid joys right now, without having to make any great sacrifices to get them.

Ironically, our special genius as a people has been to refine the language and definition of human failure and inadequacy, becoming connoisseurs of deficiency and specialists in enumerating our entitlements and rights. But human success is more problematic. Although we devote so much effort to its pursuit, happiness seen-is increasingly elusive, not because we cannot imagine it, but because we have so many images of it-so many niodels jostling and crowding one another, vying for our attention and in the seductiveness of their promises. Each tends to devalue the others as illusions or impostures. Global skepticism, once supposed to liberate us from dogma and dry convention, has now left us entangled in a permanent web of


                                    AN IDEOLOGY OF THE EGO

Despite its pretensions, victimistn is not idealism. Ultimately, vietimism is concerned not with others, bitt with the self The feminist self, the ethnic self, the addicted self, are not without importance and are deserving of attention, but they also need to be seen ultimately as projections from the Imperial-self-cleansing, self-serving, self-demanding poses, cloaking themselves in the garb of idealism and the armor of vtctimtsni.

Stripped of its idealistic pretensions, victintism is an ideology of the ego. But perhaps ideology is too strong a term; victimism can be seen as a generalized cultural impulse to deny personal responsibility and to obsess on the grievances of the itisatiable self. It might even be called a habit of mind, but one with substantial institutional support; a reflex so ingrained that its premises are no longer apparent, nor its radical view of human nature even subject to debate. One needs only spend time debating ‘‘multiculturalism’’ on university campuses to realize the truth of Jonathan Swift’s remark that it is impossible to reason someone out of something he did not reason himself into in the first place.

Perhaps the honest and certainly the most eloquent discussion of the dilemma of victinmism is Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character, in which he describes the central tragedy of relations between blacks and whites. While one’s victim status confers a sense of moral innocence and entitlement, Steele writes, “it is a formula that binds the victim to his victimization by linking his power to his status as a victim.” As potent as victim politics has proved to be, “It is primarily a victim’s power, grounded too deeply in the entitlement derived from past injustice

Steele’s description need not be limited merely to those who cling to their race as the symbol of their victim status. The impotence Steele describes is a familiar feature not merely of the politics of race but of modern man in general. The complexity, impersonality, and uncertainty of modern life have made helplessness into an attractive escape hatch for members of all races. And though the surrender of responsibility was neither discovered nor first championed by black Americans, it is easy to lose sight of this, since the debate over victim politics often focuses on the status of blacks and because the consequences of race discrimination are so palpable and undeniable. The infrastructure of the culture of dependency, however, was inspired by the values and impulses of the larger culture.

Indeed, many black communities hold more firmly to the norms and values of middle-class life than their white counterparts. Black Americans are now beginning to understand the price they have paid for adopting the values of a cultural and intellectual elite-an elite that has not always shared with them the tragic consequences of their ideas. Far less clear, however, is the future of America’s general romance with inadequacy. The impotence that results from clinging to one’s status as a victim has its own obvious attraction: a surcease from the strains, choices, and tensions of a life that often seems to lack direction or meaning. The rejection of the cold demands of personal accountability can mean a return to the warmth and security of childhood. Who, after all, abandons that safety and surety without regret?

But a society that insists on stressing self-expression over self-control generally gets exactly what it deserves. The sulking teenager who insists, “It’s not fair!” is not referring to a standard of equity and justice that any ethicist would recognize. He is, instead, giving voice to the vaguely conceived but firmly held conviction that the

world in general and his family in particular serve no legitimate function except to supply his immediate needs and desires. In a culture that celebrates self-absorption and instant gratification, however, this selfishness quickly becomes a dominant and persistent theme. No wonder, then, that the rage of the eternal victim-both black and white, male and female, “abled” and “disabled”-is so often expressed in the plaintive cry of disappointed adolescence. When I refer to America’s “youth culture,” I do not mean merely one that worships the young. I mean a culture that refuses to grow up.

Although it is tempting to begin any discussion of victim politics with the struggle of minority groups and the poor, we would do better to first examine the peculiar paradoxes at the heart of thing American character: its innocence amid its nagging anxieties; its naïveté and its pragmatism; its conservatism and its embrace of restless novelty-tensions that were once held in delicate balance by a system of values and norms that fell under the rubric of character. How, it short, did we ever get here from there?


A NATION OF VICTIMS: The Decay of the American Character

Copyright @ 1992 by: Charles J. Sykes

St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010 1-800-221-7954

Excerpt above: : Section 1, A Society of Victims

                           Chapter 1. A Society of Victims, (pgs. 12-24.

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