The Wages of Victimism: Leftwing Trauma Production for Political Ends

In this essay, I explain why smart people make such utterly absurd comments as the one tweeted by Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science: “They have deputized all white people to murder us.” Black Lives Matter is a new religion with all the delusion and zealotry that a new religion brings. Mainstreamed by academia and the establishment media, the phenomenon is metastasizing. My analysis works from a critical political social psychology framework. It dismantles key mythologies that corrupt reason. Tragically, these mythologies are cooked up and promulgated by ideologues in our institutions of higher education. Professors have become preachers of a new religion.

In an open letter by twelve University of Wisconsin system professors and staff condemning the shooting of Jacob Blake by an officer from the Kenosha Police Department, the myths of systemic racism and implicit race bias clearly inform the grievances expressed. Without evidence, the signatories compare the shooting of black men by police to the “public lynchings” in the post-Reconstruction era in America (for my views on this see Agency and Motive in Lynching and Genocide), claiming that “these public shootings are meant to instill fear in Black Americans.” Characterizing the shooting of Blake as “attempted murder” (the evidence indicates that the shooting was a lawful use of deadly force), the letter writers substitute for any actual evidence of racial bias in lethal officer-civilian encounters the cliché that “violence toward Black people [is] embedded in the fabric of this country.” You should recognize this way of talking about the matter as mystification.

Their complaints come with something of a demand: more black academics in the University of Wisconsin system. The academics identify the state of Wisconsin’s education system as an agent “in addressing racist behavior and racial inequality in the state” (two very different things), but lament the underrepresentation of black faculty, administrators and students, suggesting that skin color is itself instrumental in addressing social problems. It’s as if they believe white people cannot adequately address the problems of racist behavior and racial inequality in Wisconsin. Presumably they do not envision hiring black conservatives in these positions since the idea behind greater racial representation is the failure of higher education to more completely get behind the ideology the letter writers wish to advance. I have argued on my blog, and I will argue here, that those who share their politics have done well in portraying the United States as a racist country. Apparently they won’t be happy until every American is as deluded as they are.

“We as Black people do not deserve to die because large portions of our society, including law enforcement, feel threatened by our skin color,” the letter asserts. This claim is made despite the fact that all the evidence shows that there is no racial bias in lethal officer-civilian encounters (see The Myth of Systemic Racism in Lethal Police-Civilian Encounters and The Far Podcast on this topic). In the face of the facts, the assertion of systemic racism and implicit race bias are, in various forms, repeated ad nauseam, manufacturing through repetition a false perception about officer-civilian encounters. These false perceptions cause trauma and violence. They lead people to believe they have valid grievances and that violence is a means of redressing them. These results are not hypothetical. The nation has been in a continual state of disarray since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May. The chaos has spread throughout the West despite the fact that most of these countries do not have a history of race relations resembling that of the United States.

The protests and the riots are people responding not to what is known, but rather to what is believed. Those among my readers who know the literature of social psychology might recognize this as W. I. Thomas’ “definition of a situation” theorem, which goes like this: “If men define things as real, they are real in their consequences.” We see this, for example, in religious thinking. Because men define such entities as gods and devils as actual entities, and such places as heaven and hell as actual places, they are moved to engage in ritual actions and commit acts of violence against apostates, heretics, and infidels. Perceived reality affects behaviors and dispositions. The protests and the riots are indeed real. Their justifications are not.

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Jacob Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., appears at a rally Saturday in Kenosha, Wisconsin

Working people don’t come to such notions organically. Race is not a real thing and, as George Herbert Mead observed, the tendency of human beings is to cooperate along lines of shared material interests. Racial divisioning is an artificial separation. People who know better or at least should know better—we’re talking about academics, after all—choose false perception over reality, as well as divisive rhetoric, because, in addition to actually imbibing in the illusions they peddle, the myths provide opportunities to express self-righteousness, manufacture victimhood status, feed gross, manufacture esteem, and materially enrich selves by deepening in-group/out-group dynamics, amplifying resentment, and fomenting intergroup conflict.

There are deep psychological and emotional investments to be found here. It feels good to cast oneself in the role of the moral superior, as well as play the victim and the sympathy is engenders in others. People want you to feel sorry for them. They are angered when you don’t. Narcissists understand that people pay attention to the grievance makers and admire the redemption seekers where they have been conditioned to believe that such persons are to be reckoned among the worthy victims. Again, this is the way religion works. The claims of religion aren’t true; nonetheless, they are opportunities for self-righteousness, victimhood, egoism, and so on. As such, they are highly attractive to certain people. I feel I hardly need to do a point-by-point comparison to show where Black Lives Matter shares the core features of religious thought and practice (I have already done this work in previous blogs, but it’s rather obvious).

Moreover, like religion, the ideology of systemic racism is functional, only in the present case the ritual of self-blame is dramatically turned outward. Appeals to systemic racism and implicit race bias, both of which are not immediately apparent and thus require a special vocabulary—scripture, if you will—to make real, allow people to escape responsibility for the dysfunctions associated with attitudes, norms, and values that, through alienation and by learning other-blame for personal failures and situations, work against integration and success in the Western way of life. Such cultures in question are, in a word, disintegrationist—presently in an obvious and belligerent way (we see this in Islam, as well). Rather than admit the reason blacks run afoul of the police in disproportionate numbers, namely the fact of black overrepresentation in serious crime and the endogenous factors that lie behind this, the facts are rationalized, producing an ideology that blames racial disproportionality in arrests, convictions, and commitments to correctional programs on abstractions and assertions reified by an elaborate conceptual apparatus generate slogans that devotees need only memorize.

Like good propaganda, the abstractions and assertions are self-referential and therefore self-proving. Pitched as causal forces, when asked to identify these forces as independent variables, proponents of the ideology don’t even bother to attempt operationalizations, rather merely refer back to the fact of disparity, as if it is prima facia evidence for the thing itself. In other words, they substitute for the alleged independent variables the dependent variable. The argument is circular. Implicit race bias must exist because racial disproportionalities exist. What other explanation could there be? (See my recent essays Stop Blaming Police and Focus on Criminality—That Will Make Our Communities Safer and Why are there so Many More White than Black Victims of Interracial Homicide?) Again, like religion, the ideology is constructed from articles of faith, asserted as true because the alleged victims “experience it.” Anecdotes feed a thoroughgoing confirmation bias.

When proponents are confronted with the science debunking the ideology, which, in the case of lethal officer-civilian encounters is the entire body of literature, which is not insubstantial, the science is said to be biased. Epistemological demands for logic and objectivity are decried as “white culture,” which is asserted as an actual thing and declared a priori racist. Recently, the Smithsonian removed an exhibit on white culture and, among other things, identified scientific rationality as an element in white supremacy (I will be podcasting and blogging about this soon). This is not a new idea, but one that has been promoted in diversity training exercises for decades. From this it follows that any scientist who proceeds rationally may be subjected to accusations of being rightwing and racist—or, at least, “problematic,” to use the postmodern jargon. Efforts to cancel, censor, deplatform, marginalize, and smear those who tell the truth as science finds it (in all its caution) are rampant as a result. This is a reflection of the authoritarianism that results from advocacy of rationally indefensible claims. Those who threaten to debunk the claims with reason and facts must be shut down.

One of the more terrible things that comes out of practice of myth-making is the manufacture of trauma. To be sure, trauma expressed may be the result of actual oppression and violence. But there is also trauma that results from the belief that one has experienced or is supposed to experience oppression. The paradigm of this was McMartin preschool trial of the 1980s where children were led to believe they were the victims of sexual abuse by the MacMartin family that owned the day care center. Not a single conviction was obtained in a case that lasted seven years. In the end, all charges were dropped. The events described by investigators and prosecutors never happened. But many of the children, now adults, believe the memories investigators planted in their heads actually happened. They are as real to them as if they had happened. The children believe they told the truth and that nobody believed them. McMartin was not the only case but one of many in a moral panic, which include hysteria over Satanic ritual abuse. (I have written about moral panics in several blog entries, most recently about a threatening panic over the return of lynching fueled by the hysteria over systemic racism. See Death by Suicide in the Era of Black Lives Matter: The Beginning of a Moral Panic? Fortunately, that one appears to have weakened over time.)

The dynamic of implanting memories is also found in the ideology of intergenerational and collective trauma. The memories may be real, but, for most or all members of a group, only vicariously experienced, often at several degrees removed from some real experience or a lived experience. In the pages of Frontiers, a journal of personality and social psychology, Glad Hirschberger, of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, pulls from the literature, including work by notable sociologist Kai Erickson (who wrote about mass hysteria in The Wayward Puritan), a comprehensive summary of the notion of collective trauma. He writes that “the memory of trauma may be adaptive for group survival, but also elevates existential threat, which prompts a search for meaning, and  the construction of a trans-generational collective self.” To give you an example of the language of social constructionism that underpins this view as well as the main tenets of the theory, I want to share two lengthy passages from Hirschberger’s article (Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning):

“The term collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society; it does not merely reflect an historical fact, the recollection of a terrible event that happened to a group of people. It suggests that the tragedy is represented in the collective memory of the group, and like all forms of memory it comprises not only a reproduction of the events, but also an ongoing reconstruction of the trauma in an attempt to make sense of it. Collective memory of trauma is different from individual memory because collective memory persists beyond the lives of the direct survivors of the events, and is remembered by group members that may be far removed from the traumatic events in time and space. These subsequent generations of trauma survivors, that never witnessed the actual events, may remember the events differently than the direct survivors, and then the construction of these past events may take different shape and form from generation to generation.

“For victims of collective trauma meaning is established by: (a) passing down culturally-derived teachings and traditions about threat that promote group preservation; (b) these traditions of threat amplify existential concerns and increase the motivation to embed the trauma into a symbolic system of meaning; (c) trauma fosters the sense of a collective self that is transgenerational thereby promoting a sense of meaning and mitigating existential threat; (d) the sense of an historic collective self also increases group cohesion and group identification that function to create meaning and alleviate existential concerns; (e) the profound sense of meaning that is borne out of collective trauma perpetuates the memory of the trauma and the reluctance to close the door on the past; (f) over time collective trauma becomes the epicenter of group identity, and the lens through which group members understand their social environment.”

Hirschberger also discusses the way in which collective intergenerational trauma affects the perpetrators. The language here will sound very familiar to a lot of readers. “For perpetrators, the memory of trauma poses a threat to collective identity that may be addressed by denying history, minimizing culpability for wrongdoing, transforming the memory of the event, closing the door on history, or accepting responsibility. The acknowledgment of responsibility often comes with disidentification from the group.” In other words, the victim group constructs a narrative of its trauma and, expecting the alleged perpetrator group to validate the narrative, characterizes the failure of such as a continuation of the oppression (you might recognize this as a form of gas lighting). Hirschberger article organizes in a clear and useful way the social psychological elements of what Critical Race Theories identify as the “victims perspective” and the “perpetrators perspective” (see my Committing the Crime it Condemns for an overview). As I have argued in several blogs, this way of portraying the world suffers from reification or hypostatization, wherein an abstraction is treated as if it is a concrete thing. Reification commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. However, reification does produce concrete effects (see The Appeal to Identity: Bad Politics and the Fallacy of Standpoint Epistemology).

For example, the experience of black children and young adults with anti-black racism is most commonly in the past tense since racism has largely been eradicated in the contemporary United States. Children and young adults learn from books, parents, pastors, teachers, and television about what life was like for people who look like them back then. They do not experience what occurred in the past except through being told about it. If they weren’t told about it, they would not experience it. When they are told about it, they are also told that they should feel trauma over it. Thus the trauma experienced is not caused by the concreteness of past events, but by memories constructed from its abstractions, which influencers in positions of authority encourage and, in some cases, insist that they feel the dead past as living trauma. Group identity is then constructed out of these abstractions. Thus trauma is visited upon black children not by white racism, which they do not experience, but by those in their own community steeped in antiracism. We also see this with the elevation of insignificant cultural slights, or faux pas, to the status of microaggression. So rare is racism really that attitudes and behaviors that were not heretofore defined as racism become redefined as so.

The ideas of collective trauma and internalized oppression and collective trauma is a central tenet of social justice education and politics, which explains why it has become so widespread in the West. This technique of implanting memories in children and young adults, of orchestrating an acquired set of attitudes and emotions, produces a victim mentality in which the person sees her or himself as the victim of actions or events he did not actually experience and uses this trauma to define his interactions with others, to condition his choices and responses, a dynamic that will shape his future along a particular trajectory. The dynamic reinforces his belief that he is a victim of imagined crimes committed by a living dead.

We might call the ideology of manufactured victimhood victimism, a shared belief that constructs esteem and confers upon those with special status emotional and psychological wages. To be sure, not all members of a group about which a victim narrative has been fashioned suffer from victimism. Even under conditions of actual hardship, some individuals don’t experience trauma or define themselves as victims. They take things in stride. The myriad of experiences are regarded as part of daily circumstance. There is no reconstruction of the self to embody the victim identity. Whether one is successfully conditioned to be a victim depends on how intensely the expectation is felt, the reward and punishment structure (the contingency schedule, for the behaviorists out there), and how acutely demands for group cohesion and loyalty are perceived. Moreover, there are personality traits that predispose persons to it (see my A Fact-Proof Screen: Black Lives Matter and Hoffer’s True Believer). The need for attention or recognition is variable across the population.

It is important for those who think they are victims to have others affirm their victimhood. Seeking the support of those around him, through various strategies, including the suspension of disbelief (the default position in abstract things should always be disbelief), the victim enlists others in the project to validate the illusion. The more sure those around the supposed victim are in their belief of victimhood, the more efficacious is emotional blackmail not only demanding outsiders acknowledge their responsibility in their trauma but in relenting to the demands the victim is making. The program of self-denunciation also benefits from personality traits. Thus a dynamic of sadomasochism is initiated (see Such a Beautiful Moment—The Self-Flagellating of White People).

Collective trauma is source of solidarity and defines and intensifies the in-group/out-group division. It feeds conflict and seeks resolution of conflict, to the extent that it does, in the transfer of esteem and material goods and services from the out-group to the in-group. It’s a type of extortion. Esteem is fueled by the perception of self-righteousness, or the moral superiority of the victim, or the oppressed, and the immorality of the perpetrator—the oppressor. The strategy stands normal morality on its head. Despite being the aggressors, victims can move under the cover of sympathy, painting the targets of their violence as the real threat, even portraying the targets of their violence as deserving of the violence perpetrated against them. This is a technique of neutralization that David Matza and Gresham Sykes identify, “denial of victim,” here achieved by swapping places in the victim-perpetrator dyad.

By radically simplifying the world with this rhetoric, by casting conflict as good and evil, literally in this case black and white, the social justice activist washes oppression and violence in a bath of righteousness. You might say that the movement is baptized—not merely cleansed of its sins, but given an immunity of sorts: a permission slip to sin in the name of justice. This invites others—especially those attracted to hate and violence—to join them in “oppressing the enemy.” Offensive violence become justified by future of being redefined as defensive in a false transformational maneuver, while the defensive violence of their targets is likewise redefined as offensive violence. Shielding oneself from interpersonal violence when one has been stripped of the human right to self-defense transforms the victim into the perpetrator. One’s battered face is guilty of having been located in the path of a righteous fist—or rock of molotov cocktail or professional grade firework.

Being concerned with ones own imagined suffering reduces the capacity to feel sympathy for the targets of retribution. The ideology dehumanizes the victims of its bearers. The victims had it coming to them in this warped worldview. Even though the perpetrators of retributive violence were not wronged by any of the individuals they target, because the victims share the skin color of the alleged oppressor group, extracting justice from any of them is warranted, and diminishment of empathy allows them to carry out retribution or restitution without the pangs of conscience. In the case of Antifa and Black Lives Matter violence, state and local governments stopped holding responsible those committing criminal acts on the grounds that those committing them are members of historically oppressed groups. Like employee theft is wages-in-kind, looting is reparations-in-action. Lest they be portrayed as racists and reactionaries, shop owners should stand aside and behold justice. With all of the attention is placed on alleged wrongdoing and the suffering on account of it, final compromise with the alleged oppressor is a remote possibility. A positive sanctioned culture of blaming others for ones personal situation eschews resolution because peace would bring an end to the psychological and emotional wages, not to mention the material stuff, that accrue to the victim.

Through all of this, no time was taken to stop and determine whether the grievances are real or imagined. Is there some objective arrangement or action that oppresses? Or is this subjectively experienced. To actually achieve justice, the righting of wrongs requires actual wrongs. Reform in the name of justice requires an injustice to reform. Thus there needs to be an objective analysis of the wrong, of the injustice. Alas, postmodernism saves the day by asserting there can be no objective judgment of wrongs and injustices since the deny the “lived experience.” Injustice and oppression are how we feel not what really is. But, then, that just proves my argument. Black Lives Matter is set up as a forever thing that can only be forever because it rests on a mythology. There is very little here that needs resolving—but a mythology in need of debunking. In order to do this, we have to assert our right to publicly challenge myths without risking life, property, and reputation. And here postmodernism again intrudes to tell us that the free speech right is a white-serving construct of modernity.

The chaos in the streets, the high levels of violent crime, daily disintegration, are mainly occurring in cities run by progressive Democrats. The riots were prepared by decades of custodial state policies designed by progressives to manage the consequences of rising organic composition of capital and globalization—off-shoring, mass immigration—for the corporate class. The ideology that guides the mob and supplies the propaganda apparatus with woke vocabulary, that shapes our workplaces and school boards—was cooked up in the humanities and social sciences departments of the institutions of higher education in the service of global capitalism. The constant trashing of America and West fuels the violence. Anti-white racism identifies the targets of ginned up resentment. The cosmopolitanism of bourgeoise elitism portrays working class Americans as deplorables and casts their traditionalist sensibilities as fascistic. Elites aim to delegitimize the working class and its politics to derail resistance to the managed decline of the republic. It’s starting to feel as if they have overplayed their hand. At the same time, it also feels as if they won’t be able to put the violence they have unleashed back into Pandora’s box.

To expound on what I earlier said and tie it with the range of actions we see on our streets, it is important to keep in mind that the validity of a grievance determines the legitimacy of an action. A protest is a first amendment activity. Even if the grievance is illusory, and therefore the demonstration invalid, people are permitted, constrained by certain rational rules, to peacefully protest. Protests occur not only over matters of fact. They can be organized by feelings. However, a riot is an illegitimate exercise of violence—this form of violence is not constitutionally or morally legitimate. This is not to suggest that there are no legitimate forms of violence, the pertinent one being rebellion, which can look like a riot phenomenologically. But if a riot is to be elevated to the status of a rebellion it must have valid grievances, i.e., a root cause, and all other means seeking redress of grievances must first be exhausted. Determining root causes is an objective exercise. The current riots do not constitute a rebellion. None of the conditions necessary for ethical justification for Antifa or Black Lives Matter violence have been met. Nor are the protests valid. This is an insurrection. (The federal government exists to enforce the law, repel invasion, and suppress insurrection. What are our leaders waiting for?)

When the claim is made that justice reform provides the justification, as I wrote above, justice reform requires an injustice to reform. The injustice claimed by Antifa and Black Lives Matter is racial bias in patterns of police shootings and incarceration. There is no evidence of systemic racism in these patterns. Forty years of scientific research fails to find evidence of systemic racism in lethal officer-civilian encounters. There are roughly a thousand to twelve hundred lethal officer-civilian encounters in the United States annually. That’s a lot, but keep in mind that we are the third largest country in the world and the most violent advanced country in the world. Of that number of deaths, approximately 250-300 blacks are killed by the police. In other words, blacks are a minority of deaths in this type of violence, most of which constitute the appropriate use of deadly force by an officer of the law. Controlling for crime rates and circumstances any disproportionalities disappear. Leaving aside the drug war, in which substantial reform has already been taking place for years, the racial disparities in corrections reflects patterns of serious crime, as I document on my blog. It is relevant here to know that Trump signed into law a major criminal justice reform bill addressing remaining outstanding issues. We have made substantial progress and are continuing to make progress.

I am not concerned with illusions. What people believe doesn’t determine the truth for me. And it shouldn’t for any of you, either. A rational person is concerned with reality—with what is. The difference between sane and crazy is a commitment to what is. The scientific evidence refutes the claims made by those who assert a grievance. Because of the power of the scientific method, which is universally true, and in light of the evidence, arguing that there is racial bias in police shootings, to take the most high profile claim, is the equivalent of arguing that the earth is flat or that it lies at the center of the solar system.

The argument I make does not portray protests as riots. Watch out for that straw man. It’s those who are enabling violence who characterize the riots as protests. The riots are an objective fact. We cannot deny arson, looting, assault, and even murder for the sake of argument—for the sake of our desire to avoid inconvenient truths. We don’t have time to play dumb. These things are real and they are being perpetrated by Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Fox News doesn’t portray the protests as riots. They cover the riots. It’s the other media outlets that portray riots as protests—even while standing in front of burning buildings!

Antifa and Black Lives Matter are clearly insurrectionist. This is politically organized violence against civil authority and an established government. Trump and Republicans have been remarkably patient in the face of the worst civil unrest in America since I was small child. And that was a long time ago! Joe Biden is wrong when he says Trump is fearmongering. The insurrection is real. The violence is real. The homicides are real. The point of the insurrection is to spread fear throughout the population through intimidation and violence. The insurrection is using terrorism—the illegitimate use of intimidation and violence to advance political objectives—in pursuit of its goals. Like trauma-production, fear-production is the work of the left.

Right wingers aren’t storming restaurants and bullying people into declaring their allegiance to a cracked racial theory, a false history, and a reactionary political movement. Right wingers aren’t burning churches, looting stores, attacking police officers, and targeting civilians for harassment, intimidation, and violence on the basis of skin color. Right wingers aren’t denigrating an entire race and blaming them for their perceived personal misfortunes. Right wingers aren’t trying to overthrow the American republic. It’s left wingers doing that. En masse and at massive scale. It’s the left that is authoritarian, bigoted, and racist—and highly motivated. These destructive forces enjoy support from Democrats and progressives, state and local governments, corporations and colleges and universities. Wake up, comrades. Your nation is in trouble. Democracy and justice are in jeopardy.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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