Cult of personality disorder | HBR Talk 75

Over the last few months we’ve been discussing a political outlook I’ve labeled the victim identity cult. To recap, that refers to an ideological dedication to adopting “victim” as the defining characteristic of one’s identity, or one’s entire identity itself. Expression of this victimhood and agitation for social and legal changes to accomodate the presumed victim class at the expense of others becomes a way of life, to the degree that the victim identitarian cannot imagine how to exist beyond the struggle against the disadvantages attributed to said victimhood.

The growth of this cult has put its subscribers into a bit of a conundrum. How does one maintain a victim identity when one is not, in fact, a victim?

Answer: You make stuff up. 

A factitious disorder, as explained by the Cleveland Clinic’s website, is a mental disorder in which a person deliberately creates or exaggerates symptoms of an illness out of a need to be seen as ill or injured. Also known as Munchausen’s disease, factitious disorder is considered a mental illness because it is associated with severe emotional difficulties and stressful situations.

What if the emotional difficulty or stress is caused by cognitive dissonance between one’s victim identity, and recognition of how one’s everyday life experience contradicts it? 

One of the more troubling characteristics the victim identity cult has developed is a tendency to fetishize psychological damage. It's basically a phenomenon of simultaneously glorifying the state of being a broken person while using it as an anti-accountability shield. This manifests among social justice ideologues in self-diagnosis with complex, rare, and/or disabling mental health conditions. Spend a few hours in the wrong part of Tumblr, scrolling through blog posts about headmates and mood disorders, and you might develop the impression that mental health conditions are fashion accessories. Talk politics with certain Twitter trolls, and you could almost be convinced there’s no difference between the normal effects of everyday stressors and war-related trauma. 

There most certainly is, of course. Does that mean milder experiences of stress do not matter? That they are no cause for concern? Of course not, but neither are they comparable, nor should they be considered crippling simply because they cause anxiety. Everybody experiences anxiety. Not everyone’s anxiety constitutes a mental illness, or a handicap.

I grew up around Vietnam Veterans with bad memories that influenced their mannerisms. It wasn’t something they necessarily talked about - in fact, quite the opposite - but it wasn’t something you didn’t notice, either. It could be seen in how carefully they positioned themselves in public or social settings, not out of anxiety or anticipation of impending attack, but a now-natural tendency to always be alert to potential vulnerabilities, to the degree that it was an almost unconscious, involuntary behavior. Their version of “relaxed” was simply much more mindful of their surroundings, much more prepared to react, than that of a civilian. It’s a permanent psychological change, not necessarily a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder, but still a result of surviving a traumatic experience. I’ve also seen the manifestation of severe PTSD in combat vets affect their social choices because of the potential for crowd behavior or other surprises to trigger an episode of hypervigilance, or a full-blown panic attack. It is significantly different from the normal effects of everyday stressors, even though everyday stressors can be triggering for someone with the disorder. 

Does that mean that other people’s mental health conditions are never real? That nobody with a diagnosis deserves compassion? Of course it doesn’t! However, the legitimacy and implications of professional diagnoses cannot legitimize symptom fabrication for sympathy.

Victim identity cultists fetishizing brokenness to feel special will claim to suffer from things like multiple personality disorder or severe post traumatic stress disorder, but their symptoms seem to manifest only at the sufferer’s convenience. They’ll vomit up undocumented, unprovable experiences of traumatic crime victimization whenever they need a social bludgeon or battering ram to force a conversation to go their way. They’ll use demands for accommodation of dysfunctional quirks as a means of displaying their unique specialness to the world. They’ll cite self-diagnosed addiction as an explanation or excuse for reprehensible behavior in which they have engaged. In the victim identity cult, you can’t be one of the cool kids unless something is very, terribly, horribly, awfully wrong with you, resulting in your need for at least something within your social environment to be adjusted to suit your fragility or your eccentricity. In fact, failure to possess some manner of handicapping idiosyncrasy constitutes, in and of itself, a flaw. After all, how can you get people to do what you want if you’re just fine?

This can also be seen in part of the toxic masculinity narrative, wherein feminists pathologize men’s competence, confidence, and ambition, as well as their tendency to prioritize action over expression when handling adversity, as evidence of socially imposed rules that force them to suppress their feelings and mistreat others. 

Male feminists use another aspect of the toxic masculinity narrative as an excuse when they do rotten things: assigning male gender to “toxic” or dysfunctional traits that are not gendered in nature and then presuming behaviors associated with them to be out of the transgressor’s control. It's a "devil made me do it" type of response. They are quick to adopt the supposed pathology of toxic masculinity as their combination original sin and mental sickness, claiming to have to fight it every day as one might struggle with the symptoms of a mood disorder. In this way, being afflicted with and obligated to resist their so-called toxic masculinity becomes a way of feeling special… a combination of "the devil makes me do bad things" with "the devil is the coolest thing ever!" It’s awesome, in fact, because without it there could be no men in the cult; it’s the only victim identity they can have that isn’t mitigated by their other original sin, male privilege.

That narrative allows the cultist to simultaneously look and feel special as a resistor of his own original sin, yet superior in his condemnation of other men for being similarly afflicted. It can be used by feminist women as kind of a social equivalent to a choke chain with which they can yank a man into compliance with the expectations feminist ideology lays out for him. 

The cult’s exploitation of brokenness as a prop to maintain the victim identity and control the dialogue makes them ill-equipped to handle debate with rational people, who demonstrate and value resilience, and reject fragility. Such people cannot be manipulated via the tools in the victim identity toolbox. Hardy individuals cannot be intimidated into following the ideology of the cult, because they know the claims used as supporting evidence for the victim identity are not true. They reject fear-mongering diatribes on why they should adopt it as their own, and respond with arguments against it in a language that is alien to its proponents; that of logic, reason, self-reliance, and personal accountability. 

It can be fascinating to watch such conversations, because broken victim identitarians do not know what to do with this. Their formula is, signal maladjustment, receive coddling, exploit. If no coddling is forthcoming, they have no other next step. They often take to that like Smeagol to a length of elven rope. 

One might even say that it drives them crazy.

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