The new victimology

In late August 2018 the news wires had a field day with a story that seemed designed to trigger a public backlash, or at least light up Twitter for 24 hours.

During a sentencing hearing for Christopher Garnier, who had murdered an off-duty police officer and dumped her body in a compost bin, the convicted killer’s psychologist revealed that Garnier suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition brought on by his crime. It was then argued that said condition should be a mitigating factor in determining Garnier’s sentence.

Few commentators could resist invoking the classic definition of chutzpah: the kid who kills his parents and then begs the court for leniency because he is an orphan. There were also howls of outrage that Garnier should even be receiving veteran’s benefits (including his therapy for PTSD), which he was only eligible for because his father had been in the armed forces.

People were right to be upset, but while Garnier’s case is egregious there is nothing out of the ordinary about his desperate claim to victim status. This has become not just a shrewd tactical move but an imperative in many legal proceedings. As Lewis Lapham once explained, to be a victim is to be “Always and forever innocent.” But even outside the courtroom being credentialed as a victim has real benefits. In general these fall into two categories. Being a victim means:

(1) You aren’t personally responsible (or, worse, liable) for anything.
(2) Somebody owes you — at least a special duty of care and quite possibly a lot of money.

What this has led to has been described as the “victimhood Olympics” or, in the words of Todd Gitlin in his book The Twilight of Common Dreams, a race for the crown of thorns.

There have long been critics of this development, usually from the political right. They are quick to label those claiming to be victims as whiners looking for special treatment. Today these people are sometimes mocked as snowflakes, but the diagnosis of the victim condition goes back well before this, to the first wave of political correctness in the 1990s and books like Charles J. Sykes’s A Nation of Victims (1992), Robert Hughes’s The Culture of Complaint (1993), and Alan Dershowitz’s The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-Outs, Sob Stories, and Evasions of Responsibility (1994).

What concerned Sykes was, as his subtitle puts it, “the decay of the American character” through the cultivation of an ideology of the ego and the rise of therapeutic culture. He has a whole theoretical framework explaining how this “fundamental transformation of American cultural values and notions of character and personal responsibility” happened. Along the way he gets to mine some funny headlines that help to make the larger point. Here’s just a sample of where things were heading twenty-five years ago:

Men have sued diet clinics because they sponsor female-only weight-loss programs; the San Francisco Giants are sued for giving away Father’s Day gifts to men only; a psychology professor complains that she has been victimized by the presence of mistletoe at a Christmas party, and claims sexual harassment. In the current legal climate, even an attempt to uphold civil rights can become a source of claimed victimization: In Miami, a court ruled that a woman be paid forty thousand dollars in worker’s compensation benefits after she complained that she was so afraid of blacks that she was unable to work in an integrated office.

Two Marines alleged they had been unconstitutionally discriminated against because the Marine Corps had discharged them for “being chronically overweight.” A postal clerk who is left-handed accused the U.S. Postal Service of discriminatory bias in setting up filing cases “for the convenience of right-handed clerks.” A twenty-four-year-old Colorado man sued his mother and father for what he called “parental malpractice.” In Hawaii, a family of tourists who had been shunted to “less desirable lodgings” by their overbooked hotel not only sued for their economic losses, but were awarded cash for their “emotional distress and disappointment.”

It’s not such a big stretch to get from here to Garnier’s PTSD.

I mentioned that this was all being said at the time of the first wave of political correctness. As I’ve written before, what we’re currently going through is PC’s second wave, which has in turn given rise to its own critical voices challenging the victimhood Olympics. Here, to take only one prominent example, is anti-PC warrior Jordan Peterson being interviewed by Christie Blatchford:

There’s an epidemic of self-diagnosis among young people, there’s a race to multiply pathology, there’s a glorification of disorders like borderline personality disorder, which is rare. When being the most oppressed victim gives you the highest status, then it’s a race to the bottom.

We’re not helping young people figure out a noble and difficult pathway forward, where they bear responsibility and march forthrightly into adulthood. Quite the contrary. We’re saying, ‘Well, the system is corrupt and there’s no point in taking part in it. You’re going to be victimized no matter what you do.’ And so the race is on for who gets to play the victim card with the highest degree of status.

I’ve said this is a critique most often coming from the right, but it’s a vice we find at both ends of the political spectrum. After facing blowback for posting a picture of herself holding the severed head of Donald Trump, comedian Kathy Griffin tearfully claimed victim status, as did right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after having his book deal canceled when reports of some of his earlier comments about sex with minors were made public. Hillary Clinton has always cast her political failings in terms of something done to her, but nobody tops Donald Trump in his role as Victim-in-Chief, whining that no politician in history has been treated more unfairly. As Katy Waldman puts it: “Trump has always played the victim, never more so than when he’s occupied the highest perch in the land. He could be sitting on an ocean of gold like Smaug in The Hobbit and still demand sympathy, moaning that the haters and the liars were robbing him blind.”

But if the criticism of what Sykes calls “victimism” and its attendant race to the bottom – where we are all, in his words “competitors for the honor of most downtrodden” – has remained constant, some of the events in the victimhood Olympics have changed. In particular, two new labels have recently grown so common and widespread in the last twenty years that today they dominate the field of victimology. They are PTSD and the autism spectrum.

Now before I go any further I want to be clear on this: PTSD and autism are real conditions. The point I want to focus on is their co-option: the way they’ve been adopted and exploited by opportunists. As Sykes put it: “Criticism . . . of the distortions of what it means to be ‘handicapped’ does not apply to the genuinely disabled. It merely highlights the gross cynicism of a culture of victimism that encourages and allows others to latch onto the moral and legal standing of the disabled for their own advantage.”

The reason PTSD and autism have become so popular is precisely because of their diagnostic fuzziness. Of course in extreme and perfectly valid cases diagnosis is so obvious one needn’t have any professional qualifications to determine that something is wrong. But any healthy person so inclined (and the incentives are there) can easily find the correct checklist of symptoms to evidence just by heading to Wikipedia. The problem then becomes how you prove someone doesn’t have PTSD or how you can establish that someone is not on the autism spectrum.

It is a spectrum, after all, and once you get to the place where it borders whatever you want to define as non-autistic who can draw the line? Recent years have seen numerous celebrities testing the waters. Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps most famously, initially speculated that he might be on the autism spectrum and then backed down in the face of public backlash. Meanwhile, autism has come to signify not a disability at all but a gift of superhuman powers. Shakespeare, we are told, must have been on the spectrum. Einstein too. And just about every Silicon Valley tycoon. Pity the billionaires!

One can appreciate the resulting confusion among the general public. I know individuals who struggle with autism but I also know men (they have always been men in my experience) who use the label as an excuse for some other failing or deficiency. But I don’t want to get into personal anecdotes. Instead I’ll let some professionals describe what is going on.

In 2012 Benjamin Wallace wrote a long piece that was published in New York Magazine talking about how the diagnosis of Asperger’s has been experiencing significant clinical mission creep. It’s worth quoting some of what he has to say at length:

The diagnosis is everywhere: Facebook’s former head of engineering has stated that Mark Zuckerberg has “a touch of the Asperger’s.” Time suggested that the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic; a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and “fascination with numbers,” has “a vaguely autistic aura.” On Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew Pinsky deemed Dennis Rodman (selectively hyperfocused, socially obtuse) a candidate for an Asperger’s diagnosis, and the UCLA specialist brought in to make it official “seemed to concur,” Pinsky told viewers. On the Asperger’s community site Wrong Planet, threads like “Real life celebrities who have or probably have Asperger’s” include Jim Carrey, Adolf Hitler, Daryl Hannah, Slash, Billy Joel, J. K. Rowling, and Adam Carolla, who makes the cut because “I’ve heard guests on his podcast remark on his lack of eye contact.” “Kanye Probably Has Asperger’s,” BuzzFeed recently declared.

Still others are seeing it in themselves. David Byrne: “I was a peculiar young man—borderline Asperger’s, I would guess.” Craigs­list founder Craig Newmark, noting his poor eye contact and limited social competency, blogged that Asperger’s symptoms “feel uncomfortably familiar.” Dan Harmon, the volatile creator of NBC’s Community, told an interviewer last year that he had boned up on Asperger’s symptoms when researching the character Abed: “The more I looked them up, the more familiar they seemed.” Dan Aykroyd told NPR’s Terry Gross that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child (a puzzling claim given that the diagnosis didn’t exist prior to 1981, when Aykroyd turned 29); Aykroyd insisted he was being serious, and as evidence of his continuing symptoms he noted his “fascination with law enforcement and the police.”

What is happening?

This is not a story about Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families. It is, instead, a story about “Asperger’s,” “autism,” and “the spectrum”—our one-stop-shopping shorthand for the jerky husband, the socially inept plutocrat, the tactless boss, the child prodigy with no friends, the remorseless criminal. It’s about the words we deploy to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.

[Psychologist Bryna] Siegel, who has been running her clinic since the eighties, says she’s seeing “more false-positive assessments than ever before.” Of the roughly ten new assessments she’s asked to do every week—kids showing up with spectrum diagnoses from another therapist—six of them might not have an autism-spectrum disorder. This isn’t to say that they may not have psychological issues, only that those are either other disorders or they don’t rise to an impairing level. “A lot of kids are just delayed in development, slow to talk, or anxious, or hyperactive, and a lot of kids are just terribly parented.”

Siegel sees overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis as driven largely by economic and social priorities rather than medical ones. Some adults who might be very high-functioning seek a formal diagnosis because it enables them to, in Siegel’s words, “wallow” in their symptoms rather than “ameliorate” them, because they’re “a lunch ticket.” Poor parents want diagnoses serious enough to merit state-funded school services, and rich parents want the least stigmatizing diagnoses. (“When you say a kid is mentally retarded,” Siegel says, “parents try to talk you out of it.”) And some parents are simply flummoxed by their own kids’ irrational mood swings, refusal of food, or inability to express emotion. When these parents come to Siegel, they get a surprise: She diagnoses their children as suffering from childhood.

“We see a lot of diagnosis-of-childhood kids, whose parents have never set limits, plus kids who are temperamentally difficult to raise.”

Also temperamentally difficult: husbands. Put-upon spouses have seized on the autism rainbow as a simple, esteem-boosting way to pathologize what used to be called “a typical guy.” Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading expert on Asperger’s at Cambridge (and, as it happens, the cousin of Sacha), has theorized that the autism spectrum represents the “extreme male brain,” turned up to eleven. Hence the ubiquity of spectrum references in the coastal power centers where Nora Ephron spent most of her time. And the Internet abounds with unhappy married women diagnosing their callous workaholic husbands with Asperger’s, whether or not a clinician has seconded their opinion. In a forum called Asperger Divorce Support Group, posters share war stories, some less harrowing than others: “My ex … did not GET a sunset. He took pictures of fall color trees last year and said, ‘I guess its cool looking, right?’ ”

“It’s become more frequent in the last five years,” confirms a Connecticut divorce lawyer who says she has represented parties in several cases where a wife accused the husband of being on the spectrum. “It’s women complaining, ‘He lines up my towels perfectly. He complains if his shoes aren’t lined up right.’ ”

Men have caught on and, in a kind of inverted gaslighting, begun to describe themselves as having Asperger’s as a way of controlling their spouses. “Having Asperger’s-like syndrome does not give you Asperger’s,” says David Schnarch, a Colorado-based couples therapist. “Having a big belly does not make you pregnant. I’ve not seen a single case of what I would consider to be diagnosable Asperger’s. But I have seen any number of cases of wives accusing husbands of it, any number of cases of husbands claiming to have it.” It’s the new ADHD, he says. “The wife doesn’t want to accept that the husband knows what he’s doing when he’s doing something she doesn’t like.” Schnarch recalls a man who phoned him the day before a scheduled initial couples session and announced that he’d just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. “As soon as this happened,” Schnarch says, “I knew I had difficulty.” He contacted the referring therapist, who said he’d suspected the man had Asperger’s because he said things to his girlfriend that were so cruel he couldn’t possibly understand their impact. As far as Schnarch was concerned, it was an all-too-familiar instance of sadism masquerading as disability. “If you’re going to perp, the best place to perp from is the victim position.”

Because Asperger’s lives on the outskirts of normal, and because its symptoms can resemble willfully antisocial behavior, there’s now a presumption of excuse-making whenever someone invokes it to get out of a pickle. Last October, South Park aired an episode in which the people at an Asperger’s group-therapy center turn out to be faking their symptoms and not even to believe in the reality of the disorder. (Cartman, meanwhile, mishearing Asperger’s as “Ass Burgers,” tries to fake it by stuffing his underwear with hamburgers.) “You’re not autistic,” a doctor tells Hugh Laurie’s abrasive character in an episode of House. “You don’t even have Asperger’s. You wish you did; it would exempt you from the rules, give you freedom, absolve you of responsibility, let you date 17-year-olds. But, most important, it would mean that you’re not just a jerk.”

But, and the question demands to be asked, what if you are just a jerk? What if, instead of having Asperger’s, a condition that calls for support and sympathy, all you are is an asshole? In online forums too numerous to count this is a possibility that must never be entertained: we must always and absolutely believe and support victims in everything. Yet professionally it does seem to be an issue.

A similar problem is being encountered by therapists looking to deal with the explosion in cases of PTSD, another condition that can be very difficult to define and diagnose. Here’s a piece from the Los Angeles Times by Alan Zarembo headlined “As disability awards grow, so do concerns with veracity of PTSD claims”:

The 49-year-old veteran explained that he suffered from paranoia in crowds, nightmares and unrelenting flashbacks from the Iraq war. He said he needed his handgun to feel secure and worried that he would shoot somebody.
The symptoms were textbook post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Robert Moering, the psychologist conducting the disability examination at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa, Fla., suspected the veteran was exaggerating. Hardly anybody had so many symptoms of PTSD so much of the time.

As disability awards for PTSD have grown nearly fivefold over the last 13 years, so have concerns that many veterans might be exaggerating or lying to win benefits. Moering, a former Marine, estimates that roughly half of the veterans he evaluates for the disorder exaggerate or fabricate symptoms.

Depending on severity, veterans with PTSD can receive up to $3,000 a month tax-free, making the disorder the biggest contributor to the growth of a disability system in which payments have more than doubled to $49 billion since 2002.

“It’s an open secret that a large chunk of patients are flat-out malingering,” said Christopher Frueh, a University of Hawaii psychologist who spent 15 years treating PTSD in the VA system.

Again I have to stress that PTSD is a real condition. It is, however, uncommon, and traditionally has its roots in extreme traumatic shocks. Being caught in an artillery bombardment, for example, or surviving a violent sexual assault. And yet one reads today of people claiming PTSD for what are scarcely more than the common disappointments of everyday life, just as one hears of people claiming to have autism simply because they don’t like other people or have become bored with their jobs or sick of their wives. And then there is Christopher Garnier.

Commentators seem unsure of whether there really is an increase in the rates of autism and PTSD or whether it is just being diagnosed more. The problem is that with no clear diagnosis both conditions have been adopted as all-purpose excuses for any sort of misbehaviour or disability claim. In general, I think professional therapists understand what is going on and want to push back. If you are committed to getting properly credentialed as a victim, however, there’s nothing stopping you from shopping around until you finally get the diagnosis you want. One would hope that the communities involved would try to do more to police this abuse, but so far I’ve seen little evidence of that happening. Instead, the labels continue to expand their reach. Garnier may not be where all this ends.

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