Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Roger Freeing Angelica, 1819, Wikimedia Commons
On August 2nd, 2013, 14-year-old Hannah Smith of Leicestershire, England, took her own life. She had been receiving cruel messages on the social networking site Ask.fm for months, and her parents concluded that cyberbullying was the main cause of her suicide. But then evidence emerged that the hatred Hannah had been receiving came from … herself—98 percent of the messages were posted from the IP address of the computer she was using.
This tragic event inspired a research project by Sameer Hinduja and colleagues at the Cyberbullying Research Center in Florida. Their analysis of around 5,500 teenagers produced some surprising results: “We knew we had to study this empirically,” Hinduja remarked, “and I was stunned to discover that about 1-in-20 middle- and high-school-age students have bullied themselves online. This finding was totally unexpected, even though I’ve been studying cyberbullying for almost 15 years.”
Boys reported digital self-harm more often (7.1 percent) than girls (5.3 percent). Asked why they participated in such behaviour, their replies included: “I already felt so bad with myself that I wanted to make myself feel even worse” and “I wanted to see if someone really was my friend.” However, there were also those who claimed that they did it to justify their aggressive behaviour towards others, or just for fun, to see how others would react.
If teenagers are prepared to harm themselves in cyberspace to attain the status of victim, it should not be especially surprising that some adults do so in the real world. In the most notorious example of this behaviour, actor Jussie Smollett told police he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack on January 20th, 2019. He immediately found himself at the centre of media attention and public opinion. But the subsequent investigation revealed that Smollett had paid two men to assault him and that he had sent himself the threatening letters he had received the week before.
This was not an isolated incident. In his book Hate Crime Hoax, political scientist Wilfred Reilly analysed 346 alleged hate crimes and found that fewer than a third were genuine. He provides detailed descriptions of almost a hundred high-profile cases that never actually happened, most of which were supposed to have taken place on university campuses. Reilly concludes that, contrary to popular belief, we are not experiencing an epidemic of hate crimes, but an epidemic of hate crime hoaxes perpetrated by people searching for public attention and sympathy.
Nor is it only hate crimes that are the subject of hoaxes and false accusations. A meta-analysis conducted by Australian scholars Claire E. Ferguson and John M. Malouff in 2015 revealed that as many as 5.2 percent of all reported rape cases are false. The authors note, however, that their analysis only accounts for accusations that were disproven in the course of investigations—many others were never confirmed or were withdrawn for reasons unknown.
The evolution and development of victimhood
The advantages of victimhood are by no means unique to 21st-century millennials and Generation Z-ers, bored with life and addicted to social media. Indeed, they are not unique to humans. The Austrian zoologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt has written about the discovery of an adult frigate bird with only one wing in a breeding colony, and a blind adult pelican at another breeding site. Both were mutilated long before they were found by researchers, which indicated that they’d survived by depending upon the help of other birds. Weaker, disabled animals are also sometimes used by others in a manipulative manner. Eibl-Eibesfeldt observed that male maggots would use borrowed offspring to mitigate the aggression of others. Most mammals also make effective use of the innate behavioural patterns of expressing humility and submission.
Victimhood is of evolutionary importance, because it improves the chances of survival in difficult circumstances. In many different cultures, people cry and submit themselves in a similar way, not only in their movements and gestures but also in the use of similar wailing sounds. Even children born deaf and blind cry, and the body language of submission is remarkably similar across cultures—an individual signifies submission by becoming smaller, kneeling, and bowing. These gestures are sometimes accompanied by helplessness, weakness, and childlike behaviour, the aim of which is to release the protective instinct that inhibits aggression.
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