Politics

You’ve Been Wronged. That Doesn’t Make You Right.

We are living in a golden age of aggrievement. No matter who you are or what your politics, whatever your ethnic origin, economic circumstance, family history or mental health status, chances are you have ample reason to be ticked off.

If you’re on the left, you have been oppressed, denied, marginalized, silenced, erased, pained, underrepresented, underresourced, traumatized, harmed and hurt. If you’re on the right, you’ve been ignored, overlooked, demeaned, underestimated, shouted down, maligned, caricatured and despised; in Trumpspeak: wronged and betrayed.

Plenty of the dissatisfaction is justified. But not all. What was Jan. 6 at heart but a gigantic tantrum by those who felt they’d been cheated and would take back their due, by whatever means necessary?

People have always fought over unequal access to scarce resources. Yet never has our culture made the claiming of complaint such an animating force, a near compulsory zero-sum game in which every party feels as if it’s been uniquely abused. Nor has the urge to leverage powerlessness as a form of power felt quite so universal — more pervasive on the left, if considerably more threatening on the right.

Against this backdrop, reading Frank Bruni’s new book, “The Age of Grievance,” is one sad nod and head shake after another. Building on the concept of the oppression Olympics, “the idea that people occupying different rungs of privilege or victimization can’t possibly grasp life elsewhere on the ladder,” which he first described in a 2017 column, Bruni, now a contributing writer for Times Opinion, shows how that mind-set has been baked into everything from elementary school to government institutions. Tending to our respective fiefs, Bruni writes, is “to privilege the private over the public, to gaze inward rather than outward, and that’s not a great facilitator of common cause, common ground, compromise.”

Consider its reflection in just one phenomenon: “progressive stacking,” a method by which an assumed hierarchy of privilege is inverted so that the most marginalized voices are given precedence. Perhaps worthy in theory. But who is making these determinations and according to which set of assumptions? Think of the sticky moral quandaries: Who is more oppressed, an older, disabled white veteran or a young, gay Latino man? A transgender woman who lived for five decades as a man or a 16-year-old girl? What does it mean that vying for the top position involves proving how hard off and vulnerable you are?

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