09 December 2021

Lasch—The Scale-Victimry Nexus

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
Everyday life has come to present itself as a succession of crises not necessarily because it is more risky and competitive than it used to be but because it confronts people with manageable stresses, whereas the hope of preventing public disaster appears so remote, for most people, that it enters their thoughts only in the form of a wistful prayer for peace and brotherhood.
(p. 64)

Our perception not only of the past and the future but of the present has been colored by a new awareness of extremes. We think of ourselves both as survivors and as victims or potential victims. The growing belief that we are all victimized, in one way or another, by events beyond our control owes much of its power not just to the general feeling that we live in a dangerous world dominated by large organizations but to the memory of specific events in twentieth-century history that have victimized people on a mass scale. Like the idea of survival, the idea of victimization, inappropriately applied to everyday misfortunes, keeps this memory alive and at the same time deadens its emotional impact. Indiscriminate usage broadens the idea of victimization until it loses its meaning.
(p. 66)

...the victim has come to enjoy a certain moral superiority in our society; this moral elevation of the victim helps to account for the inflation of political rhetoric that characterizes the discourse of survivalism. Many writers have adopted a "posture of accusatory public testimony," as Werner Berthoff notes in his study of post-war poetry and fiction. Identifying themselves with the underdog, straining to speak in the voice of victims or survivors...angry young men and angry women have exposed the injustices inflicted on oppressed and exploited minorities. Political spokesmen for these groups have assumed the same role. As they vie for the privileged status of victims, they appeal not to the universal rights of citizenship but to a special experience of persecution, said to qualify their people to speak about injustice with special authority and to demand not merely their rights but reparation for past wrongs. They claim—with good reason, in some cases—to be the victims, or survivors, of genocide. Rhetorical escalation transforms the meaning of injustice; it transforms the cause of oppressed minorities into a struggle for sheer survival. In the sixties, the shift from civil rights to "black power" announced the abandonment of efforts to create a multiracial society in favor of a strategy of black survival. Spokesmen for black power accused whites of plotting the destruction of the black race through birth control and racial intermarriage. In the seventies, radical feminists took up the cry of "gynocide." Instead of seeing the distinctive features of black culture or the distinctive pattern of historically conditioned femininity as "marks of oppression," in the manner of an earlier radicalism, or on the other hand as potential sources of a flourishing new cultural pluralism, spokesmen for disenfranchised minorities have reinterpreted their history in the light of the novel experience of genocide.
(pp. 67-68)

A stray thought: this of course suggests the faux-remedy of denying/refusing victimhood, which would be justified via the same consequentialist argumentation as so many other comparable maneuvers: if we allow there to be victims, people will exploit this; if you feed the stray cat (or stray homeless human), he'll be back at your door the next evening; if you give into your kid once, you'll give in again and again; if you have unemployment insurance in your state, people won't work; etc., etc.

Whatever logical or explanatory power these suppositions might have in their respective arenas, it can still be said that they are blunt-force/blanket solutions, i.e. in most if not all cases, they are overcorrections which achieve expediency at the direct expense of precision; the OVER- part of "overcorrection" lying specifically in the consequentialism of thinking (with whatever justification) that you know exactly how the cat or the kid or the homeless person will react to a certain intervention or stimulus, and that you don't need to consider any other possibilities or any other instances of cat, kid, homeless person, etc. which might respond differently from the baseline expectation.

Lasch is a fan of rootedness in a small community, and while this doesn't solve the problem outright, it does allow us to make better predictions, i.e. to know with somewhat greater certainty how specific people might respond to intervention. It is in this sense, perhaps, that the dreaded Victim Mentality, such a hot-button issue then and still now, is itself very much a product of so-called "mass" society, the mass being at present ca. 8 billion.


I certainly am inclined toward seeing the distinctive features of historically oppressed cultural groups as marks of oppression, not so much because this is what they look like on the surface as because of the particular contradictions which emerge when their advocates attempt to rationalize them. Instead, on the other hand, we are indeed being treated to a new cultural pluralism, which is flourishing only in the sense of successful self-propagation across many areas of mass culture. No one really flourishes, however, as long as this pluralism is based on superficial traits rather than deep ones.

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