There’s power in being a victim. It may sound perverse; after all, who would want to be a victim? But the fact is, victims get attention, sympathy, and under the best of circumstances are able to inflict punishment on those who have wronged them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this system, and traditionally it has worked quite well. After all, in order to be a victim, something bad has to happen to you. And while there are some people who are willing to suffer real injury in order to garner attention (see: Munchausen’s Syndrome), these cases are rare, and in general it is better to give victims the sympathy they deserve rather than assume that everyone is a mental case.

However, in recent years there has been a change in the concept of injury that has rendered this whole system untenable. In the past, the status of victimhood was only attained through some demonstrable physical damage. The victim of an assault, a robbery, on any other sort of offense has to point to an actual event that either did or did not happen. Using investigative and judicial proceedings, we can determine whether the victim is actually a victim. The consequences of lying, both legal and reputational, can be severe, and the cost of telling the truth ranges from loss of personal property to grievous bodily injury. In short, being a victim, real or imagined, was seldom a pleasant role to assume, notwithstanding any minor perks that may come along with it.

In today’s culture of trigger warnings and microaggressions, the situation is different. It is no longer necessary for a physical crime to have taken place in order for someone to assume victim status.

All that must happen is a sense of hurt feelings, and we’re supposed to treat the offended party as if they have been actually wronged. Of course, there’s something to be said for sensitivity and respect; it’s not nice to go around deliberating hurting people’s feelings, and decent people should try to avoid doing so. But the incentives put in place by this new definition of harm are disastrous for a civil society trying to live together.

The first problem is that offense is a subjective phenomenon that takes place only inside the mind of the alleged victim. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, there are no offensive statements, only offended people. The same statement can be a harmless joke, a genuine philosophical point, or an offensive slur depending on context. Whereas we can usually figure out whether a physical assault has taken place or not using evidence, there is no way to determine whether some is actually offended, or whether they are simply pretending to be offended, or at the very least, exaggerating the degree of the offense.

Why, you may ask, would someone want to invent an imaginary offense? Shouldn’t we just take people at their word? It would be nice if this were the case, but unfortunately it’s not. As mentioned above, victim status confers several types of generally desirable power. If you feel ignored and unimportant, complaining loudly enough can get you on television. If you feel unloved, a profession of hurt feelings can get legions of social media warriors to come to your defense with praise, sympathy, and declarations of your bravery for speaking out. If you have a grudge against a person or a company, you can arrange a boycott, or maybe even a firing, simply by being offended loudly enough for people to notice. We mustn’t forget the case of ex-Mozilla CEO, Brendan Eich, who was fired over complaints that he once donated a trivial amount of money to an organization opposing gay marriage. Or of Jay-Z, who managed to affect the entire market share of Cristal champagne by alleging racism on the part of the company. If that’s not power, I don’t know what is.

As an economist by training, I’ve learned to view human behavior in terms of incentives. People aren’t inherently good or inherently bad, but they are inherently self-interested.

If you create an incentive for people to behave in a certain way, they will do so. As things stand, there are tangible benefits to manufacturing or exaggerating claims of hurt feelings, and very few drawbacks. No one can prove that you are not as offended as you say you are, and you don’t actually have to suffer any real harm in order to claim victimhood as a status. Unlike a case of physical assault, you can’t go to jail for lying about being triggered. With all this in mind, the question is not “why would someone feign being offended?” It’s “why wouldn’t they?”

The consequences of this state of affairs should be obvious. When everyone has an incentive to shout down people they disagree with rather than listen to them, productive dialogue comes to a halt. And it is only through productive dialogue that we as a society are able to solve the complex problems of living together, problems like race relations, sexual harassment, political polarization, immigration, or simply being good neighbors to one another. Ironically, by encouraging and enabling a culture of victimhood, the Left is obstructing solutions to what it views as the biggest problems facing our country.

The only way we’re going to make any progress is to stop equating speech with violence, and make a distinction between real victims and those who simply don’t like what they are hearing. The alternative is a cultural arms race in which each side tries to destroy the other with increasingly hysterical accusations of bigotry and intolerance. That’s not only destructive to our civilization, it’s not a very fun way to live.

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