lawyers · Politics · society

Victimhood is a Source of Status – In Colleges and Courtrooms

There is power in victimhood.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out.  The dynamics of a civil courtroom, where there is an injured Plaintiff seeking redress from injuries from one who caused an injury by appeal to a third party, are being seen on college campuses. In civil courtrooms, people are claiming emotional distress from being injured in, say, a motor vehicle accident.

I can't take it, anymore.
I can’t take it, anymore.

Many – if not most – of these claims of emotional distress are legitimate.  A person gets a leg broken in a car accident can expect some pain and suffering.  Yes, one can definitely see the stress brought on by a physical injury.  We can absolutely see and understand how people who face harassment at work can also be stressed.  Entering a situation with vitriol and contempt directed a person who is trying to do her job can and usually does lead to stress.

The civil justice system set up leads not to rewards for the victim but only to make that person whole.  The justice system seeks to give a Plaintiff money that was lost from the injury, as well as compensation for emotional distress.  The person who receives a large award will receive some status. Indeed, vindication for the wrong is a powerful reward.

It goes without saying that this system is ripe for abuse. If a person is mildly injured, that person may exaggerate the damages suffered.  This Plaintiff (usually with the expert assistance of a lawyer) will begin to build a case.  They will put together a series of complaints, start to diary about how awful they feel.  There will be visits to doctors, therapists, etc., all in the attempt to add monetary value to the case.  It can result in cases where people who are slightly injured portray debilitating pain and emotional distress.

Thus, being a victim isn’t always regarded as a bad thing.  It can be worth a person’s while to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Now we can look at other examples outside of a civil court, where people claim some form of outrage or injury by actions of others.  In many cases, it’s simply being pissed off.  We see examples of people being pissed off over seemingly little things all the time.  There is furor and outrage directed at Starbucks because the annual holiday red cups are bare of Christmas decorations.  Yes, people are outraged over nothing. Literally – nothing. There are benefits to this, since there is an incentive of support.

Starbucks coffee cups are a moral crusade. Some people want Christmas celebrated on the cups again, and will express outrage over the moral snub.  They paint themselves as coming from a moral high ground.

Then there is what is occurring at Yale University, where a number of students are outraged that a residential “master” sent an e-mail to students defending their rights to dress in whatever costumes they saw fit.  Said the e-mail, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

According to many students at Yale, the answer is “No.” A very loud and resounding “No.” Many of these students at Yale have openly stated that the e-mail encouraging free expression has caused students to skip class, have breakdowns, lose sleep, etc. They were so offended at the thought of someone being offensive that they are unable to perform the regular collegiate activities of daily living.

I note that these complaints are not being raised by those who are typically viewed as downtrodden.  It is not a stretch to consider that those who are students at Yale are among the “creme de la creme” in terms of their intelligence, academic performance and socioeconomic background.  Yale publishes a fact sheet, which gives some demographics of the student population.

Yale is not alone.  There has been much publicized of late with regard to “microaggressions.”  These have been said to be otherwise seemingly innocuous statements that are actually part of a pattern of aggression.  Simply asking a person from where he or she came should be regarded by the hearer as veiled contempt over being from elsewhere.  One can find lists of microaggressions that are to be confronted.

I find it interesting that these complaints are not predominant, in my experience, among the poor or those who would generally be regarded as downtrodden.  Rather, these complaints and sensitivities are thriving among the affluent, intelligent and educated at American universities.  In pointing to these issues, one after another, we are seeing groups of people whom most agree are in a position of privilege actually building cases for how badly they have things.

Does victimhood actually confer benefits?  The answer is that it does.  In certain social structures, victimhood provides a degree of empathy. At Yale, a person can be outraged or otherwise hurt over an e-mail.  This outrage, though inherently divisive, will provide some standing among the group which the person seeks to identify.  I consider it to be similar to being the guy in the veteran’s group with a Purple Heart.  There is something to be said about giving an award for being injured.

I cannot help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s exposition of a “culture of honor” in his book “Outliers.”  This honor culture still exists to a large extent, where in many communities perceived slights are met with violence or threats of it, which confers status.  The victimhood culture is more the exact opposite, where the person perceiving victimhood appeals to others to punish the wrongdoer.  In this way, the victim can actually get the support of society, and can make a person somewhat of a figurehead.

We see it in lawsuits.  Rather than addressing the issue with a neighbor whose tree is hanging over the wall, people go to a lawyer to ask about suing the neighbor.  In an honor culture, the aggrieved person might cut down the neighbor’s tree.  In a victim culture, the aggrieved goes first to another to accomplish the goal.  Either way, the aggrieved seeks some form of vindication and the status that goes with it.  Even if that status is the self-belief that the wrong has been avenged.

Neither system has a focus on dignity.  If a person hears an offensive word, there exists a choice between dueling with the wrongdoer (honor culture) and getting others to attack the wrongdoer (victim culture).  In a dignitary system, it is often useful to start by talking to the neighbor and saying, “Hey. Your tree is overhanging here and killing off my grass.  Mind if I trim this branch?”

A thick skin and a respect for the other person is essential to quick resolution of the problem.  It may be that the neighbor is refusing to trim the tree as an effort to kill your lawn.  It may also be that the neighbor is simply indifferent to the damage that the tree is causing.

Or, it may just be that the neighbor hasn’t really paid attention.  Offended about an e-mail?  How about expressing that offense in a reply? Start a dialogue. It’s the start of understanding.


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