The Social Currency of Victimhood


Much has been made in recent months of the so-called “generation snowflake”. This is hardly surprising given the disproportionate role of millennials in re-shaping social and political norms in frankly sinister ways; the destruction of free expression and open conversation on university campuses; the championing of censorship, the anti-science impulses that run through gender-identity movements; and the segregationist attitude to identity in general. To be clear from the outset, I am always against the demonization of people just for the membership of a generation or age-group – I always found the stereotyping of Generation X as feckless and nihilistic or Generation X’s own loathing of baby-boomers distasteful. I was disgusted by the hatred directed at the elderly following the Brexit vote and I recognise that there are many millennials who are extremely frustrated by the attitudes of their peers. Be that as it may, generation snowflake, as a description of an attitudinal subset of millennials, is somewhat apt and warrants further analysis.

The term itself did not originate, as one hilariously moronic protest sign recently claimed, from a historical Nazi term for the ashes of concentration camp victims, but lambasts the exaltation of entitlement by reference to a line from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club:

You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap.”

This is a wake-up call from reality, an attempt to call attention to and hopefully roll back this distortion of what actually should matter in life and society. The corrosive ways in which generation snowflake have tried to reshape society and the reasons for it can be traced largely to what they have been led to value and expect out of life. In short, their primary social currency is victimhood rather than merit.

The role of social currency has been traditionally occupied by skill and relative merit in liberal democracies. Of course, meritocracy has come under a lot of fire in recent years, particularly from those of a socialist bent as being an impossible utopia and an excuse for rampant pseudo-Randian selfishness at the expense of social conscience. I have even seen the word “meritocrat”, bafflingly, used as a pejorative (in an equally baffling rant article in The Independent some years ago criticising Harry Potter for promoting un-progressive values – take from that what you will). The flaw in this criticism is the idea of a perfect meritocracy as a tangible end goal. In actual fact, liberal society, at its best, pursues meritocracy as a guiding principle with no “perfect” end-goal in sight (unlike Marxists and post-structuralists who slam it for an ideological flaw they themselves uphold).

In short, their primary social currency is victimhood rather than merit.

The “snowflake” label makes even more sense when you analyse the reasons for this shift in values. This is a largely privileged middle-class population who have been (to generalise) raised with far less emphasis on meritocracy and far more on equality of outcome or non-favouritism – the latter being of the Oprah Winfrey-esque “everybody gets one”, participation-prize philosophy. Many people who have worked in education for the last decade or two will attest to this. The short description would be “entitlement”. The reasons for this social trend are highly complex but relate to, among other things, the decline of traditional education standards – arising as a Band-Aid to pretend it’s not happening (as it would be glaringly obvious under a more strictly meritocratic structure) and to the distortion of cultural identity in the West.

What is arguably just as interesting is its consequences. As the self-help blogger Mark Manson points out, entitlement need not only mean uniquely special, it can also mean uniquely cursed and, in some cases, the two are indistinguishable both in origin and outcome.

When you remove relative merit from the equation, another system of social currency will arise to replace it. Just as when an actual currency collapses it will be replaced by either a reserve currency, bond notes or even a barter system.

When the new normal becomes a pseudo-Marxist goal of equality of outcome and “redress” based on relative privilege, as opposed to remuneration based on relative merit and value-add, victimhood both figuratively and even literally (as merit can be translated into monetary value) becomes the new currency.

So where does this lead? Well you need to codify and commodify victimhood, so that it can be represented in some way (in just the same way money used to represent an obligation in gold). Thus arises the progressive stack, the ranking of relative privilege by all these different forms of identity: straight white able-bodied male on one end, trans, disabled, female and whatever other aggrieved position can be imagined on the other.

And what are the consequences of this? Just as a capitalist system creates a boom in “luxury” i.e. unnecessary or surplus-to-requirement goods in order to maximise and expand access to value-obligations, so there is a cascading effect with this social currency. Are you an able-bodied male? No problem, you can access all these additional victim-identities, just say you’re a non-binary trans otherkin or some such garbage and you can maximise your victimhood equity. The manufacture of myriad identities to cling to has a kind of runaway surplus effect that is startling to witness.

The synonymy between relative victimhood and identity and the resultant demonization of meritocracy is a major story of our times and those disillusioned by it create terms like “generation snowflake” and “SJW” to make sense of it. Naming the problem has always been important but without truly understanding it we may never have a solution. It can be argued that this strange cultural moment we find ourselves in is too strange and unstable to be anything but ephemeral. Ephemeral the moment may be, but its consequences may not be so short-lived. To conclude with my economic metaphor: the Wall Street Crash, the Dot Com bubble and the Property Crash of 2008 were all brief and calamitous moments in time but their consequences reverberated for decades, perhaps even centuries to come. I fear the same may be true for our Western culture.

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ