May 21, 2019

Jussie Smollett and the Virtue of Victimhood

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The recent case of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett allegedly faking a hate crime against himself is only the latest sign of an alarming trend in modern-day America: The worship of victimhood. Smollett had a victim’s trifecta — black, Jewish and gay. But there was one problem: He wasn’t really a victim. He was a working actor.

Working actor, however, is one thing. To turn into a real celebrity — with millions of new followers on social media — he needed more.

He needed victim status.

Nothing boosts your power and influence today like being a victim, especially if you’re a victim of Trump-related “white patriarchy.” In that case, you can be sure the mainstream media, celebrities and groveling politicians will fall all over themselves to lionize you so they can “virtue signal” their own moral greatness. 

How did victimhood become so prevalent?

For one thing, it’s human nature. We like short cuts, and complaining is easy. Claiming a grievance is a lot simpler than building something.

It also feels good to be right, and victims are always right. When I honk at another driver who makes a stupid mistake on the road, I’m advertising that “I’m right.” That feels good.

But human nature aside, why does victimhood feel more widespread today?  

In a 2015 study, the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argued that victimhood cultures are nurtured in settings “that increasingly lack the intimacy and cultural homogeneity that once characterized towns and suburbs.”

This lack of intimacy is endemic to our digital culture. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram create only the illusion of intimacy, and an illusion is bound to let you down. When people realize that a digital screen can never substitute for real human touch, a feeling of inner emptiness can set in.

Victimhood helps fill that emptiness. It offers temporary relief from the angst of life, providing an inflated sense of purpose and moral superiority. You’re right and you’re good; those aggrieving you are wrong and they’re bad. The more you publicize that, the better you feel. 

“I wonder how real victims across the country — from battered women to homeless kids to people with disabilities — are reacting to the ongoing spectacle of faux and exaggerated victimhood that has gripped our country.”

As Campbell and Manning write, “People … advertise their oppression as evidence that they deserve respect and assistance. Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood … the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.”

This elevation of victimhood is having a corrosive effect on our culture. Among other things, it creates a distorted picture of America as a nation drowning in a sea of injustice. As a friend recently quipped, the perception now is that “the arc of history bends towards injustice.”

It is noteworthy that this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, “Green Book,” shows the very opposite: There may still be a long way to go, but over the past half century, America has made enormous progress in the area of social justice. You’d hardly know that in this era of relentless victimhood. 

Even more corrosive, though, is the effect on real victims.

As Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson said at a news conference, reacting to the round-the-clock attention the Smollett case received, “I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.” Indeed, I wonder how real victims across the country — from battered women to homeless kids to people with disabilities — are reacting to the ongoing spectacle of faux and exaggerated victimhood that has gripped our country.

The media are obviously a major culprit. Revenue-hungry media executives know all too well that it’s much easier to boost audiences with cries of “rising injustice” than with sober reporting that balances grievance with progress.  

“You’re right and you’re good; those aggrieving you are wrong and they’re bad. The more you publicize that, the better you feel.”

We’re living through a perfect storm of circumstances that has resulted in our values turning upside down. We put entitlements before obligations, grievance before achievement, victimhood before responsibility, smugness before gratitude.

Awash in this sea of grievance, we have lost sight of President John F. Kennedy’s epic appeal to our higher selves: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”  

Jussie Smollett wanted to see what his country could do for him, so he turned himself into a celebrity victim. For a while, the country bought it. And then it didn’t.

Smollett was a victim not just of misplaced ambition, but of the warped value system of our digital age that has turned victimhood into our most popular virtue.