On August 2nd, 2013, 14-year-old Hannah Smith of Leicestershire, England, took her own life. She had been receiving cruel messages on the social networking site Ask.fm for months, and her parents concluded that cyberbullying was the main cause of her suicide. But then evidence emerged that the hatred Hannah had been receiving came from … herself—98 percent of the messages were posted from the IP address of the computer she was using.
This tragic event inspired a research project by Sameer Hinduja and colleagues at the Cyberbullying Research Center in Florida. Their analysis of around 5,500 teenagers produced some surprising results: “We knew we had to study this empirically,” Hinduja remarked, “and I was stunned to discover that about 1-in-20 middle- and high-school-age students have bullied themselves online. This finding was totally unexpected, even though I’ve been studying cyberbullying for almost 15 years.”
Boys reported digital self-harm more often (7.1 percent) than girls (5.3 percent). Asked why they participated in such behaviour, their replies included: “I already felt so bad with myself that I wanted to make myself feel even worse” and “I wanted to see if someone really was my friend.” However, there were also those who claimed that they did it to justify their aggressive behaviour towards others, or just for fun, to see how others would react.
If teenagers are prepared to harm themselves in cyberspace to attain the status of victim, it should not be especially surprising that some adults do so in the real world. In the most notorious example of this behaviour, actor Jussie Smollett told police he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack on January 20th, 2019. He immediately found himself at the centre of media attention and public opinion. But the subsequent investigation revealed that Smollett had paid two men to assault him and that he had sent himself the threatening letters he had received the week before.
This was not an isolated incident. In his book Hate Crime Hoax, political scientist Wilfred Reilly analysed 346 alleged hate crimes and found that fewer than a third were genuine. He provides detailed descriptions of almost a hundred high-profile cases that never actually happened, most of which were supposed to have taken place on university campuses. Reilly concludes that, contrary to popular belief, we are not experiencing an epidemic of hate crimes, but an epidemic of hate crime hoaxes perpetrated by people searching for public attention and sympathy.
Nor is it only hate crimes that are the subject of hoaxes and false accusations. A meta-analysis conducted by Australian scholars Claire E. Ferguson and John M. Malouff in 2015 revealed that as many as 5.2 percent of all reported rape cases are false. The authors note, however, that their analysis only accounts for accusations that were disproven in the course of investigations—many others were never confirmed or were withdrawn for reasons unknown.
The evolution and development of victimhood
The advantages of victimhood are by no means unique to 21st-century millennials and Generation Z-ers, bored with life and addicted to social media. Indeed, they are not unique to humans. The Austrian zoologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt has written about the discovery of an adult frigate bird with only one wing in a breeding colony, and a blind adult pelican at another breeding site. Both were mutilated long before they were found by researchers, which indicated that they’d survived by depending upon the help of other birds. Weaker, disabled animals are also sometimes used by others in a manipulative manner. Eibl-Eibesfeldt observed that male maggots would use borrowed offspring to mitigate the aggression of others. Most mammals also make effective use of the innate behavioural patterns of expressing humility and submission.
Victimhood is of evolutionary importance, because it improves the chances of survival in difficult circumstances. In many different cultures, people cry and submit themselves in a similar way, not only in their movements and gestures but also in the use of similar wailing sounds. Even children born deaf and blind cry, and the body language of submission is remarkably similar across cultures—an individual signifies submission by becoming smaller, kneeling, and bowing. These gestures are sometimes accompanied by helplessness, weakness, and childlike behaviour, the aim of which is to release the protective instinct that inhibits aggression.
Victimhood may confer ancient and effective advantages, but researchers are nonetheless alarmed by the scale of digital self-harm in adolescents, and the recent recourse to false accusations more generally. In the past, adopting the mantle of victimhood was usually a situational strategy—apart from professional beggars, people tended to avoid being permanently identified as a victim. But in modern culture, victimhood is increasingly becoming an attractive life choice.
In his prescient 1992 book, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, journalist Charles Sykes estimated that if all groups who claimed to be victimised or discriminated against were added together, they would constitute almost 400 percent of the US population. An in-depth analysis by the psychologist Tana Dineen, in a book tellingly entitled Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People, shows how the strategy of assuming the role of a victim is disseminated by junk science. And in their 2018 book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, American sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue that Western cultures of dignity are becoming cultures of victimhood.
Campbell and Manning argue that in a such a culture, victimhood ensures moral and social privileges, and victims are awarded special care and respect. On the other hand, those who were hitherto socially privileged become morally suspect as responsible for the harm done to victims. In the ancient culture of honour, every insult had to be expiated, even if it involved bloodshed or armed conflict, and preferably without recourse to the legal system or the state. The model of such behaviour was the duel. Over time, honour culture was replaced by a culture of dignity, which emphasised the equal and inalienable value of all persons, which cannot be devalued by insult. According to the principles of this culture, grievances should be dealt with by the legal system and social regulations.
However, today that culture of dignity has been replaced by a victim culture, which combines aspects of the cultures of honour and dignity. Those who are part of the victim culture insist upon respect, and are extremely sensitive to its violation. Insults are not trivial matters, and even if they are small and unintentional, they can cause serious conflict. As in a culture of dignity, people generally refrain from violent retribution in favour of intervention by some authority or third party.
The cultural patterns described determine social hierarchy and status. Brave, strong, and violent people, not their victims, were at the top of the culture of honour. Today, we are witnessing the reversal of that order—the position of victim now ensures privileged status in the social hierarchy and guarantees relative impunity. It is unsurprising that in such a culture people compete to belong to disadvantaged groups.
The victim race and the victim industry
Exploiting the role of victim to obtain support from others in an unjustified way is a manipulation, the widespread use of which has fateful consequences, and not only for those deceived. Those who lose the most are those who really do need support from others. When so many play the victim and compete for that status, the genuinely disadvantaged are lost in the crowd of pretenders, and the omnipresence of the aggrieved and their growing persistence leads to compassion fatigue.
Medical services report that “phoney” sick leave is being granted when mental disorders are offered as the reason for an inability to work. In some countries, it is now the fourth leading cause of incapacity for work. Such exemptions are difficult to diagnose with certainty and do not force patients to stay at home and lie in bed. They are also easy to obtain, because doctors fear the possible consequences of scepticism. But does this kind of sensitivity help those who are really suffering from serious mental illness? In the race for compassion, they may soon have to first convince those jaded by charlatans that they are not also frauds.
An even more serious consequence of victim culture is the appropriation of suffering by politicians and professional groups who aspire to the title of aggrieved and discriminated representatives. This is a clever development of the trick employed by maggots described earlier—politicians “borrow” whole groups of victims to win voters’ support, and then forget about the interests of those victims immediately after the election.
Victimhood presents an opportunity for others to obtain a status higher even than that of victims themselves—after all, can there be any behaviour more noble than the provision of help for the suffering? And so, cohorts emerge—psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, social engineers, politicians, and activists—with a perverse interest in manufacturing victims and inflaming grievance and resentment.
In 1992, a 79-year-old named Stella Liebeck accidentally scalded herself with a McDonald's coffee. Amazingly, her lawyers managed to convince the court that she was the victim of an irresponsible company, and she was awarded $2.9 million in damages. Inspired by Liebeck’s absurd suit, Colorado humourist Randy Cassingham established a prize named after her, awarded for the most insane, outrageous, or grotesque court verdicts.
It is hard not to admire the skill of these lawyers in turning careless, stupid people—even careless, stupid criminals—into victims. However, a simpler method is available, presented in an amusing way in the 1921 film The Kid. Charlie Chaplin plays a glazier who ensures demand for his services by getting the small boy under his care to throw stones at windows. In the same way, psychotherapy creates victims and then offers to treat them. This is tempting for the patient—victimhood allows us to shed the burden of responsibility for our own lives. However, when we decide to regain control of them, we will find the not entirely disinterested hands of the professionals there to help.
Today, we can choose one of a number of roles offered by modern psychotherapy—and there is something for everyone. If your parent abused alcohol, you can be a vicarious victim of alcoholism. If your parents were not heavy drinkers, you may be the adult child of a dysfunctional family. As many as 96 percent of the population are victims of a disease they call co-addiction. Psychotherapists will be happy to tell you that childhood trauma is responsible for your failures, and if you don't remember it, they will help you recover your repressed memories! If that doesn't work, you can still hold your childhood relationships with your parents responsible for your present life.
The victims of alleged sexual abuse have become multitudinous. The image of American society created on the basis of surveys and reports of therapists shows that every fourth woman has been raped at least once in her life, every second or third person has been sexually abused in childhood (most often by a family member), 50–60 percent of patients in psychiatric wards were physically or sexually abused in childhood, 50,000 out of a total of 255,000 therapists are convinced that their patients were sexually abused in their childhood, although most have denied it.
And if you don’t fit into any of these roles, you can always be a victim of workplace bullying, social isolation, or discrimination on the basis of race or gender. Alternatively, it may turn out that you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because someone close to you has died, or you have had to spend two weeks at home in quarantine. You can even compare your experiences to the suffering of Holocaust survivors—many patients do this, encouraged by therapists, as documented in Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery.
An effect of the mass manufacture of victims is the accompanying manufacture of abusers. Only some of the aggrieved parties can attribute their fate to chance. Wherever the discriminated against appear, there must also be discriminators; where the aggrieved appear, there are those who aggrieve; the oppressed have their oppressors, and every victim must have their victimiser. This process is bound to deepen divisions between people and result in societal strife when practised at scale.
There is not much research into the number of false accusations resulting from memory retrieval therapy, but what there is paints a rather disturbing picture. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was established in the US in 1992 to help people falsely accused of abuse, most often families whose children "remembered" during therapy that they were victimised by their parents. Similar organisations were quickly established in Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Most of the members of these organisations are the accused relatives of the alleged victims of sexual harassment and abuse. In the United States alone, from the establishment of the Foundation in 1992 up to 2001, more than 4,400 people came forward, for whom the false memories of their relatives became their nightmare reality. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that among them are real perpetrators of actual harm, but the number of withdrawn accusations and damages awarded for unjustified accusations is constantly growing.
The fact that so many victims today can count on interest and support is probably also due to economic factors. In the Western world, this enables access to goods unprecedented in history. We can simply better afford to take care of them. But in helping them, we must remember that in the race of victims there will be losers, including those wrongly accused of being victimizers, and those who will be denounced as false victims who need help most. The latter usually do not have the strength or the ability to jump in the queue for help.
Correction: an earlier version of this article referred to two fabricated verdicts in civil cases, "Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas" and "Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania," in its discussion of tort law. Quillette apologises for the error.