“Nothing makes us less capable of empathy than the consciousness of victimhood”

A protestor outside the Israeli embassy in Washington last July

A protestor outside the Israeli embassy in Washington last July

The bold statement in today’s headline comes from Gary Saul Morson’s essay Why Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature. You should read the whole thing, but I was particularly struck by his interpretation of Chekhov’s “Enemies.” Quoted at length:

“Enemies” describes a doctor named Kirillov, whose son has just died, comforting his grieving wife as his face displays “that subtle, almost elusive beauty of human sorrow.” We empathize with him, not only for his grief over his son, but also because of his empathy for his wife. It’s a chain of empathy, and we are its last link.

Then the wealthy Abogin arrives to beg the doctor to visit his dying wife, and the doctor, with extreme reluctance, at last recognizes he has no choice. When they finally arrive, it turns out Abogin’s wife has only feigned illness to get rid of her husband long enough to escape with her lover. As Abogin cries and opens his heart to the doctor “with perfect sincerity,” Kirillov notices the luxurious surroundings, the violoncello case that bespeaks higher cultural status, and reacts wrathfully. He shouts that he is the victim who deserves sympathy because the sacred moment of his own mourning has been ruined for nothing.

Nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood. Self-conscious victimhood leads to cruelty that calls itself righteousness and thereby generates more victims. Students who encounter this idea experience a thrill of recognition. Kirillov experiences “that profound and somewhat cynical, ugly contempt only to be found in the eyes of sorrow and indigence” when confronted with “well-nourished comfort,” and he surrenders to righteous rage.

Our ability to appreciate other people’s suffering is inversely proportional to our understanding of our own—not how much we have suffered, but how conscious we are of it. Self-pity might be the opposite of empathy.

Let’s go right at this one and consider the boogeyman called “political correctness.” It isn’t real. Obviously there are behaviors called political correctness that put piety ahead of sense, but there is no pervasive atmosphere of censure against white men, famous comedians, or other dominant groups—no “tyranny of the most offended person in the room.” The myth of an out-of-control PC culture is a way to assert your own victimhood in the face of someone else’s. I said a used car dealer tried to Jew me, and you said your grandfather fled Poland in the 1930s? Well, I can’t talk how I want without the PC police jumping down my throat. Things are tough all over.

“Things are tough all over” means “I don’t care what happened to you, because something bad happened to me.” This reasoning is so widespread that we cannot responsibly condemn it. It’s human nature; you might as well condemn people for demanding water every day. But if we accept that a sense of our own victimhood limits our capacity to empathize with others, how can we pursue the central projects of social justice? In other words, how can we encourage people to understand and do something about the suffering of others without creating a culture of victimhood?

“Culture of victimhood” is a charged phrase, and I hesitated to type it. It’s right up there with “political correctness” on the list of terms people use to cast criticism of themselves as broad, pernicious social trends. Let us agree that we don’t live in a culture of victimhood, and that if we did, it would be bad. But I think we can also agree that it’s possible to develop micro-cultures of victimhood, in which what other people have done to you justifies your own bad behavior.

The sign pictured above is one example. It’s irresponsible to equate Israel with Nazi Germany; probably, that kind of inversion of victim and aggressor is unethical. But presumably it is justified, in the mind of that protestor, by the awful things Israel has done to the Palestinians. The problem with this kind of justification is that it works against what either side really wants.

Although the protestor feels justified in saying “Gaza = Warsaw ghetto,” his claim is likely to alienate anyone who does not already agree with him. Such rhetoric does not achieve the goal of protest, i.e. to attract support to your cause. Nor does it contribute to the overall goal of debating Israel/Palestinian relations, i.e. to agree on equitable changes that reduce the amount of resources they devote to murdering each other.

Ironically, the similarities between the Israeli policy in Gaza and the ghettoization of Jews under the Nazis should be a source of empathy between the two sides. They might be conscious of each other’s victimization and find common ground accordingly. Instead, their intense consciousness of their own victimhood numbs them to the suffering of others. That’s how we get the historical irony of responding to the Holocaust by creating a state that preserves itself by persecuting other ethnic/religious groups.

It may also be the fatal flaw in our contemporary approach to intersectionality. By emphasizing the historical oppression of various groups—African-Americans, women, latinos, homosexuals, the disabled—we inadvertently discourage empathy between them. We also encourage straight white men to construct tortuous arguments for their own victimhood in order to protect themselves from the feeling that everybody gets empathy except for them.

A theoretical framework that was supposed to make us more compassionate and sensitive to other people’s experiences—more empathetic—winds up working against the one value we all agree on. We want to acknowledge other people’s suffering, their victimhood. But our intense consciousness of our own victimhood, real or imagined, numbs us to that. The problem with rhetoric of victimization is that it dulls the empathy that urges us to stop victimizing others. We wind up talking and thinking about social justice without doing social justice.

I’m not sure what to do about this problem, rooted in human nature as it appears to be. Probably, we should stop thinking about suffering in terms of groups and starting thinking about it at the individual level, where empathy is stronger and historical narratives feel less relevant. “Steve is having a hard time getting a job because he’s black” is a more pressing problem to you, Steve’s friend, than “black people face job discrimination.” But Chekhov’s original example is between individuals, not groups.

We might consider that one of the best ways to stop feeling like a victim in our own lives is to help someone else. By definition, helping those less fortunate than you makes you feel fortunate. Maybe the inverse of Morson’s principle is true, too: the more empathy you feel, the less conscious of yourself as a victim you become.

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