The cult of suffering

In a recent tweet, @NewWorldHominin– also known as Lindsay Shepherd and famous for her very public conflict with her employer, Wilfrid Laurier University of Waterloo, Ontario, over showing a video of Jordan Peterson – posted a curious excerpt from Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies (what a title!), a short history of the most recent skirmishes in the online culture wars.[1] Nagle writes:

[Progressive political scientist, activist and UPenn professor] Adolph Reed Jr. has often said liberals don’t believe in actual politics any more [sic], just ‘bearing witness to suffering’. The cult of suffering, weakness and vulnerability has become central to contemporary liberal identity politics, as it is enacted in spaces like Tumblr. It is also common … to openly identify themselves as having disabilities and mental health issues that make them, by their own admission, extremely vulnerable and suffering.

I am largely unconcerned with the political aspects of his statement. I am not a political scientist, and the politics of this issue are of no interest or concern to me.[2] At the same time, society’s relation to pain, and the historical development of vulnerability and suffering, has been a pervasive interest of mine for most of my life. It is not entirely a matter of detached academic interest, either. I don’t normally talk about my own experience with pain: not only do I believe we all experience pain very differently and the neurophysiological processes involving afferent C fibres and all that jazz are only part of what we cognitively conceive of pain, but I’m also the product of a ‘boys don’t cry’ upbringing that shunned even really talking about all that. I have removed 3″ metal splinters from my upper arm and stitched up the resulting wound and went about my way, because, well, it was so normal. I have spent most of my life in severe – some would say excruciating – pain. Unlike the relatively simple pain of a nasty headache or a paper cut, chronic pain is not merely pain that takes longer to resolve, but an entirely different animal. And I have also devoted much of my life to alleviating pain and suffering, in various ways. It’s my subtle revenge on the imperfections of my physiology. Suffering, of course, is a somewhat different animal from pain, but not unrelated. And so, when reading Nagle discuss this ‘cult of suffering’, I was thinking about it partly as an individual witness to the phenomenon of pain – but also a witness to what a ‘cult of suffering’ indeed means to us as a society.

It is important, at this point, to delineate certain terms. When I refer to a ‘cult’ in this context, I am not referring to the modern meaning of the word – as a fundamentalist, often secretive and usually destructive religious movement. Nor am I referring to particular religious practices pertaining to a single deity or demigod, such as the Cult of Dionysius, the Eleusian Mysteries, the cult of Zeus Lykaios in Arcadia or the drug-fueled orgies of the Orphic Mysteries. Actually, most of these mystery religions eventually devolved into drug-fueled orgies that would have made 1970s Los Angeles blush, but that’s not what made them cults – they were ‘cults’ in the sense that they involved secret, set-apart mysteries reserved to the initiated and were in worship of a particular deity. This is closer to what we’re dealing with here, but it is not the relevant interpretation here, either.

Rather, I’m using the concept of a ‘cult’ to describe a set of social practices and methodologies intended to process some overwhelming human experience and integrate it into the way humans understood the world. The Orphic narrative, for instance, which retells the story of the poet Orpheus descending into the Netherworld to bring back Persephone to the land of the living, was an attempt to conceptualise and explain the changing seasons. The same death-rebirth aspect befell Bacchus, God of Wine, because grapes don’t grow all year, either. The ‘cultic’ part I’m concerned with is not about worshipping Bacchus or Persephone/Orpheus, but the fact that a set of notions – conventions, practices, songs, plays, narratives, actions, prayers, etc. – existed through which something cognitively-intellectually inconceivable was enacted communally, and thus, in a sense understood communally.

In that sense, a cult of suffering is not an inherently negative phenomenon. In fact, it is an acknowledgement that when someone is suffering, everybody can – and should – share in that suffering so that everybody could – and should – share in the healing. And there are, in fact, serious moral costs to not sharing this suffering as a community, to leaving the sufferer alone. No single work of human creation has tapped into the hidden heart of the human mystery of pain as profoundly as Sophocles’ Philoctetes, which in a sense deals exactly with what happens when the cult of suffering is absent. It is through understanding the cost of leaving the sufferer alone that we understand the importance and meaning and contribution of a cult of suffering to communal human existence.

Wails from Lemnos (aka ‘oh God, not more Greek drama, please!’)

The Trojan War has been raging on for the best part of a decade. The siege has whittled away the best warriors of both sides. Patroclus is dead, and so is his friend Achilles. Hector is dead. Ajax has taken his life in shame. Everyone is weary of the war, and there seems to be no end in sight, just the tiresome, mindnumbing bloodshed of daily combat. Until one day, the seer Helenus, son of King Priam of Troy, was captured and forced to tell the Greek commanders that they will not be able to prevail against Troy unless and until they have the bow of Heracles.

The bow of Heracles was a legendary weapon, equipped with arrows dunked in the poison of the Hydra. They were awarded to the Greek warrior Philoctetes by a dying Heracles himself, for ending his suffering by lighting his funeral pyre.[3] Years later, Philoctetes was part of the Greek host sailing to Troy to reclaim Helen. On the voyage to Troy, however, Philoctetes’s foot was bitten by a snake, causing a wound that continued to torment and fester but would not heal. For days, the Greeks were distressed by the stench of the wound, kept awake by the wails of Philoctetes and more than a little discomforted by the belief that such injuries were a sign of moral pollution – miasma – that would follow the Greek army and bring misfortune upon them. So, on the advice of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca and the Greek forces’ chief intelligence officer, one night they stranded Philoctetes on the unpopulated island of Lemnos – alone, with only his bow, and his suffering, his pain, his festering wound – and sailed on to Troy.

One can barely imagine Philoctetes’ anguish. For not only is he suffering physically, but also morally, wounded by the Greeks’ betrayal:[4]

Imagine my surprise when I awoke, the tears I shed, the sound of my sadness.

All of the ships in the fleet had vanished.
Alone with my infection, I knew only pain.
Time demanded that I scavenge for food with this sacred bow, which saved my life.

I would crawl through deep mud on stiff knees, scraping my rotten foot against rocks.
When water was scarce, I survived by collecting ice.
I spent cold winter nights without fire, but rubbing stones together for their spark, I saved myself from certain death.

The true tragedy of Philoctetes was not just his snakebite: it was his abandonment.[5] And the Greeks’ betrayal, leaving a wounded comrade behind, echoes through the ages. Modern militaries often speak of ‘leaving no man behind’, because if there’s one way to compound pain, it is to do so by making the person suffer alone. It morally degrades the victim, but also the perpetrator.

Unlike most tragedies, Philoctetes does have something approaching a happy ending, or at least a resolution. Odysseus and Neoptolemus, the young and recently orphaned son of Achilles, sail to Lemnos to mend ties and restore the relationship between Philoctetes and the Greek army, although in a typical Odyssean underhanded manner. In the end, there is – with the divine intervention of Heracles himself – a reconciliation. That reconciliation is, importantly, communal: Philoctetes cannot heal unless he returns to his community, the Greek army at Troy, and the Greeks cannot ‘heal’ and prevail in battle unless they mend the ties with the suffering warrior they so disgracefully betrayed. The message here is that from certain wounds, we can only heal as a community: only through sharing what we have been through, through communal rituals of processing trauma, through the reintegration of the wounded or sick person into society can healing take place.

When Sophocles wrote Philoctetes, he was in his late 70s. He has served as a general at least twice, in a century of near-constant warfare. His actors were citizen-soldiers, and so was much of his audience – all of it in need of healing from the traumata of war, loss and grief. Theatre, as the Athenians practiced it, was not entertainment – it was social psychotherapy, a form of group psychodrama that allowed them to grieve and heal together. It was a cult of suffering in the best sense possible.

Sharing and processing

The reason why Athenian drama therapy was so extremely successful was that it began with a highly egalitarian premise: we have all suffered, albeit in different ways, and we all deserve to heal. The primary objective was to expose traumatic histories to allow re-integration into society. It is often witnessed, for instance, that once a victim of a traumatic experience can narrate what happened to them, they gain a degree of control over it: they can conceive of themselves no longer as mere victims but as survivors and of the traumatic past not as a secret locked away in a hidden box of shame but something that they now have control over. We are narrative beings, and our principal way of asserting control over our experiences is to shape them into a narrative. That is trauma processing.

It is a fearsome process, and a fairly difficult one. For the longest time after surviving HLH, I have not been able to talk about it at all. I would perhaps mention occasional flashes of the crazy, sad, tragic yet sometimes hilarious experience that going through a nearly always terminal illness was in my early 20s. Self-deprecating humour and silly jokes[6] alternated with moments of intense wistfulness and grief – one defensive mechanism yielding to the next. It wasn’t until I was able to – at the very least internally – tell my story from the beginning to its end, that I felt I could put this experience behind myself. First, I tried to recount it to myself, then to my beloved wife, who did exactly what I needed at the time: to be someone who listens. Processing trauma by verbalising it is scary because – once again, being the narrative creatures we are – it makes things a kind of real. The truly scary part about telling someone what happened to us is not that someone else will hear it – but that we, too, will hear it and have to accept it as real. A long time ago, working pro bono with survivors of political torture, I encountered an extremely polite and well-adjusted young man – almost a little too well-adjusted for what he’s gone through. And while he gave detailed narratives of what was done to him (I’ll spare you the details, but it was all kinds of horrid), he never used the word ‘torture’. Eventually, the staff psychologist picked up on this. Once she got him to reluctantly admit that he was indeed the victim of intense torture – in those words -, he broke down in tears that looked like they would never stop. He has faced the partial reality of his experience, but not the conceptual reality. Now, he had to process and own that part of his experience and his self-understanding. He had to adjust his self-understanding to include not merely the acts he was victim to, but also the notion of being a ‘torture victim’, with all that entailed for his personality.[7]

Facebook dot com slash catharsis

The theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, where Sophocles’s celebrated plays were performed, where Athenians first heard the wails of Philoctetes and the mournful agony of Heracles in the Trachinae, could seat over 15,000 people. Around the 5th century BC, that would have amounted to 5% of the whole population of Attica and half to a third of the 30-50,000 or so free male citizens who had the right to vote. Just a stone’s throw from the theatre of Dionysus, on the slopes of the Acropolis, stood the asclepeion of Athens, a combination of a temple, hospital and hospice where the sick came to experience ‘katharsis’: purification through baths, purging, diets and even a predecessor of art therapy. It is no accident that the patients of the Athenian asclepeion were within earshot of the Theatre of Dionysus, where they experienced an entirely different kind of katharsis: the emotional katharsis of the theatre was seen as being as legitimately therapeutic as snakes and purgatives and poultices and salves. The 5th century BC Athenians might have accidentally invented psychodrama.

Now, with the growth of social networks, 15,000 members are hardly a number worth mentioning. People suffering from illnesses or social situations that hardly anyone in their vicinity would be likely to share could immediately find thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of fellow sufferers. To many, this must be as liberating as Philoctetes escaping his captivity on Lemnos, where he was alone with his grief, sorrow and agony, and find instead literally thousands of fellow sufferers. For example, for a condition as relatively rare as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (total prevalence: around 1:5,000-40,000 live births depending on type)[8], there is a major group with over 27,000 members and over a dozen groups with a membership exceeding 5,000 members. Even for relatively rare diseases, such as HLH (prevalence: 1:50,000 live births)[9] groups with several thousand members exist. The purpose of these groups is only partially informative: since most of the members are subjective laypeople (patients or their relatives), better information is available on medical websites and open access journals. Rather, the principal purpose appears to be the creation of a community of sufferers (both those in the first degree, i.e. patients themselves, and those in the second degree, i.e. their caregivers, parents and relatives). Interactions typically focus less on discussing potential treatment options, but rather significantly more on inquiring whether others have experienced a particular side effect or reaction on one hand and validate people who are unsure about their symptoms and diagnoses. And while all this does have an informational aspect, the aspect of a community that subjectively understands is what motivates most people to participate in such discussions.

In many ways, this is an undoubtedly positive development. But while – especially for rare diseases[10] – such communialisation of suffering can alleviate the tormenting isolation reminiscent of Philoctetes’ on Lemnos, there is a dark side to this phenomenon, too.

We’re all mad here

What happens when the communalisation of trauma, misfortune, disease or pain, from Sophoclean plays to Facebook support groups, becomes dysfunctional? It is worth mentioning three possible dysfunctions.

One, the Sophoclean way of communal processing of trauma took place among a heterogeneous population. Certainly, they shared some fundamental experiences, which made for a dramatic language intelligible to all. For instance, the majority of actors and most of the audience watching Ajax’s descent into madness have themselves served and recognized Ajax’s combat trauma – what we in our contemporary language would call PTSD. Certainly many of them knew enough about chronic illness to understand Philoctetes’s anguish. And when they heard the wails of the greatest hero of Greek mythology, the mighty Heracles himself, begging for death in Sophocles’ Trachinae, most could relate it to a similar experience with a dying loved one. But the essence of processing this experience was to do it communally. It was never meant to be an echo chamber. It was not a bunch of citizen-soldiers turned actors putting a play for themselves, but to the Athenian public at large. Unlike the Facebook groups that serve as the modern equivalents of publicly processing grief or anguish, the Ancient Greek drama was meant as a sort of silent dialogue. The audience might not have had anything to say, but they did have something to do. This was for their benefit, too, and their duty was to assist the communal processing of the dramatic experience. Their job was to be the very opposite of the Greek fleet that left Philoctetes suffering alone – their job was to show ‘compassion’, to suffer (‘passion’) with (‘com’) the protagonist. In a homogeneous population, the dynamics are vastly different. Not only is everybody a ‘victim’, those who are not are expressly excluded. There is no hope for reintegration – after all, there’s no interaction with the society to reintegrate with. There is beyond doubt much merit in victims and sufferers living and discovering an experience of community, where they themselves feel no longer alone. But that’s not the experience of katharsis, of healing and of reintegration that communal processing of trauma, between those who are suffering and those who are not, could offer.

Two, the narrative framework that facilitated this communal processing of trauma – that is, the play itself – was abstract for a good reason. The tales of woe that Greek drama shows are not every-day crises. They are irresolvably tragic like the situation of Antigone torn between divine or secular law, they’re almost grotesquely devastating as the fate of Oedipus or they involve, like Medea’s descent into madness, the loss of innocent, valuable lives for no good reason. No-one in Sophocles’ Athenian audience, however blighted by misfortune their lives, would be tempted to compete with the tragic heroes of Ancient Greece. Who would dare compare their fate to that of Ajax, Medea or Oedipus? And who could compete with Philoctetes’ decade-long solitude and agony? So final and devastating were these tragedies that they conveyed, through their absoluteness, the message that trauma is not a competition. The Greeks understood that each individual trauma is a little universe in and of itself, a little infinity, and there is no point in arguing whose corresponding experience was the worst. This allowed Greeks to maintain a sense of perspective: on one hand, quite likely none of them had it as bad as the tragic heroes, but at the same time, deep down, they shared the same struggles and pain and tragedies as the divine Heracles, the mighty Ajax and the great Philoctetes. There was no need for an Olympiad of suffering, because of the almost over-the-top nature of Greek tragic fates that were shocking even given the occasional bloodthirstiness of that civilization.[11] Over-the-top tragedy allowed it to remain abstract, while at the same time elevating it to universality. Where traumatic processing becomes concrete, it loses the ability of its abstraction to provide meaning. It becomes a fragmented tale of individual, competing traumata.

Finally, communal processing of trauma was all about reintegration – it was about closing the door behind the traumatic experience in a sense, and in ‘coming home’ to society. Trauma – and by this, I also include adverse experiences that are not ordinarily thought of as traumatic: a severe illness, a difficult upbringing or a childhood spent on the wrong side of the tracks – alienates us from our host society. Many victims of trauma go so far as to perceive themselves as fundamentally ‘different’ from ordinary human society and experience trouble ‘fitting in’ among those who have not undergone the same experience. The purpose of Greek drama was not to rehash endlessly how broken and different the victims of severe trauma were, but to show them a way back to us, and us a way back to them. In the end, it was about what we had in common rather than about differences. When traumatic processing becomes dysfunctional, it becomes about remaining the ‘other’, the ‘traumatized person’, rather than the person who, with all their traumatic experiences, can no less be integrated into society. Communal processing of trauma does not encourage the development of a highly emphatetic ‘otherness’, a trauma-based self-identity, but advocates a way back to normal society.

On bearing witness to suffering

Reed accuses liberals of ‘just bearing witness to suffering’. In this, I think, there’s a risk of missing the operative word – just. I doubt Reed would object to ‘bearing witness to suffering’. One of the greatest accomplishments of Ancient Greek drama was the validation of the suffering many in those societies have gone through. When citizen-soldiers watched Ajax or Philoctetes, both written by a retired general who knew the cost of teaching and making men inflict violence on others first-hand, they understood they weren’t alone. They understood that unlike the abandoned Philoctetes, they weren’t suffering on a desolate island, but that their pain and anguish were witnessed in some way. And that may have made all the difference.

But just bearing witness to suffering is not enough. For starters, as Reed alleges, it creates this cult of suffering and weakness.

As we have noted earlier, the term ‘cult’ should not necessarily invoke Waco or Jonestown. More subtly, a cult may just be about a shared ritual process, coupled with a shared identity. For instance, those who were inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a mystery religion that evolved from an old farming cult of supplication for good crops, were not only, in a sense, chosen and identified themselves as part of this secret circle of people who could enter the mystery: they also shared a range of ritual practices (much of which involved getting hammered on kykeon, which was basically the ancient Greek version of LSD). Cults develop their own language, their own rules, their own habits, their own moral compass. The cult that Nagle refers to – the cult of ‘suffering, weakness and vulnerability – is no exception.

In a sense, this cult of ‘suffering, weakness and vulnerability’ is a dysfunctional form of communal processing. It is dysfunctional for three reasons:

      • It’s self-enclosed and self-directed. It is not a publicly enacted interactive performance in which there is a dialogue with anyone. It is, at best, an echo chamber. Quite often, the language of ‘owned spaces’ and ‘safe spaces’ is used, to wit, the manifestations of these spaces – virtual or real – should be limited to those ‘initiated into the cult’. There are some legitimate scenarios in which this approach is encountered, e.g. when 12-step groups exclude non-addicts so as to afford addicts a chance to speak openly. But as a social performance, this is failing to build any bridges. Consider the recent trend among Tumblr users to explicitly bar other users from following them unless they, too, are ‘neuroatypical’, ‘disabled’ or some other minority. This creates a curious segregationism that ultimately impedes positive functional outcomes.
      • Processing is always concrete and individual. Elizabeth Martinez coined the term ‘oppression Olympics’ as early as 1993,[12] to describe the controversies that ensue when oppressed minority groups ‘compare’ or ‘rank’ their level of suffering. The genius of Sophoclean tragedy was altogether avoiding this, in two ways. One, the tragedy enacted on stage was so over the top that the audience could not possibly really relate (even in Athens in the 5th century BC, blinding oneself with one’s belt buckle for having accidentally committed incest towards one’s mother was rare enough that Sophocles had not to worry about someone in the audience one-upping poor Oedipus Rex). Two, the overall message of the drama was quite universal. The dramatic heroes fight not against particular forces or power structures that are in some way unique to their station in the world, but against universal human flaws and universal human failings: hubris, fate, ignorance, passion, betrayal. Everybody and nobody at the same time is invited to relate.
      • Processing surpasses the emotional-cathartic and enters the political. The purpose of a Sophoclean drama was to help victims of trauma find their way back to society, and vice versa. It was, primarily, about reconciliation. It was not, at any point, about compensation, about change, about various political rights. The audience may have left with slightly shifted views about some moral issues through the emotional experience of the catharsis, but Sophocles was not Bertolt Brecht.

What Angela Nagle points out as a cult of suffering, weakness and vulnerability rests on two pillars. One of these is the rapid destigmatisation of illness, disability and in particular mental health issues over the last few decades. There is absolutely no doubt to me that this will be recalled as one of humanity’s greatest feats. Partly thanks to a better understanding of the neurobiology of mental illness and partly due to treatments that allow even those with severe mental illness to live productive and socially integrated lives, our outlook on mental vulnerability has changed. At the same time, thanks to various social media platforms such as Facebook, those affected by these issues could experience the ‘safe space’ of an echo chamber.

Love bombing and the cultists of suffering

Ultimately, what Nagle describes as a ‘cult of suffering, weakness and vulnerability’ comes from an inadequate communal way of coping with experiences of suffering, weakness and vulnerability. In most cases, even if the underlying organic or psychiatric disorder is permanent, its effects in terms of suffering, weakness and vulnerability tend to be transient. As time goes on, patients build coping mechanisms that help them function in daily life. But within the dysfunctional ‘support groups’ over the internet, diagnoses are seen as immutable fates that are as part of one’s identity as one’s name or eye colour. The initial experience of being ‘understood’, especially for those suffering from a rare or misunderstood condition, can be overwhelmingly positive – indeed, so positive as to be addictive, and patients will gladly pay the price of not improving as the cost of remaining in this sheltered cocoon where – perhaps, sadly, often for the first time – the efforts it takes to complete every-day tasks with their conditions are appreciated. There is a bigger reward, however.

There exists a pathology known as ‘factitious disorder’ or ‘factitious and/or induced illness’ (FII). In FII, patients are aware they do not have a particular condition, but intentionally induce signs and symptoms to procure treatment. You may have heard it referred to as Munchausen’s Syndrome. It is a very controversial diagnosis, because it is hard to unambiguously separate whether people with FII suffer from a disorder no different from, say, BPD or major depression, or are just exploitative social parasites with a decent streak of sociopathy. People with FII leave a trail of broken people in their wake, theirtrust betrayed and their humanity brutally exploited, and as a consequence of the resulting stigma, we know less about FII than about any psychiatric condition. I recall first hearing about FII in a forensic psychiatry class, and I couldn’t possibly imagine why anyone would even do this. By then, I have been through a few bouts with serious illness, and to intentionally make oneself sick just made no darn sense to me. So after class, I grabbed my professor and asked him why people intentionally assume the sick role, often actually harming their own health.

“That’s the mystery,” he said. “We don’t know. There are so few confirmed cases, and even fewer are willing to talk about it. Why don’t you go and see what you can find?”

I did. I found virtually nothing, save for a small number of females who have been in treatment for FII for some years and offered a valuable insight into their thought process. One point I remember to this day was that while they initially did seek the attention that came from the sick role, what they really, really craved was the role of the ‘fighter’, the strong and resilient person who faces disease and trauma with courage. They wanted to be called brave. They wanted to be called fighters. And more than anything, they wanted someone to acknowledge their actions, praise them and tell them they could be proud of it.[13]

Many of these people came from broken families, and many in today’s cult of weakness come from a broken society. In this broken society, we haven’t decided how to treat young people: we give out participation trophies, but we are afraid to acknowledge true accomplishments lest the less accomplished feel offended. We tell young people they’re the future and they’re going to run the world someday, but we do not expect them to behave like that – and every leader’s education should start with service. We encourage young people to feel ‘pride’, but do not challenge them to accomplish things in which they could feel real pride. We praise every child, then we’re surprised that their self-esteem is low. It is low because kids aren’t idiots. In fact, they’re emotionally more sensitive due to their incomplete maturation of the frontal cortex. They know it’s all bullshit. They know that participation trophies are worthless. They know that they’re fed empty praise by parents and teachers who are scared of them, who are scared of the consequences of emotionally offending any child.[14]

And so, as they see through what Browning called the “forced praise on our part/ the glimmer of twilight“, they hunger for the genuine thing. They hunger for the politically incorrect thing of a first prize medal, for the verboten accomplishment of something at which most people fail, for the absolutely off-limits pride in themselves that can come from a tough job well done. People are willing to risk getting blown up for ridiculously low pay and stupid administrative burdens for a taste of a society that expects, demands and ranks mercilessly,[15] because these things have been expunged from virtually everywhere.

If the sole way young people can find an identity that gives them value and through which they can feel appreciation is by claiming, pretending or role-playing to have various disadvantages, so that they would be measured with the lenient yardstick under which genuine praise betokens even completely mundane, every-day acts (and I can attest as a person with a disability that sometimes getting dressed feels like climbing Everest and going down to the shops, a daunting challenge!), we – and our parents’ generation, who have laid the groundwork for this state of affairs – need to have a conversation. We need to have a conversation on accomplishments, and the need for accomplishments for pride. We need to have a conversation about the fact that everyone is capable of accomplishments worthy of pride and honour. We need to have a conversation about the fact that we have a duty to communally process suffering – not just to witness it and write long-winded 2,200 word heart-wrenchers in Comment is Free but to engage with the existence of suffering, and with those who are going through it, and allow them to reconnect to the society of the ‘healthy’. We need to create a society that has more ambitions for people with disabilities than a socially and economically sidelined existence on benefits.

But more importantly, we need to have a conversation about the truth behind the lies.

The truth in the lie

True to Nagle’s description, the temples of this cult of weakness – Facebook support groups, Tumblr, other networks – create an echo chamber of self-validating pain and vulnerability. This echo chamber is premised on an economy of reciprocity: because one would not want to be ‘invalidated,'[16] it is only too logical that one would have to validate everyone. There’s an undercurrent of hatred and skepticism towards anyone who challenges these self-identifications, be it disability status reviews, rude bystanders asking often insensitive questions, or indeed the medical profession, who are seen as dismissive towards the ‘disabled’ and the ‘vulnerable’, a fortiori where those conditions are concerned that evidence-based medicine does not recognize or does not diagnose with a frequency that would satisfy the echo chamber of pain. In this ‘safe space’, they are safe from the greatest threat to their chosen identity: reality.

Ironically, this claimed vulnerability is often counterposited by superficial and frequently excessive expressions of self-assurance and ‘toughness’: whether expressed often through radical political activism relishing in a tone of over-the-top vulgarity, a personal appearance and self-expression seeking to stand apart from culture even more (consider e.g. the ‘cripple punk’ aesthetic a manifestation of this dynamic) and the rhetoric of war and violence to describe disability and illness (such as self-descriptions as ‘fighters’ and ‘warriors’ at war against their health issues), there is a paradoxical display of exaggerated and situation-inappropriately presented strength. It is as if within the echoing walls of the temples of this this cult, its adherents are not quite sure whether to whisper or to yell, uncertain of who and what they are: strong or weak, heroic or vulnerable, victims or warriors. This is, of course, not unusual – many people this pertains to are at the age or stage of psychosocial development where their self-identity is still in the process of coalescing, and ‘trying on’ identities, even quite contradictory ones in rapid succession, is a normal part of that. But this paradoxical attitude suggests that something deeper is at play, that however willingly the role of weakness and vulnerability is adopted, it is at odds with other fundamental underlying impulses.

Following those underlying impulses and the odd complexity of strength and frailty at the same time, it becomes apparent that the young people in these echo chambers that Nagle is talking about are definitely not lying or misguided about one thing: they are in distress. They are broken and vulnerable. They are broken and vulnerable products of a society and an educational system that left them in a state of anomie that in and of itself could and should merit a psychiatric diagnosis. They are desperately looking for roles in this society, and the cult of suffering is the only one that has openings for them. They are suffering from a lack of having the mere opportunity to build something to be proud of, to try themselves against the tallest mountains, to explore, to fight, to lose, to win, to get the odd bloody nose and yet come home grinning from ear to ear, with the pride that comes from accomplishment. They may not have the thirty-something psychiatric diagnoses and fifty-odd chronic conditions they claim (if you think those numbers are exaggerated, you should go on Tumblr!), but they are experiencing legitimate anguish, and claiming the roles of weakness and vulnerability is their idiom of distress; the distress of their betrayal by a society that never gave them the chance to be anything but the roles of weakness and vulnerability they ended up adopting.

And we need to help them in finding a more fulfilling part in a more rewarding play.

References   [ + ]

1. Nagle, A. (2017). Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Zero Books.
2. Note I am not calling these matters unworthy of scholarship, merely admitting it is outside my experience and understanding.
3. Sophocles deals with that story in Trachinae, a heart-rending tragedy in its own right, and one I hope to return to in a future post.
4. All translations are by Doerries, B. (2015). All That You’ve Seen Here Is God: New versions of four Greek tragedies. Random House.
5. And his abandonment in turn caused a sort of reversion to a primal hunter-gatherer existence. Sophocles shows Philoctetes, a once-proud warrior and a civilized man, degraded to the point of a barbarian’s existence. In a sense, Philoctetes the Greek is dead, and all that is left is a husk driven by the most primal of human needs – food and water -, existing apart from society, apart from his people, apart from the polity. There was a particular degree of disgrace that came with such an existence that was easier to understand for a Greek audience than it is today.
6. I have an inexhaustible supply of crude, horrid and extremely tasteless jokes about sickness, in particular cancer, that I entirely credit the old guys at the hospital with. Nothing makes chemo fun, but listening to some seventy-somethings make the kind of jokes that people only make if they’ve seen heaven and hell was definitely a unique experience. They were also all kinds of loopy on their fentanyl pumps, so that helped. Someday I might write a post about this, but suffice to say that even serious illness is not all doom and gloom if there are people to share it with.
7. He turned out ok. After a brief bout of anxiety, he continued to improve. He is now a postgraduate student, and we still keep in touch. He has explicitly consented to me telling his story.
8. Data from NIH Genetics Home Reference.
9. Henter, J.I. et al. (1991). Incidence in Sweden and clinical features of familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. Acta Paediatr Scand. 80(4):428-435. Cf. also Janka, G.E. (2012). Familiar and acquired haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. Annu Rev Med. 63:233-246.
10. Defined in the US as any disease affecting fewer than 200,000 people US-wide – or roughly 1:1,500 people, while in the EU, rare diseases are defined as those with an incidence of fewer than 1:2,000 cases that are also life-threatening, chronically debilitating or inadequately treatable
11. In Tragedy and Civilization, a volume focusing on an interpretation of Sophocles, the author, Charles Segal, points out this peculiar coexistence of bloodthirsty savagery and high civilization in Ancient Greece in the book’s first, striking paragraph:

“High on a mountainside in a rugged and lonely part of Arcadia stands a remote shrine to Zeus Lykaios, Wolf Zeus. Plato alludes to a legend that human sacrifice was regularly practiced there, and the celebrant who partook of the flesh turned into a wolf. Across the valley from this grim precinct, in a spot of wild and desolate beauty, in a place known as the “glens”, Bassai, a small Greek city erected an elaborate temple to the most civilized of its gods, Apollo Epikurious, theHelper. Approaching this temple at Bassae from the city of Phigaleia, as the ancients did, the visitor experiences a striking visual confrontation of civilization and savagery. Before the ancient spectator stood the ordered geometry of columns and pediment outlined against the jagged mountaintops which stretch far into the distance. Freestanding and unexpected in that desolate setting, the temple seems an arbitrary example of pure form and human design as an attic amphora or the rhythm of a tragic chorus. But prominent just beyond the temple is the mountain where a grisly and primitive cult violated one of the first laws of human civilization as the Greeks defined it, the taboo against cannibalism.

12. Martinez, E. (1993). Beyond Black/White: The racisms of our time. Social Justice, 20(51-52), 22-34.
13. Note, for clarity’s sake: I am not alleging that the people referred to as part of this ‘cult of suffering, weakness and vulnerability’ suffer from FII or any related trait. I mention FII as it also manifests as a desire not merely of compassion and the sick role but also of the overcomer role. I’m also not making any assertions about how many of these people are actually sick, how many have a different disorder from what they’re claiming, how many are somatising/suffering from conversion disorder and how many are perfectly healthy and suffering from FII or just making stuff up. That is a question for medics. I’m looking at the diagnosis of the civilisational illness involved here, and for that, that’s all irrelevant.
14. At this point, it’s important to note the difference between the negative obligation not to emotionally harm a child intentionally, and the positive obligation to always emotionally foster and support children. There is never any excuse, by anyone, teacher or parent or coach, to intentionally emotionally humiliate a child. I’ve been there, and I know what it feels like, and I know that it’s the product of an inability to deal with one’s own insecurities as an adult, but that doesn’t justify it. It’s never OK. At the same time, nobody is responsible for your emotional wellbeing, and the idea that the world owes children a sphere where their precious self-esteem is never questioned and always positively affirmed is the worst preparation we can give to a generation facing the kinds of challenges our children do.
15. Although just how merciless that is has changed over the years. Especially with regard to physical fitness scores.
16. The ultimate sin on Tumblr, and roughly corresponding to any conduct that is not 100% affirmative of what one person believes is true about themselves, no matter how (un)realistic. While often criticized or sharply parodied, the insistence on validation and fear of/aggressive responses to – real or perceived – invalidation is an important mythopoetic act: it primarily serves to delineate and defend the community and the space in which the community’s cult, or ‘rituals’, are carried out. In a sense, it is akin to the markings on the trees of the sacred grove, bidding outsiders to stay out, or the various features that delineate a ritual space – an altar, or even an entire church, synagogue or mosque – from common spaces.

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