I spend more time than most trying to understand differences between people. Not just differences of opinion, but dispositional differences, cultural differences, and moral differences. In my book Fortitude: Resilience in the Era of Outrage, I explored one of the most profound clashes of our time: victors versus victims.
This divide is perhaps the most important cultural battle facing modern America, personified by those who proudly overcome adversity versus those who seek recognition for their victimhood. Empowerment versus disempowerment. Hope versus despair. Fortitude versus fragility.
These opposing paths are a result of the stories we tell ourselves. We use narratives and stories to both set moral and behavioral standards, and interpret our experiences. Our culture, our institutions, and our friends and family drive these narratives which, in turn, form our perception of reality and drive us toward higher ideals. From a young age, your parents teach life lessons wrapped in tales of Peter Rabbit and Cat in the Hat. Jesus spoke in parables to impart lessons to his disciples. Stories are used to reinforce valuable traditions and behaviors in a society, even things as simple as getting good grades, sharing your toys, or looking both ways before crossing the street. Good behaviors and virtues stand the test of time because those who adopt them excel, while those who don’t perish.
But in modern America, the least productive of attributes are being increasingly elevated as desirable qualities. Victimhood is not only tolerated but celebrated. Whereas previous generations attached value to overcoming adversity and keeping complaints to a minimum, modern culture does the opposite. Past Americans might have asked “how could I have done better?”The modern citizen is more likely to ask “who else is at fault?” In the past, a proud family man might return a welfare check after getting back on his feet. Now, fully-employed Americans anxiously await their $1,400 COVID payment.
This has also led to a reinterpretation of our experiences with a bias toward victimhood and blame-shifting. For instance, a bad grade on a test elicits a different story from different people who experienced the exact same thing. I didn’t study enough. The test was really hard. The teacher didn’t prepare me well enough. Note the subtle difference in narrative that leads to a profound difference in externalizing blame versus internalizing accountability.
The dirty little secret of this post-modern narrative construction is that it is deliberately unchained from observable facts or positive outcomes. Just look at the word choice of the modern victimhood enthusiast: “My truth.” “My lived experience.” They fiercely lash out at anyone who might question in good faith how such extreme negative emotion could be warranted by a given experience — does Ben Shapiro’s speech really threaten your mental health? This is because they cling to a story, not a reality. The facts may even be agreed upon, but the “lived experience” is not. A narrative has been constructed, and it is soaked in self-pity and fragility.
In the relative comforts of the modern world, where true trauma and hardship are harder and harder to come by, this affinity for victimhood narrative construction manifests in more and more ridiculous ways. Safe spaces, micro-aggressions, and corporate sensitivity training have become normalized. The recent Oprah Winfrey interview in which Meghan Markle clumsily accused the British royal family of racism was less an accounting of the facts and more of a narrative construction designed to elicit sympathy. It is far from obvious that her story has any chance of standing up to scrutiny, and yet here we are, applauding those who proclaim victimhood as their “truth.”
So why embrace a mindset that results in anger, unhappiness, and — ultimately — failure? Because it is powerful. In politics, it is a great fundraiser, as both sides have discovered. It can also be an attempt — albeit a blatantly cynical one — to connect emotionally with victimized groups for personal advantage — Elizabeth Warren’s claims of native American heritage, for instance. As a rhetorical weapon, victimhood is used to link personal trauma to unrelated policy arguments in order to manipulate the debate.
This manipulation of trauma should be seen for what it is, instead of being celebrated.
How do we get better? The answer lies in better storytelling. When a bad thing happens — and they certainly do happen — we tell ourselves a story about it. The story shouldn’t be about changing the facts of the event or downplaying the severity of true trauma. It should be about changing our interpretation of it. We can tell ourselves a story of despair and self-pity, from which we may never recover, or we can tell ourselves a story of overcoming hardship and being stronger for it. The outcomes of each of these opposing paths are obvious. For me, one path would have sent me on permanent disability collection. The other path sent me to Congress.
None of this is to say that no one has been victimized or traumatized, or that such claims are disingenuous. It is to say that we have no control over past events, but only how we grow from them. We have a choice: fortitude or fragility. We have a choice to empower ourselves with accountability or surrender to despair and self-pity. Admitting you do indeed have control over your circumstances is far more difficult than the easier decision to blame others. Nevertheless, it must be done. I believe America’s future is lost if we cede it to victimhood ideology, where hardship permanently disables us. A stronger America is a more prosperous America, and we can only accomplish that if we become stronger Americans.
So, live with fortitude.
Representative Dan Crenshaw is a former Navy SEAL who serves Texas’ Second Congressional District in Congress and sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.