Australian psychologist Nick Haslam calls it “concept creep.” Writing in the Atlantic Conor Friedersdorf commented extensively on Haslam’s idea.
Once upon a time people suffered from trauma and abuse. The incidents that provoked these negative psychological reactions were distinct and delimited. Nowadays, everything is potentially traumatic and abusive. Someone looks at you cross-eyed and you have a cause for legal action.
Worse yet, you and only you are the ultimate arbiter of how much your feelings were hurt by something that other people may or may not have seen as hurtful. By all the current definitions, if you think you have been abused, someone is responsible for abusing you. If you think that you were traumatized, it doesn’t matter what really happened, or whether a normally constituted human being would have found the event life-altering.
It’s the reign of the thin-skinned and the sensitive. But, it’s also the tyranny of the depressed. The more thin-skinned you are the more likely you are to feel that a microaggression—a flippant remark or even a reference to white people-- has damaged your delicate psyche beyond repair. People have been so weakened by the ambient culture that they feel forced to offer public displays of their sensitivity, the better to claim victim status.
In the past it would have been embarrassing to announce in public that you are hypersensitive to slights. Nowadays it’s a badge of honor, because it makes you one of those who are standing up against oppression. Or better, you become someone who is martyring himself for the cause.
Exposing your vulnerability invites aggression. It causes people to pity you. It makes you look like you cannot defend yourself, like you cannot take responsibility for your actions. People respect your successes. They do not respect you for mistaking excuses for failure.
These bad habits seem most endemic to the Age of Obama. If Barack Obama is a failed president, the reason must be racism. If students accepted into universities to fulfill affirmative action quotas cannot do the work, the reason must be racism… and a curriculum that does not sufficiently reflect their experience. If women do worse than men at one task or another, the reason can only be sexism. If trangendered people are far more likely to commit suicide, the reason must be transphobia.
When a high school student posted a Facebook rant about her teacher, the teacher brought the student up on charges of “cyberbullying.” When a parent allowed a 9 year old child to play alone in a park, she is arrested for child neglect. Let’s not forget trigger warnings, microaggressions and rape culture.
How did we get to this point?
Haslam points out correctly that professional therapists bear a considerable responsibility for this phenomenon.
In his words:
By misrepresenting normal sadness, worry, and fear as mental disorders, the mental health professions overmedicate, exaggerate the population prevalence of disorder, and deflect resources away from more severe conditions.
Were we to be slightly more cynical, we would note that mental health professionals are in business. If there is no need for their services they do not have any business. They have a vested interest in there being more mental illness.
Thus, if they can somehow persuade everyone that he or she suffers from one mental health problem or another, they will have more patients. Seeing therapists as selfless helpers is surely a distortion.
In addition, as Haslam notes, this is of a piece with leftist cultural politics:
I contend that the expansion primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, reflecting a liberal moral agenda. Its implications are ambivalent, however. Although conceptual change is inevitable and often well motivated, concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.
I would only add one point here. The cult to victimhood involves a grand narrative, one in which the world is divided into oppressors and the oppressed.
If you proclaim your victimhood you are taking on a role within that narrative fiction. If you have not been a victim yourself you can do God’s work and side with victims. You can militate against the oppressors and visit the wrath of God on them. Even if their sins have been mild, you, if you live within the narrative, believe, as an article of faith, that small sins are merely the tip of a bigoted iceberg.
Perhaps more importantly, from my perspective, is that our overlords are forcing us to live in a guilt culture, one that defines behavior in terms of guilt or innocence, that wants to see the guilty punished, does not care about due process, and that is attempting to reorganize human society in terms of forbidden, not prescribed actions.
Since we have long since abandoned any pretense to politeness, decorum and propriety, since we no longer teach children to do the right thing, to have the right manners, to address their teachers with terms of respect or to observe codes of correct social behavior, we are reduced to punishing them when they do the wrong thing.
No one cares any more about what they should do. They are obsessing about whether their behavior has transgressed a new taboo and thus has subjected them to severe punishment. Yesterday, Curt Schilling was fired by ESPN for saying the wrong thing about transgendered individuals—because anyone who suggests that a boy who thinks he is a girl should not be allowed to shower in the girls’ locker room is a bigot. And this is not just a one-off case. America’s courts have affirmed this principle.
No one receives any praise for sending a thank-you note or performing an act of everyday courtesy. When it comes to dating or what they used to call courtship, there are no longer any rules. Young people are not allowed to follow the customary and traditional ways of developing relationships. In the absence of these rules, we have a generalized hysteria about sexual abuse and rape culture.
Everyone agrees that rape should be punished severely. Yet, the new rules on campus, dictated by the Obama administration, have sexual assaults on college campuses adjudicated, not by the criminal courts, but by administrative panels that systematically deprive the accused of his rights to due process. It’s not about prosecuting rape—which ought to be the province of the criminal court system—but about punishing anyone who is accused of a sexual assault. Note well, the punishment is meted out solely because the victim says so. As soon as she claims to be a victim, her word is sacrosanct. Presumably, any woman who feels that she was the victim of sexual assault was the victim of a sexual assault.
It shows what happens when you overthrow the traditional rules of courtship and abandon their goal: having sex with someone you know. It happens when the gestures of courtesy and respect, shown by men toward women, are rejected by women, thus making the dating scene into something that looks like a free-for-all.
Rulelessness, normlessness, or anomie, as it is called, produces a situation where repression feels better than anarchy, and where people attempt to affirm their moral being, not by building their character and doing the right thing, but by not doing the wrong thing.
We have filled our minds with all of the ways things can go wrong, to the point where we no longer know how to get anything right. We know why we have failed, so we can concoct endless narrative explanations for our lack of success. But we do not know how to succeed, how to work together, how to get along with each other, how to achieve consequential success in the world.