The imagery was striking. To fulfill a requirement for a senior performance art project, Emma Sulkowicz carried a small dorm-room mattress with her daily throughout her final year at Columbia University. She titled her project “Carry That Weight,” as the mattress represented the emotional burden of having been raped, she claimed, on a similar mattress earlier during her time at Columbia. The project succeeded marvelously. Within a few weeks, it attracted mainstream media attention, and Columbia became the latest flash-point in American sexual politics.
The masochism of Emma’s project is what fascinated us. Carrying the mattress demanded drastic lifestyle change. It’d be inconvenient and exhausting. It’d cripple her social life. She’d be readily identifiable in public at all times, and would invite criticism and ridicule. The combined effect was of severe, deliberate suffering. How did Emma know this exhibitionist masochism would succeed so magnificently in sharpening our focus on her cause? What did she know about her audience – the American public – that suggested we’d be transfixed by such laughable self-flagellation?
The notion that suffering makes us better people is a moral assumption common to the three Abrahamic faiths. In art and doctrine, it’s most obvious in Christianity. Indeed, the suffering of Jesus on the cross at Golgotha is a key tenet of why Christians regard him as a savior. The virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection are also important, but it was his suffering – his pain, his anguish, his humiliation – that Christians cite as the “payment” for Original Sin. The supernatural events are evidence of divinity, but it was Christ’s suffering that made him the Messiah.
Modern Christians practice self-denial and penance in hopes of becoming more “Christ-like.” In their opposition to physician-assisted suicide, fundamentalist Christians often portray the suffering of the terminally ill as “beautiful” and “inspirational” experiences that can serve as vehicles to salvation. Even worship – especially in liturgical denominations – is an exercise in gentle masochism, with extended periods of kneeling, tedious chanting, and strict prohibitions against expressing boredom.
The voices of the faithful reciting those liturgies have become softer during the past half-century. Leaders of major denominations plainly acknowledge declines in church membership and worship service attendance, as well as a corresponding rise in the average age of their congregations. The severity of this trend varies geographically and demographically, with it being most pronounced among well-educated westerners living in wealthy urban areas.
We can make a reasonably assume Ms. Sulkowicz and her classmates at Columbia are included in most of these demographic categories. It would seem to follow that while receiving an elite education in our most cosmopolitan city, she would’ve been inoculated from damaging religious dogma. However, as many ex-Christians have explained, it can take a lifetime to discard the religious residue that continues to inform our worldview. Those value judgements continue to shape our behavior and relationships. We see evidence of this pattern among atheists who continue to express disgust at homosexual love, or who believe women should remain content in subordinate roles.
I suspect we can find the moral foundation of the Mattress Girl incident and others like it in a residual, post-Christian assumption that suffering makes us better people. We dismiss the Gospels as mythology, but allow religious assumptions to shape otherwise humanist moral judgements. Emma knew the most reliable means of bringing attention to her cause was to present herself as a secular martyr, “carrying the weight” of society’s failure to protect women. It was unnecessary to demonstrate her actual victimization at the hands of an aggressor. The spectacle of suffering was the only critical aspect of her campaign. Who caused the suffering – herself, the accused, university administration, or “society” – was largely immaterial. The image of a thin, un-athletic young woman awkwardly lugging furniture around an elite university established her as a martyr of social justice in the minds of her audience.
Ms. Sulkowicz has likely secured herself a legacy as the prototypical narcissistic, millennial social justice advocate. The man she accused of rape has been exonerated, and has filed a civil lawsuit against Columbia University administration for facilitating Emma’s theatrics. However, Sulcowicz’s behavior was consistent with that of many of her ideologically-motivated contemporaries. We can examine similar high-profile campaigns or “projects,” but the behavior and the underlying values now permeate nearly all levels of discussion of social justice.
The Virtue of Victimhood assumes a person’s credibility is positively correlated with the severity of the oppression s/he experiences. We assume that affliction confers upon us a type of moral capital. That capital may be leveraged for credibility in discussions of social justice, even if our argument is flawed, incoherent, or self-serving. In many areas of identity politics, not having suffered the relevant type of oppression – for example, having experienced racial discrimination – can wholly disqualify a person from serious participation in a conversation, even if their position is sympathetic to the oppressed group.
It’s difficult to overstate the destructive effect this dynamic has on our understanding of social justice. Most notably, the Virtue of Victimhood provides an incentive for us to exaggerate or entirely fabricate experiences of suffering in order to see our perspectives taken seriously. Documents filed in the lawsuit against Columbia supports the conclusion that Ms. Sulkowicz was not raped, and that her accusations were in part retribution for romantic disinterest. It’s important to note that much of what this young lady wanted to accomplish was not actually contingent upon her being a victim of rape. Her argument that campus sexual assault is a neglected issue, that universities should take a more aggressive role in its prevention, the prosecution of offenders, and the support of victims; remains valid in light of the knowledge that she likely fabricated the story. She knew, however, that a story of actual sexual victimization coupled with the dramatic optics of self-inflicted pain and humiliation, were a nearly failsafe means by which to propel herself to national prominence as a social justice martyr.
The increased tolerance of flawed arguments is another byproduct of our acceptance of the Virtue of Victimhood. We have learned to assess arguments based not upon their coherence, but rather upon the resume of claimed oppression presented by its advocate. Suffering can give us unique perspectives on a questions of social justice. However, it does not release us from the responsibility of framing an argument supported by evidence available to our audience. When we, as the audience, release an activist from this responsibility, we are inviting ourselves to be conned into supporting flawed and cynical arguments, supported by “evidence” we’re unable to observe or verify. Our discussion of social justice becomes laced with confused and contradictory ideological dogma, and we make little progress in identifying practical remedies to real injustice.
Belief in the supernatural is only one way we manifest our capacity for unreason. As we continue to shed the faith of our fathers, we must become more aware of the assumptions that support our new morality. We must examine those assumptions and identify their origins in our psyche. Failure to do so will leave us vulnerable to manipulation, to enforced blindness every bit as paralyzing as that possible through belief in the supernatural.