Family conflicts are probably the most painful of all conflicts in life. Having been a financial planner the better part of 25 years and a psychotherapist for most of my career years before that, and of course a father and a husband, I’ve come to learn a lot about conflicts. Because my natural inclination is to look for patterns in things, I’ve looked long and hard for the patterns that underlie family conflicts. And I believe that it’s mainly the misunderstanding of gratitude and entitlement. Resentment festers when someone believes that someone else should be grateful for what they’ve done for them. The person who feels entitled generally doesn’t even notice it. For that person, it’s hard to be grateful, because if you’re entitled to something why should you be grateful for it? Some people are defined by their gratitude, others by their entitlement. Which is which?
National Review, May 2018, led with a cover touting their lead article, And The Victims Will Lead Us. Here’s a part of it: In the 20th century, Americans often claimed their rights and privileges as members of the middle class, demanding what was owed to “people who work hard and play by the rules.” Many Americans who were a bit poorer or a bit richer than the middle class still politically identified with that great mass of citizens. It was a rhetoric built around the idea that the middle class works to create wealth and deserves its share of it. Now, Americans group themselves into ever smaller and more-besieged minorities. Our political vocabulary is now about what is owed to each individual or group, regardless of the value of the work performed by that person or group. And claims for rights are made in a corporate persona. Instead of each person’s speaking for himself, people now issue political demands “as a member of” this or that community. It’s almost as if each individual finds meaning only insofar as he conforms to an abstracted or imagined political model. “Speaking as a woman” simply cannot be done by a female who is not a feminist. This cultural hegemony has many names, and we encounter them constantly, in a less sophisticated form, when feminists denounce the patriarchy, when sexual minorities critique heteronormativity, and when racial minorities define their mission as the upending of white supremacy.
The American ruling class broadcasts its soulless utilitarianism when it comes to politics. It tries to make every political problem into a mere technical policy challenge. But there is a loophole for those who are not initiated into this highly abstract form of political discourse. Utilitarianism admits just one criterion for allocating sympathy, resources, and attention: suffering. So if you want to participate in political debate, but you don’t want to master all the academic studies on your particular problem or interest, take account of all the methodological biases of these studies, and then find a platform where you can make your case — if, in short, you don’t want to become a nerd — your only chance of having a public voice is to become, or represent, a victim. This is the only chance to put passion — or spiritedness — back into a political conversation that is usually lifeless and technical.
Someone who walks into these environments looking for the intellectual parry and thrust of debate is instead told, “Your job is to listen.” The expectation that no one would dare to interject or question the personal testimony of the victim of oppression is not so different from the expectation of silence during the reading of the Gospel in a church service, or during a homily. Your job is to listen. And it is here, I would suggest, that the politics of the victim touch something deep in the soul of modern man. They are in some ways the residue of Christian thought and ritual in a Western world that offers little traditional religious education or formation. The premise of victim politics is like a mirror image of devotion to the Suffering Servant. Just as in Christianity, so in social-justice politics: The wounds of the primordial victim testify to the broken state of human nature and society at large. For Christians, the cross is a kind of throne, and the crown of thorns becomes a sign of authority. The paradox of Christianity is that the Lord reigns as King precisely because he offered himself as Victim.
The religious aspect should be evident to anyone who offers a rational critique of some identity-politics shibboleth only to be told “You’re denying my identity” or “You’re erasing my existence.” It’s a mysterious response at first. You offer an argument and are told that you disbelieve in someone’s existence. It sounds like an accusation of atheism, for a good reason: You’re being charged with heresy, and if you do not desist, you reveal yourself as morally reprobate, as one who would, with full knowledge, repeat the Crucifixion. Or if you prefer the current academese, you are one who “reifies the structures of oppression.” You love yourself more than you love the victim-god standing before you, the one exposing his wounds and offering you forgiveness on condition that you recognize his pain, confess your unearned privilege, and promise obedience.