Victimhood Culture: How Abuse, Bullying, Trauma, Mental Disorders, Addiction, and Prejudice Became Pervasive

Psychological "concept creep" pathologizes everyday experience and encourages a sense of impotent victimhood.


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Many of psychology's concepts relating to the negative aspects of the human experience have expanded their meanings so that the now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before, according to University of Melbourne pscyhologist Nick Haslam. In his article, "Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology," Haslam focuses specifically on the expansion of the concepts of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice. These concepts have undergone both "vertical" and "horizontal" expansion over the past few decades. By vertical, Haslam the concepts meaning is less stringent and covers milder variants of the phenomenon to which it initially referred. Horizontal expansion occurs when the concept is applied in a new context.

Consider the case of bullying. The concept was first defined as intentional repeitive aggressive behavior directed toward a child by someone or a group who has greater power due to numbers, size, strength, age, status, or authority—than the target. The concept has now spread horizontally from the schoolyard to adult workplaces and online. Vertical creep has occurred as the requirement that bullying be intentional has been relaxed. The result is that a person can claim to have been bullied even though the identified as a bully had no intention to harm the victim.

Haslam similarly argues that the concepts of abuse, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice have been expanded and now typically get defined by the subjectivity of those who think of themselves as victims. Haslam notes, "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."

Over at The Guardian, he and New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt explain in their op-ed, "Campuses are places for open minds—not where debate is closed down," how concept creep is encouraging the development of victimhood culture and demands for safe spaces. They cite the recent hullabaloo at Emory University in which students woke up one morning to see "Trump 2016" scrawled in chalk on sidewalks around campus. (Read my colleague Robby Soave's excellent reporting on this "traumatic" incident.)  As Haslam and Haidt note:

Students who are taught to interpret small or ambiguous experiences on campus, such as seeing "Trump 2016", as instances of bullying, trauma or prejudice, rather than as the ordinary ferment of differing people with differing views, come to see themselves as aggrieved and fragile victims. Their vulnerability defines them and gives them a moral platform from which to demand protection and safety. At the same time, they typecast their opponents as bullies, traumatisers and aggressors.

This polarised image of vulnerable victims needing protection from vilified perpetrators is hardly a promising basis for a mature and respectful exchange of views on campus. It shuts down free speech and the marketplace of ideas. And it is not even healthy for the students who are the objects of concern.

Of course young people need to be protected from some kinds of harm, but overprotection is harmful, too, for it causes fragility and hinders the development of resilience. …

One step that might reverse concept creep is to expand notions of diversity to include viewpoint diversity, especially political diversity. Between 1990 and 2010, American university faculties went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But if students are not exposed to conservative ideas, they are more likely to find them traumatising when they encounter them outside of college.

Ultimately, it is the students themselves who will have to stand up and reject victimhood culture and its creeping concepts. One way to do this is to embrace the term "danger" the way earlier activists reclaimed the term "queer".

Students at every university should push their student governments to hold a vote on whether the students want a "safe" university that routinely bans speakers, warns students about novels, and punishes students and professors for speech acts, or a "dangerous" university that takes no steps to protect its students from exposure to words, speakers, and ideas (with limited exceptions such as slander or threats of violence).

The debates that would surround such campus votes would help students see that too much safety is, ultimately, more dangerous than anything written in chalk.

I suspect that the campus safe space bullies are actually few in number and most students would vote for "danger."