Some people always seek an unfair advantage whatever system they operate in. Today, thanks to advances in administrative sciences, many of the traditional forms of corruption have become difficult. However, human ingenuity ensures that new techniques will emerge, and the latest is false victimhood: exaggerating or fabricating a way in which you have been wronged, and demanding compensation.
For centuries, one of the most frequently exploited means of corruption was nepotism: leveraging your personal relationships to secure resources and influence that you don’t deserve on merit. Nepotism comes naturally to humans because it is the natural extension of kin selection, i.e., our innate tendency to treat our close relatives better than strangers.
Innumerable organizations have had their performance undermined by nepotism. Fortunately, in the background, competition between groups has always generated a pressure to eliminate nepotism: if your organization can hire people impersonally, and can promote based on merit, then it will outperform organizations that treat the hierarchy like an extension of the leader’s household.
When science codified this important lesson in the form of theories of optimal administration, societies became able to institutionalize the elimination of nepotism. Today, we can see large organizations that flourish because they know how to hire and promote on merit.
However, some people have a burning desire to get more than the deserve, and if they find old doors such as nepotism closed, they will simply try to open new ones. In 2022, the newest form of corruption is false victimhood.
It starts with a person imagining that they have been denied resources or influence that they imagine they deserve. They then figure that this must be due to some conspiracy concocted by people who are different to them somehow, and who have power.
The next step is to create a narrative alleging that they have been victimized. This will involve stories of misfortune that the person suffered at some point in their life.
The final step is to convey these tales of hardship to people in power, and to tacitly or even explicitly demand that they be compensated now for these outstanding grievances. That includes receiving extra consideration for jobs and promotions, being given better odds for scholarships and grants, having a higher likelihood of publishing their paper in a prestigious journal, and so on.
If you use social media such as Twitter, then it’s basically impossible to avoid this phenomenon. In my field of economics, the demands are never totally explicit; they are usually quasi-subtle.
For example, in the past, when someone got a job or published a paper, they would simply announce this and receive the congratulations that they deserve from friends and strangers alike. Now, in the age of false victimhood, the success story includes some allusion to overcoming a past injustice: “I got hired despite nobody in my family having gone to university,” “I published this paper despite having three editors attack me personally in conferences,” “I got promoted to full professor even though I’m the only Muslim in my department,” and so on.
What they are trying to do is gain social status among their peers, and to exaggerate the magnitude of their achievement. To avoid accusations of this, they hide behind claims that they are trying to inspire others who have experienced similar injustices or misfortune.
In fairness, in some cases, these people are earnest in their desire to be a role model for others and to seek no unfair advantage. However, some are just the ones who would have tried nepotism in the past, but now see that option ruled out and are using the currently available form of corruption.
What makes this process more nauseating is that most of us have been wronged frequently in our lives, but we regard it as undignified to share these very personal stories on the internet. For every immigrant who broadcast the racism they experienced to thousands of followers on Twitter as a way of self-aggrandizing their current achievements, there are many more immigrants who don’t want to share those experiences with the world: they would rather celebrate their successes in a more positive manner. This latter group are no less deserving for recognition by their peers, but they must suffer the additional indignity of seeing a charlatan with a big mouth unjustly securing favors from the professional community.
How do I know there are dishonest claims of victimhood? Because it has become socially unacceptable to challenge someone’s claims of being a victim. In my opinion, it is both naïve and imprudent to imagine that this cloak of immunity that we offer to self-identified victims will not motivate people to exaggerate or outright lie. Some high-profile cases have been exposed, and I am confident that they represent the tip of a false victimhood iceberg.
The solution is not to shame people into thinking that they can’t describe their life struggles. However, we should be a little more circumspect when hearing these stories and acknowledge the distinct possibility that impunity breeds deceit. That would be a greater service to those who might otherwise be denied advantages simply because they regard life’s tribulations as a private matter ill-suited for social media.