Some time back, I was invited to a bilingual poetry reading which I also made the mistake of attending. The poets on display had an equal or near-equal command of their two languages, and their writings boasted many more or less belabored interlingual puns and much meditation on the extent to which they did or did not belong to the distinct cultures in which these languages were spoken. The tone of the event was at once puling and pompous, the poets’ craving for accolades for their linguistic facility vying with their aspiration to stress the identitary hardships occasioned by the straddling of two cultures. To judge by the participants’ clothing and mobile phones, they were not plagued by penury, nor had they taken any special risk by traveling to a creative space with like-minded acquaintances to declaim their particular sort of wit and suffering. The people born in the country where the event took place enjoyed many advantages conferred by Western democracies: guaranteed health care, cheap and efficient public transit, stable housing, relative safety, and of course the material advantages that have continued to accrue to former empires and their allies as a result of their perdurant hegemony. The people who had emigrated to this country were perhaps wealthier than their native counterparts; most had attended exclusive universities, and grants from various cultural institutions had facilitated their relocation.
If you had asked any of these people for an opinion as to the rights of gays or the transgendered, or the need to decrease dependence on fossil fuels or to pay Africans a fair price for their minerals, they would naturally have espoused perspectives proper to what is called the left; at the same time, lives like theirs are inconceivable in isolation from the sort of oppression they would claim to oppose. Not only that, but the wan ruminations on identity that informed much of their verse suggested an equivalency between attributes conferred by privilege (well-off parents from two stable, prosperous countries and ready access to airfare to travel back-and-forth between them as desired) and those imposed by injustice (exile and statelessness). In general, the hankering after a special identity that may be conceived as emblematic of oppression has much in common with the resentment and envy that lie in back of the men’s rights movement or campaigns for White History Month. Remarking on the allure of theories of generalized guilt in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Hans Blumenberg notes “… there also seems to be a constant need on the part of the ‘bourgeois’ theorist to participate in the historical guilt of not having been one of the victims.”
The concept of collective guilt, whatever its shortcomings, has the virtue of remaining a spur to moral action; but increasingly, what supersedes it is a broadening of the franchise of victimhood and the expulsion of culpability, and thus of moral responsibility, outward, toward one’s ideological enemies or even, in the era of social media pillory, toward those one dislikes or disagrees with.
Systems that propagate oppression automatically generate manners of redress, even if only in nuce; and injustice would necessarily conduce to despair, did the idea of redress not exist as a beacon of hope. In hegemonic systems, the suffering of one group broadly contributes to the betterment of another. What is so deeply disturbing is the way the longing for redress has been reconceived by the privileged as an advantage, an edge the oppressed hold over oppressors and fellow travelers, that one would like to arrogate for oneself. Perversely, this may have been inevitable at the point when the discourse of social justice began to turn from objective criteria of harm toward more nuanced, context-specific conceptions (I say this in full recognition of the shortcomings of such “objective criteria”): though the desire to grasp the inner experience of the oppressed is noble and necessary, there is no system of principles immune to the manipulation of the cynical and those seeking for advantage; and the longing for special consideration on the basis of presumptive victimhood is too ripe a temptation for the querulous, especially in an era of radical narcissism, when 80% of American teenagers consider themselves “very important” and a plurality of young Brits describe being famous “the very best thing in the world.”
Concomitant with a rising sense of self-importance has been a marked decline in empathy (among American college students, for example, measures of empathy fell 40% between 1979 and 2010, and experienced their steepest drop in the 2000s). This may help explain the audacity of so many of the most privileged members of the world’s wealthiest societies seeing parallels between their petty miseries and the enormous suffering undergone by millions of people whose status as victims is not a badge of honor, but an interminable nightmare.