Claiming the Moral High Ground
Recently there was a fascinating episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain” titled “Crying Wolf.” The show’s host, Shankar Vedantum, opened the episode saying, “It used to be that we tried our best to conceal disadvantages, hardships, and humiliations. But new research explores a curious shift: some people are flaunting limitations that don’t exist.”
This leads to a series of stories of people pretending to be victims of one sort or another in order to gain acceptance, status, financial benefit or to claim to the moral high ground. Like Elizabeth Finch a writer on the show “Grey’s Anatomy,” who developed an elaborate story of being a cancer victim. She even had props. She wore a visible port for medical infusions, and often rushed off to the bathroom saying she had to vomit. She also wrote extensively about her suffering as a cancer patient and all the illness had stolen from her. None of it was true.
Another story featured three young women who didn’t want to wait in lines for rides for two hours in the hot sun at Disney World. So one of them, a budding actress, faked a mental disorder. The other two became her cousins trying to give the poor thing a special experience in the Magic Kingdom. They ended up with passes to all rides and jumped every line.
Still another, a young gay man, invented a backstory of being from a family of Jewish refugees who had escaped from fascism. His fictional grandfather fought in the Spanish Civil War. He discovered this story functioned as a kind of currency gaining him protection, status and access to exclusive social circles.
Vedantum also cites a study indicating that in 2021 25% of white college applicants falsely claimed on college applications to be members of a racial minority, most often Native American. They believed this would help them get into the college of their choice.
The phenomenon of claiming to be a victim of some trauma, prejudice or abuse has become common enough that psychologists are now studying it. One of them, Jillian Jordan, focuses on competition between groups. “In cases where two groups are in conflict, you kind of want to compete to be the victim because by definition then, the other side, is bad,” observed Jordan. (Putin claims to be the victim in the Ukraine War.) Another researcher, Karl Aquino, is working on developing a personality profile of those who invent victim narratives.
While playing the victim is hardly new, it appears to have become far more common in contemporary America than once was the case. This represents a significant shift from earlier norms. There was a time when people put their best foot forward, and hid their limitations, experiences of trauma or suffering. While it strikes me as good that we are more honest about life’s travails and our own limitations, even failures, that is different than being a victim, or claiming to be one. In some settings, to not have experiences of trauma or victimization consign a person to today’s truly suspect moral category, “privileged.”
Citing the old story of the boy who cried wolf, Vedantum says that these false victimization narratives have larger problematic implications. Namely, when the need is legitimate, there may be no response from those who have been burned by false narratives, as the boy who cried wolf discovered when an actual wolf did show up.
That’s not the only problem. What does it say about a society when the route to the moral high ground is no longer virtue or achievement, but claiming you are a victim? When a culture incentivizes victimhood, it gets — well — more victims. Even victims who aren’t, not really. Moreover, being a victim can become a stuck place, albeit with benefits, of attention, support and status.
Most of us are victims at one time or another, whether of someone’s road rage, a job layoff, social stereotyping or of a serious illness. And, yes, groups in our society have suffered long histories of prejudice, unfair treatment and truly awful victimization. But an experience of victimization is different than a victim mentality. And being a society that helps people who have or are actually suffering and victimization, is different than a society where being a victim is the “Pass Go and Collect $200” move to belonging, legitimacy and moral status.