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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

You’ve been wronged. That doesn’t make you right.

By Pamela Paul

We are living in a golden age of aggrievement. No matter who you are or what your politics, whatever your ethnic origin, economic circumstance, family history or mental health status, chances are you have ample reason to be ticked off.

If you’re on the left, you have been oppressed, denied, marginalized, silenced, erased, pained, underrepresented, underresourced, traumatized, harmed and hurt. If you’re on the right, you’ve been ignored, overlooked, demeaned, underestimated, shouted down, maligned, caricatured and despised; in Trumpspeak: wronged and betrayed.

Plenty of the dissatisfaction is justified. But not all. What was Jan. 6 at heart but a gigantic tantrum by those who felt they’d been cheated and would take back their due, by whatever means necessary?

People have always fought over unequal access to scarce resources. Yet never has our culture made the claiming of complaint such an animating force, a near compulsory zero-sum game in which every party feels as if it’s been uniquely abused. Nor has the urge to leverage powerlessness as a form of power felt quite so universal — more pervasive on the left, if considerably more threatening on the right.

Against this backdrop, reading Frank Bruni’s new book, “The Age of Grievance,” is one sad nod and head shake after another. Building on the concept of the oppression Olympics, “the idea that people occupying different rungs of privilege or victimization can’t possibly grasp life elsewhere on the ladder,” which he first described in a 2017 column, Bruni, now a contributing writer for New York Times Opinion, shows how that mindset has been baked into everything from elementary school to government institutions. Tending to our respective fiefs, Bruni writes, is “to privilege the private over the public, to gaze inward rather than outward, and that’s not a great facilitator of common cause, common ground, compromise.”

Consider its reflection in just one phenomenon: “progressive stacking,” a method by which an assumed hierarchy of privilege is inverted so that the most marginalized voices are given precedence. Perhaps worthy in theory. But who is making these determinations and according to which set of assumptions? Think of the sticky moral quandaries: Who is more oppressed, an older, disabled white veteran or a young, gay Latino man? A transgender woman who lived for five decades as a man or a 16-year-old girl? What does it mean that vying for the top position involves proving how hard off and vulnerable you are?

Individuals as well as tribes, ethnic groups and nations are divvied up into simplistic binaries: colonizer vs. colonized, oppressor vs. oppressed, privileged and not. On college campuses and in nonprofit organizations, in workplaces and in public institutions, people can determine, perform and weaponize their grievance, knowing they can appeal to the administration, to human resources or to online court where they will be rewarded with attention, if not substantive improvement in actual circumstance.

The aggrieved take to social media where those looking to be offended are fed at the trough. Bruni refers to those who let you know that some representative of a wronged party is under threat as the “indignity sentries of Twitter.” Ready to stir the pot, let the indignation begin and may the loudest complainer win!

But goading people into a constant sense of alarmism distracts from actual wrongdoing in the world. Turning complex tragedies into simple contests between who ticks more boxes rarely clarifies the situation. In San Francisco, when a Black Hispanic female district attorney chose not to file charges against the Black Walgreens security guard who shot Banko Brown, a Black, homeless transgender man who was accused of shoplifting, the entire episode was read not only as a crime and a referendum on arming security guards but also as a human rights crisis, simultaneously anti-trans, anti-homeless and racist.

In Brooklyn, when a man presumed to be homeless and mentally ill reportedly killed a golden retriever and the police did not immediately arrest him, the dog owner’s fears and efforts by some in the community to get the police to respond were read as racist vigilantism. The ensuing finger-pointing, name-calling and outrage did nothing to address the problems of homelessness, public safety or mental health.

The compulsion to find offense everywhere leaves us endlessly stewing. Whatever your politics, it assumes and feeds a narrative that stretches expansively from the acutely personal to the grandly political — from me and mine to you and the other, from us vs. them to good vs. evil. And as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff warned in their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the calculus is that if you’re hurt or upset, your feelings must be validated. You can see this reductive mindset in action in protest after protest across America as a contest plays out between Jews and Palestinians over who has been historically more oppressed and should therefore have the upper hand now.

But as Ricky Gervais says, “Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.” Being oppressed doesn’t necessarily make you good, any more than “might is right.” Having been victimized doesn’t give you a pass.

If it felt like any of the persecution grandstanding led to progress, we might wanly allow grievance culture to march on. Instead, as one undergraduate noted in the Harvard Political Review, “In pitting subjugated groups against one another, the Oppression Olympics not only reduce the store of resources to which groups and movements have access, but also breed intersectional bitterness that facilitates further injustice.” Rewarding a victim-centric worldview, which we do from the classroom to the workplace to our political institutions, only sows more divisiveness and fatalism. It seems to satisfy no one, and people are more outraged than ever. Even those who hate Tucker Carlson become Tucker Carlson.

The acrimony has only intensified in the past few years. The battlefield keeps widening. What begins as a threat often descends into protests, riots and physical violence. It’s difficult for anyone to wade through all of this without feeling wronged in one way or another. But it wrongs us all. And if we continue to mistake grievance for righteousness, we only set ourselves up for more of the same.

21 views1 comment


Deborah Marchant
Deborah Marchant

Hi 👋🏼

There are two words that describe this. These two words are “rage porn”.

This means people can be addicted to feeling enraged.

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