I often start my day by looking for new articles in Quillette which is an online journal supporting free-thought. Quillette has given a voice to many people who have been ‘cancelled’ or whose voice has been suppressed by censorious individuals, mostly on the progressive left. For this reason, it has been labeled as alt-right but I don’t think this is correct. Although it does give a voice to those challenging progressive ideologies that is because their voice is most likely to be suppressed. There is nothing inherently right-leaning about Quillette.
An article that recently caught my eye was The Evolutionary Advantages of Playing Victim by Cory Clark. You can access the article by clicking here or clicking the screenshot on the left. The story was influenced by a recent academic publication from the American Psychological Association Signalling virtuous victimhood as indicators of Dark Triad personalities. The paper is hidden behind a paywall but if you look around you might be able to find a pdf that you can download. Other commentators have covered this important study including this account in Psychology Today, this account in PsyPost and this account in Reason.
Cory Clark points out that although victimhood is usually couched in negative terms, we tend to empathise with victims so they receive attention, sympathy, social status and even social support. Victimhood can also justify the seeking of retribution, provide psychological standing to speak on certain issues and can be used to confer moral immunity or at least minimise blame for the victims’ own wrongdoings. For those reasons it would not be surprising if those of a manipulative or scheming nature would signal victimhood for their own gain. Although we nearly all experience receive some disadvantage or mistreatment at some point in our lives there appears to be a difference in the degree to which some people foreground these experiences. Indeed, people may be incentivised to signal their victimhood to others or even make it up. There is even evidence that a sense of victimhood is a stable personality trait. This means that a state of victimhood is not only a reflection of objective past experiences but a manifestation of personality.
The research published by the American Psychological Association showed that people who more frequently signal their victimhood also scored more highly in the ‘dark triad’ personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Machiavellianism can be thought of as willingness to manipulate others for personal gain. The study was a large one with over 3,000 participants, so the findings should hopefully prove to be robust and replicable. In one of their experiments participants who signalled high levels of victimhood were more willing to lie and cheat on a coin-flipping task to obtain a bonus payment. In another experiment, virtuous victim signallers were more likely to interpret ambiguous behaviour as discriminatory.
There is perhaps a little bit of this in all of us. Another study showed that about 65% of people believe that the system is stacked against people like them and 55% of people think that they do not get what they deserve in life- you can find the reference here. It is also important to remember that there are true victims out there who are burdened with awful life experiences the most of us can barely imagine. However, my experience of such people is that they do not signal their victimhood and, in general, behave with restraint and dignity. You only had to look at the survivors (for once this word is warranted) of the two world wars.
What is the link with toxic feminism then? Well, you don’t have to look very far for examples.
A subject I often come back to is the Cathy Newman/ Jordan Peterson interview that you can find here. It was a catastrophically poor performance from Cathy. Her visceral dislike of Jordan Peterson was clear to see and was so strong that she appeared unable to think clearly or logically. She was criticised for reflecting back at Jordan Peterson crude caricatures of his actual arguments and the “so what your saying is” meme went viral. And that interview did more to create the ‘monster’ that Jordan Peterson was to become than anything else.
Cathy Newman responded to the criticism by playing the victim. Claiming abusive and threatening tweets and according to C4 News, security had to be called in. Unfortunately, this was impossible to verify and some commentators identified more abusive tweets aimed a Jordan Peterson. Subsequently, Cathy decided to go public about some unpleasant experiences, that she described as sexual harassment, while she was a pupil at Charterhouse (one of the top private schools). Why she chose that moment to disclose the story I do not know but it was effective means of distracting attention from her incompetently conducted interview. To me, Cathy’s actions fit into the category of using victimhood in a manipulative way to confer moral immunity and minimise blame. The media should have known better than take her account at face value. Cathy had already been caught out making things up when she reported being turned away from a Mosque for being female. Unfortunately for Cathy, video footage emerged showing that she had turned up at the wrong mosque where she was politely given directions to the correct venue. There was no sexism and contrary to her initial claims Cathy was not a victim of anything.
Another master of playing the victimhood game in a manipulative fashion is Jess Philips, Labour MP for the Birmingham Yardley constituency. In October 2015 she was widely criticised for openly laughing and pulling faces when MP Philip Davies tried to schedule a debate looking at men’s issues including male suicides (at three times the rate of female) and educational underachievement of working-class boys. It was a frankly embarrassing performance that you can view here. Jess Philips is adept at deflecting attention from her extreme views by claiming online rape threats. While she may have received some threats she is somewhat disingenuous about the true number, sometimes conflating notifications in Twitter with actual rape threats. For a good account of Jess Philip’s manipulative use of twitter threats, I recommend the YouTube video from Glass Blindspot – Jess Phillips & The Truth About All Those Rape Threats.
There is also the misuse of the term ‘survivor’. Historically this word was used for people who had escaped possible death. For example, those who escaped drowning when the Titanic sank could legitimately call themselves survivors. Now, however, people who have even been indirectly exposed to (unverified) unpleasant sexual experiences can call themselves survivors. The assumption seems to be the greater the degree of supposed victimhood the greater should be the uncritical acceptance of the claims being made. Arun Sing’s blogpost Believing Survivors covers this issue well.
A final case of the manipulative use of victimhood has been belatedly reported in the New York Times. Oumou Kanoute, a black student, claimed that she was harassed when she was asked to leave a dining area at Smith College and proclaimed that she was doing nothing more than ‘eating lunch while black’. She even escalated her victimhood by claiming the incident threatened her ‘existence overall as a woman of colour’. Predictably the media outlets including the Guardian ran with this story without questioning her status as a victim. Accused workers were put on leave and were asked to attend remediation sessions with Kanoute and some of those who she accused were harassed and threatened.
Kanoute’s claims didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The janitor she accused wasn’t even on campus that day and the cafeteria she was eating in was reserved for children who were attending a summer camp. As one retired worker at Smith college observed ‘Four people’s lives were wrecked, two were employees of more than 35 years and no apology… How do you rationalise that?’ That is the kind of unchecked power ‘victims’ enjoy.
Our tendency to empathise with and support victims may well have been adaptive when we lived in small groups and you would know whether such claims on our empathy were merited. The problem with our ‘online’ and interconnected world is that we do not know how real these claims are and we need to become more sceptical. When somebody claims to be a ‘survivor’ ask for evidence and when they choose a certain moment to release claims about abuse in the distant past we should ask why this particular moment? It may be that we are dealing with a manipulative narcissist more than somebody deserving of our compassion.