Americans, you know I love you to bits. You are talented, creative, hard-working, kind people. There is one quality, though, that you have and that drives me up a wall. Of course, not all of you possess it and probably not even the majority does. But those who do practice it do it with such an abandon that it is embarrassing to observe.
The quality I’m talking about is the capacity to engage in very public and overwrought exhibitions of self-pity.
A student at my previous school once wrote something as follows in an essay:
Bartolomé de Las Casas narrates the horrible atrocities that the indigenous people experienced at the hands of the conquistadors. The Spaniards murdered, tortured, and raped the indigenous people. They ripped open the bellies of pregnant women and threw the babies to the dogs. This caused horrible suffering to the indigenous.
I have also experienced horrible suffering in my life. For instance, back in the 8th grade, I spent a lot of time preparing for a math test and hoping to get an A. But I got a C instead! This caused me great pain and suffering!
N insists that the student was simply trying to be a smart-ass and wasn’t writing all this seriously. I’d like to believe him, even though the destruction of the indigenous cultures of the Americas is a very inappropriate subject for this kind of smart-assery. However, this sort of thing happens so often that I can’t help suspecting that people do it very much in earnest.
See some examples under the fold.
One blogger, for instance, decided it would be a good idea to argue that Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose dead body washed up on the Mediterranean coast, is better off dead because he will not have to be subjected to the horrible suffering of holding down an office job, which suffering is, apparently, the bane of the blogger’s existence. No, he didn’t say it in these very words but that’s the meaning of his post. The readers didn’t find the post to be particularly tasteful, so the blogger removed it and engaged in a series of petulant attempts to defend his right to pity himself using a dead kid as a prop.
Another blogger wrote a post that initially seemed to be about the suffering of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. For reasons I cannot fully explain even to myself, the tragedy of the Rohingya touches me deeply, which is why I read anything I can find about them. This post, however, felt like a slap in the face when it turned out the blogger in question was making a really offensive comparison between the genocide of the Rohingya and. . . voter ID laws in the US. I don’t dispute anybody’s right to discuss voter disenfranchisement in the US. But it is beyond offensive to use the horror experienced by other people as a prop in this discussion.
A less scandalous but still obnoxious example of this form of self pity is the obsessive need of some people to make patently ridiculous statements to make their situation look more dramatic than it is:
The author of the article and all of his readers are sitting in huge, comfortable houses filled with expensive furniture and gadgets and engage in sweet rituals of self-pity as they digest their opulent meals and lazily wonder what they can do to lose at least some of the fat they are drowning in.
Please note that the blogger in question doesn’t talk about the decline, the erosion, the shrinking, etc. of the middle class. The word he uses is “death.” I tend to be sensitive to this word these days and can tell you that the main characteristic of death is that something that dies isn’t there any more.
I walk out of my huge, comfortable house filled with expensive furniture and gadgets and see rows upon rows upon rows of such houses. I drive to the very expensive mall we have in the area and see crowds of customers who drag out enormous shopping carts filled with purchases. That’s not death, and anybody who describes it this way is an overwrought, self-pitying idiot.
What I don’t understand is why these folks feel the need to present their experience as the most horrifying tragedy the world has ever known. Why is it so hard to admit that one has not experienced anything even remotely similar to the suffering of the Rohingya or of the indigenous peoples of the Americas? This wouldn’t mean that one shouldn’t be addressing one’s enormously less tragic problems. It is perfectly fine to hate one’s job or worry about the voter ID laws without the compulsion to compare them to genocide, death, slavery, rape, etc. It’s OK not to be the greatest victim of all the world’s most tragic victims.
There is no shame in living a happier, more luxurious life than other people. But there is a lot of shame in pretending that you know what their suffering is like. And it is even more offensive to use somebody else’s tragedies to feel sorry for yourself.