DANIEL VAUGHAN: Jussie Smollett underscores the toxicity of victim culture in America

February 18, 2019

The Jussie Smollett story brings up all the familiar foes in our culture of victimization. On the one hand, you have the news media, so starving and desperate for any victimhood story that drives their preferred narrative that truth and accuracy fly out the window.

On the other, we have a civilization that values victimization to such an extent that it is, in essence, real currency to improve one’s standing in society.

As it stands, the latest theory — which hasn’t been disputed by police — is that Jussie Smollett, an actor on the TV show Empire, paid two friends to manufacture a fake racist and homophobic attack against him so that it would appear that he was the victim of a hate crime.

If that ends up being true, it wouldn’t be a standalone event, but rather a growing problem in our new victimization culture. A study that came out in 2017 found that while cyberbullying was common among teenagers, one in 20 teens admitted to being a cyberbully themselves as a way to get attention or deal with an issue like depression.

As one academic put it: “This Jussie Smollett situation is demonstrating that we need to have a very serious conversation about how toxic it is that victimhood is now a powerful currency in this country. It’s extremely pernicious.”

Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning agree.

“People increasingly demand help from others, and advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood,” they write. “[T]he moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”

Campbell and Manning compared today’s idolization of victimization to the era of honor cultures, wherein people dueled over issues of pride and family honor. In today’s society, the only way to achieve higher standing is to appear more victimized and oppressed than the person standing next to you.

Instead of keeping with the Joneses on the newest piece of tech or the latest model of car, people are competing to see who can appear to be the most oppressed.

We live in a capitalist culture, and when you can prove something has value, people will do anything to get it. Victimhood is the new currency, and because we value it, it’s driving our culture insane.

Moreover, the prize for achieving higher levels of victimhood is directing the moral direction of society. Morality isn’t found in concrete absolute ideas of truth and justice; it’s found instead in the experience of a person who has been oppressed. Claire Lehman, editor in chief of the online news magazine Quillette, noted in a piece for Tablet:

In a culture that increasingly rewards victimhood with status, in the form of op-ed space, speaking events, awards, book deals, general deference, and critical approbation, identity has become a very valuable form of currency. It makes sense that people will lie, cheat, and steal in order to get some. Expressing offense over a white person wearing a sombrero hat might seem ridiculous on its face—but for those who live inside these sententiously moralistic bubbles, it may be both a felt injury and a rational strategic choice.

Indeed, we may think that Jussie Smollett setting up a fake situation wherein he is attacked by racist Trump supporters is crazy, but in a world consumed by identity politics, his decision makes rational economic sense. He made the same decision as a Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be black until 2015, when she was forced to step down from her post at a local chapter of the NAACP.

They needed the social currency.

But it’s not just people involved with these charades that have profited off of this victimization culture; the media laps up every story they can because their entire business model depends on it now. Identity politics stories are the new “too good to check” stories. In the Smollett case, only the local media went on a fact-finding mission in Chicago, and the national press spent its time lecturing everyone.

We saw the same thing in the stories about Covington Catholic High School students, the Duke lacrosse team, and the Rolling Stone UVA rape hoax, among others.

It’s clear the media is laser-focused on driving identity as a narrative — not in getting the facts.

That new tendency is why journalists like CNN’s Brian Stelter — ever quick to demand facts of anyone he dislikes — is now waxing philosophically in his newsletter about the problem of absolute beliefs, and how we can’t know everything. When truth and facts are inconvenient to the narrative, suddenly everyone becomes moral relativists saying we can’t know everything. But when the story hits the narrative how they want, suddenly it’s all about the facts and moral absolutism.

Ours is an age of moral cowards who are checked out of reality because they don’t want to face that the fake identities they’ve set up for themselves are worthless. They critique society, saying all culture is a social construct they don’t have to accept, but they demand we accept their personal social constructs.

Victimization culture is, at its core, a will to power, using oppression as a means to gain control over everyone else. And the more we move into this era, the more charlatans grow to take advantage.

What we need is a revolt against this insidious currency of victimization, because all it does is tear our society apart.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.