weaponized victimhood: the messy psychology of virtue signaling and injustice

Some of those who claim to be victims fighting against injustice may have much darker motives than they’ll admit, even to themselves…
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Most of us learn pretty early on that the world is unjust and one of the best things we can do if we gain any sort of meaningful power is to at least try to make it more fair for others and future generations. Unfortunately, these attempts can often fail in practice, in no small part because power and money tend to erode empathy and the complexity of the corruption and financial crimes this breeds can overwhelm our ability to properly punish and prevent it. The end result? Many millions of people will inevitably be victimized in some way or another, oftentimes by very powerful and influential figures very unlikely to experience even minimal consequences. But in a grim twist, some of their victims may themselves turn into abusers as a result.

As a study at the University of British Columbia found, people who demonstratively like to paint themselves as victims tend to score notably higher on the “dark triad” of traits we use to define antisocial and antagonistic personalities. They also tend to extrapolate rumors of even negligible slights into serious offenses and conspiracies against them, and are more likely to cheat to gain an advantage. Why are they doing this? According to the authors, this is the result of getting the short end of the stick in a very unequal society which nevertheless espouses egalitarian ideals. Those who see themselves as victims have incentives to look for scapegoats and feel justified in cutting corners to get they they feel entitled to have.

In a way, this explains the current rise of right wing populism in the Western world. Victimized by amoral, incompetent politicians, left behind by a one-two punch of globalization and automation, then seeing the world around them change into something they find alarming, yet holding on to their version of egalitarianism, they’re lashing out at those benefitting from the new globalized, computerized era, seeing others’ gains as a direct result of their loss. It’s not true, but it fits into the worldview they already hold, which makes it automatically attractive, and enables them to justify doing whatever they want to feel like they’re either getting their way, or at the very least, hurting those who they’re convinced wronged them.

the dark side of victimhood

But the study doesn’t single out any particular political affiliation or ethic group. Instead, it more or less confirms some of the worst stereotypes about both woke culture and virtue signaling, as well as grievance politics and vice signaling, virtue signaling’s evil twin. People who score more highly on the dark triad of personality traits also tend to identify more as victims, exaggerate or outright invent perceived slights, and given the chance to lie or manipulate games to win cash, they preferred to take full advantage of the opportunity. This held true any way you sliced the subjects’ ethnicity, income, or gender, indicating that as painful as it may be to admit, victimhood status can indeed be ripe to abuse for one’s gain.

However, in one of the experiments conducted by researchers, a simulated online fundraiser showed that the public is taking this into account and is perfectly willing to help those who avoid painting themselves as victims and shy away from virtue signaling, while expecting those who describe difficult childhoods and family lives to also promise they would perform acts of charity after being helped. Basically, we want to help people we think are good or are down on their luck, but we’ve also become very cognizant how this impulse can be used against us in a scam or to gain an unfair advantage by someone exaggerating the extent of both their hardships and charitable aims.

The researchers called the exploitative efforts by those who portray themselves as victims as they fib, cheat, and look for ways to be offended and offer empty virtue signals “nonreciprocal resource extraction,” arguing that our best intentions have been abused and Western societies are now quite susceptible to such emotional manipulation. Yet just because some would take advantage of our kindness, the researchers warn, doesn’t mean there aren’t genuine victims of systemic forces or personal injustice worthy of our help and attention, and that the point isn’t to declare that all who say they’re victims are antisocial cheats, liars, or scammers, just show how and why some use victimhood status for personal gain.

finding the roots of grievance politics

Of course the issue of victimhood in the modern world is quite complicated. As we noted at the very start, extremely unequal societies do tend to leave a lot of genuinely victimized people in their wake, and as wealthy pundits grouse about the “victimhood complex” of regular Joes and Janes, or the “grievance politics” of those they disagree with, they’re missing the fact that far too many injustices are being committed by the wealthy and powerful as a matter of course. And in a way, by pitting groups of those who see themselves as victims and are happy to attack others to correct what they see as injustices against them, plutocrats and lawmakers who enable them can escape facing the consequences of how their actions impact real people.

Their worst nightmare is being held accountable for their parasitic, extractive politics, and an angry, united populace electing politicians and law enforcement eager to close their regulatory loopholes, raise their tax liabilities, and willing to put them in cuffs and haul them off to jail for complex white collar crimes they currently settle with beneficially negotiated fines and bland statements that refuse to admit wrongdoing. The more groups they can get to participate in self-victimization and mutual abuse as these groups’ darker traits take over in their quest for justice, the better for them. While everyone else loses or makes minimal gains, they can slink away in relative peace.

No discussion about why more people in the West claim to be victims can really take place if we don’t acknowledge the duality of modern politics in which one could be both the abused and the abuser and entire movements spend much of their time painting their followers and new recruits as hapless victims before offering them a chance to retaliate. Likewise, it’s also impossible not to highlight the fact that many people are burnt out, stressed, and frustrated while asked to care about countless causes and scandals reported in a torrent of news they’ve grown to loathe. We all feel somewhat abandoned and violated right now, and it’s not unhealthy to feel this way. The dangerous and immoral part is succumbing to exploiting that feeling to get an edge on others.

See: Ok, E., et al, (2020) Signaling virtuous victimhood as Indicators of dark triad personalities, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000329

# science // inequality / psychology / social psychology


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