Many liberals maintain that they themselves are victims. Where does this belief come from? And why would anyone want to be a victim? To understand the origins of victimhood, we must understand the work and thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the godfather and patron saint of liberalism…
Candace Owens, an African American woman, is a recent convert to the conservative movement. Ms. Owens spent most of her life following the popular narrative that the Democratic Party is the political party of African Americans. At some point, it occurred to Ms. Owens that the majority of Democratically controlled cities are in ruins, and their social and fiscal policies consistently fail. This epiphany caused Ms. Owens’ switch to the conservative side.
While presenting on a college campus, Ms. Owens was the recipient of heckling from the crowd. African American college students were unhappy with Ms. Owens’ conservative political positions. Their comments were inaudible, but Ms. Owens responded by asking the following question: Why do you want to be a victim? Why would anyone want to be a victim?
Liberal victimhood is a philosophical position many conservatives believe liberals adhere to, and many liberals themselves maintain that they are in fact victims. Where does this come from? Why would anyone want to be a victim? In the following essay, the rationale for why victimhood is a mainstay of liberal ideology is addressed. Additionally, the connection between liberal victimhood and “safe-spaces” is made.
For those unaware, a safe-space is a place, usually on our college campuses, where individuals are shielded from ideas, thoughts, concepts, and people who may be objectionable. For example, a room on campus can be a designated safe space where topical subjects like guns, anti-transgender ideas, or mentioning conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro and Dennis Prager are forbidden.
To understand the origins of victimhood and their connections to safe spaces, we must understand the work and thought of Jean Rousseau, the godfather and patron saint of liberalism. As the first liberal, Rousseau’s foundational work paved the way for the contemporary iterations of liberalism and liberal practice.
A brief expository introduction to Rousseau is necessary before delving into the nuances and subtleties of his work. The seminal construct in Rousseau’s thought is the natural goodness of man, corrupted by society. In his view, human beings were born benevolent, naturally equal, and independent from one another while living in a fictitious utopian “state of nature.” It was not until a human being first acquired private property did our ensuing corruption begin. This is the foundational premise from which the rest of Rousseau’s work emerged.
Rousseau believed Man lived in “the state of nature,” which was a fictitious utopia. Human beings were naturally benevolent, naturally equals, independent of their fellow beings, and uninhibited when it came to self-expression. It wasn’t until a person took private property for himself did society commence, and with it, the loss of Man’s qualities associated with the state of nature.
As Rousseau proclaimed:
The fundamental principle of all morality, upon which I have reasoned in all my writings and which I developed with all the clarity of which I am capable is that man is a being who is naturally good, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and the first movements of nature are always good.
Man is born benevolent, but corrupted by society. Evil comes not from Man’s fallen nature, but is introduced from external forces, via society.
This is the philosophical basis of liberal victimhood. We are not responsible for our choices, but rather are victims of circumstance. We are not responsible for our portions via our choices, but they are instead dictated to us via society. To those who uphold this belief, our portions in life are not earned, nor are our portions something we are capable of changing via our choices, hard work, or good fortune. Instead, our portions in life are dictated to us via society, and we are either dealt a winning hand as victors, or are left with a losing hand as victims.
For Rousseau, according to Judith Shklar, author of Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory, the dictation of our portions in life from society, “confirmed his deepest anxieties and his sense of victimhood. As the creature of sensations, as the product of the environment, man is a passive being, the plaything of external circumstances, weak, defenseless, helpless and dependent.” Irving Babbitt understood Rousseau’s line of reasoning as, “a constant encouragement to evade moral responsibility”; Jean Starobinski understood Rousseau’s natural goodness of Man identically: “For only the exterior burden of persecution relieves him of the interior weight of responsibility. Rousseau discuplates himself by accusing: all defect is outside.”
Rousseau clearly established a premise of victimhood. He also established the exact moment when civilization began and our corruption that followed. That moment began when one man acquired private property for himself. Following that, the division of labor ensued. Rousseau retold this story to his readers thusly: “The poets tell us it was gold and silver, but, for the philosophers, it was iron and corn, which first civilised men, and ruined humanity.”
Men have distinct abilities. Some of us are skilled with the plow, others with the mind, and others with their hands. As the division of labor unfolded, these natural inequalities began to emerge, making men dependent upon one another in areas of their deficiencies:
On the other hand, free and independent as men were before, they were now, in consequence of a multiplicity of new wants, brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each became in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men: if rich, they stood in need of the services of others; if poor, of their assistance; and even a middle condition did not enable them to do without one another. 
Men now needed to curry favor with their neighbors. If a man is insufficiently skilled when it comes to building a house, he must cozy up to the house builder and flatter the house builder for assistance. Certain people are more skilled than others, and earned greater amounts and levels of esteem from the community.
Rousseau interpreted this course of events with the following account:
Each one began to consider the rest, and to wish to be considered in turn; and thus a value came to be attached to public esteem. Whoever sang or danced best, whoever was the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent, came to be of most consideration; and this was the first step towards inequality, and at the same time towards vice. From these first distinctions arose on the one side vanity and contempt and on the other shame and envy: and the fermentation caused by these new leavens ended by producing combinations fatal to innocence and happiness.
For Rousseau, the false-flattering of another for one’s own personal gain caused by dependence on another human being was wretched. Rousseau wanted nothing to do with either the false flattering or dependence, and believed they were corrupting influences on mankind.
Rousseau’s writings were in French, his native tongue. Depending on the translation of his work, Rousseau’s desire to rid himself of this necessity to flatter others is his desire to live either authentically or sincerely. Our sincerity is corrupted by our necessity to earn the esteem of our neighbors. The acquisition of this esteem from our neighbors leads Man to crave more esteem, which leads to the vices that occur between fellows, such as envy and competition. Read Rousseau’s account of this occurrence below:
I could explain how much this universal desire for reputation, honours and advancement, which inflames us all, exercises and holds up to comparison our faculties and powers; how it excites and multiplies our passions, and, by creating universal competition and rivalry, or rather enmity, among men, occasions numberless failures, successes and disturbances of all kinds by making so many aspirants run the same course. I could show that it is to this desire of being talked about, and this unremitting rage of distinguishing ourselves, that we owe the best and the worst things we possess, both our virtues and our vices, our science and our errors, our conquerors and our philosophers.
Arthur Melzer, a scholar of Rousseau, understood the issue as one that is predicated on Man’s “vastly increased needs and desires [that] make him slavishly dependent on others. His need of others may be limited at first, but his initial, traumatic experiences of personal dependence set him on a downward spiral.” Dependence on others is servitude, and Man became hypnotized by the need to impress his neighbors. The path to impressing others is through material gain, and the accumulation of wealth.
Rousseau is confident he could rid the world of this problem if
In a word, I could prove that, if we have a few rich and powerful men on the pinnacle of fortune and grandeur, while the crowd grovels in want and obscurity, it is because the former prize what they enjoy only insofar as others are destitute of it.
If we could eliminate wealth inequality, the feelings of shame, insecurity, anxiety, the need to act insincerely would vanish.
Man takes baby-steps down this path at first, but ultimately, he begins, “a feverish quest for wealth, power, and status in the hope of freeing himself from dependence but these new social needs only increase his dependence.” Remember, the path to currying favor from others is through flattery. A person must flatter his neighbors in order to fulfill his needs created by societal inequities. Man is dependent on others and, “the dependency relationships formed in society, and the process of psychological corruption they produce, culminate in the other-directed self-seeker, who spends his life obsessed with others precisely because he cares only about himself.”
This is the thrust of sincerity, or in this case, insincerity. Human beings pretend to be nice to others simply for their own personal gain. The only reason we are kind is to gain a utilitarian advantage from others, others we do not actually care about. Rousseau acknowledged such blatantly dishonest behavior where one person uses another as a tool to improve his life:
Man must now, therefore, have been perpetually employed in getting others to interest themselves in his lot, and in making them, apparently at least, if not really, find their advantage in promoting his own. Thus he must have been sly and artful in his behaviour to some, and imperious and cruel to others; being under a kind of necessity to ill-use all the persons of whom he stood in need.
Most interactions between people are insincere and utilitarian. The only genuine source of bonding between humans is that of pity and suffering. We do not bond with our neighbors because of community, kinship, altruism, or even love, but rather because of the mutual suffering of the many at the expense of the few. Whether it is those with less esteem from their neighbors, the poor at the hands of the rich, or the person who must act insincerely, pity is the one emotion that binds us.
Rousseau understood pity to be one of the two fundamental premises of human existence, the other being self-preservation: “one of them deeply interesting us in our own welfare and preservation, and the other exciting a natural repugnance at seeing any other sensible being, and particularly any of our own species, suffer pain or death.” Rousseau reiterated this point later in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, as he had, “a natural repugnance to see any sensitive being perish or suffer, principally those like ourselves.”
Pity, as one of the driving forces of the human condition, binds us to our neighbors: For suffering is the great equalizer. All men feel it and in much the same way. To illuminate it is to recognize the most common of human experiences and the most biding. That is why pity can hold us together, while every skill tends to separate us from each other. 
The disciple of Rousseau believes society is the cause of our problems, and that we are not responsible for our portions in life. Society dictates them to us. The majority of people in the world are not the recipients of a bountiful life, as those circumstances are reserved for only a select few. The majority of us are victims, and it is pity, not love, kinship, or mutual interest that binds us.
Pity enables us to overcome our alienation from our fellows. Dependence and inequality are the causes of this alienation. As David Gauthier’s work on Rousseau explained: “To depend on opinion is to depend on others for one’s sentiment of existence. It is to be alienated from oneself.” Dr. Gauthier quoted Rousseau’s articulation of his moral angst: “I no longer found anything great . . . but to be free and virtuous, above fortune and opinion, and to suffice to oneself. Although the shame and fear of hisses kept me from behaving upon these principles at first.” Rousseau desired to, “uproot from my heart everything that still depended on the judgement of men.”
So long as Rousseau was under the tyranny of the esteem of others, he lived a beleaguered life. Rousseau felt a pressure from society to conceal his true nature and live life wearing a figurative mask over his personality. He bemoaned the nature of this constraint in The First Discourse (1750):
One does not dare to appear as what one is. And in this perpetual constraint, men who make up this herd we call society, placed in the same circumstances, will all do the same things, unless more powerful motives prevent them. Thus, one will never know well the person one is dealing with.
Rousseau is fearful of shame and negative opinions from others. He must therefore live a lifestyle of a phony, insincere person, perpetually stunted from being himself. To be oneself is the essence of a life sincerely lived. Dr. Melzer identified Rousseau as the first person to canonize this philosophical premise, which defined, “the good as being oneself regardless of what one may be.” Simply be yourself and, “let go and stop trying. . . . I truly find myself when, rejecting all strenuous talk about my higher self, and liberated from shame and guilt, I just freely observe and sincerely acknowledge all that goes on within my soul.” Rousseau advocated for a release and escape from the judgment of others and the shame they attach with it. As Jill Locke wrote in Democracy and the Death of Dhame: Political Equality and Social Disturbance:
He connected his misery to an unhealthy preoccupation with the impressions of others and the ease with which he could be made to feel ashamed. His narrative of self-loathing and longing to be free from the judgments of others who cast one as undesirable.
Rousseau’s true goal in living authentically was escaping the judgment and shame others cast upon him. Fear of scolding and embarrassment caused his desire to, “craft a world in which . . . simple and sensitive men could speak and reveal their true selves without fear of shame or mockery.”
According to Dr. Locke, this was Rousseau’s goal in crafting his autobiography, Confessions. She explained that, “Rousseau’s autobiography presented an opportunity to indulge the democratic fantasy of a second birth—a reinvention of self—that could be possible once one is free from shame.”
Being true to oneself is a life without shame, free of guilt, removed from the opinion of others. For Rousseau, the authentic person is one who is not just free from shame and judgement, but has the opportunity to be whomever they choose to be. For Rousseau’s authentic person necessitates a, “political universe in a way that makes everything about whether or not a particular individual feels like she or he ‘fits in.’ “
Rousseau is the original architect of the generation of social justice warriors who use feelings as the basis of fact. We must concern ourselves not with truth, objectivity, and facts, but rather with the emotional state of others and how comfortable they are with their political and social surroundings. If they are uncomfortable, the discomforting elements must be expunged.
The emotionally fragile individual, colorfully known as a “snowflake,” “appears unable to live in the presence of any person or institution that does not affirm his goodness and legitimacy in the world.” The contemporary liberal snowflakes are, “citizens who are so fragile as to need constant affirmation and reinforcement.” They, “need protection because, apparently, they become entirely unraveled in the presence of anything that does not affirm their existence.” This is predicated on both the desire to live authentically, but also the natural goodness of Man.
Carol Blum noted that Rousseau “repeatedly explained that his happiness depended on his union with goodness and, therefore, that anything that made him unhappy must be evil and false.” His instincts told him that if it made him feel bad, it was corrupting his natural goodness and was therefore immoral. Ms. Blum continued: “With this as a sure foundation, he could judge the truth-value of any assertion . . . by an immediate standard: It either harmonized with his feeling of goodness or it threatened it.”
When something or someone challenges the feelings of an acolyte of Rousseau, his disciples look inward to their feelings to assess the legitimacy of the issue. Should it hurt their feelings, it is bad and it necessitates removal, by whatever means necessary. This disharmony prevents the individual from living authentically. For there are two aspects, according to Dr. Locke, to Rousseau’s authentic lifestyle: “The first is to want a life free of shame; the second is to expect it to be guaranteed.”
A life free of shame, free from judgment and comparison, a life where a person can look inward and express themselves and live authentically is the goal. A place where one can expect these things guaranteed can only be where one is formally insulated against societal factors that contaminate this world. This is clearly the definition of a safe-space.
As James Twitchell, author of For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture, writes, “Living without shame means that a person can live a life without responsibility, as, “shame is the basis of individual responsibility and the beginnings of social conscience.” When everyone is a victim, no one can be shamed for their behavior associated with their victimhood. Additionally, as Peter Stearns in Shame: A Brief History writes,“Shame is clearly spurred by appropriate fears about what respectable people think of one’s behavior.” Victimhood and sincerity, two of Rousseau’s fundamental beliefs, make shaming Rousseau and his disciples an impossibility.
To conclude, Rousseau’s desire to live free from the judgment of others, to live free from shame, all emanate from his status as a victim. Rousseau’s status as a victim is secure, so long as society is responsible for his portion, and he is not. So long as he is a victim of society, a victim of the rich, a victim of those with more esteem than he, he is not culpable for his behavior, no matter how shameful it would be otherwise. To attain this insulated freedom from the world, he needs a special place carved out for his fragile and unique sensibilities. Rousseau needs a safe and secure place where he can remove life’s unpleasantries, look inward, and be himself, whatever that self may be.
The safe-space is a refuge for the fragile, for the victims, and for those who cannot accept that life will not always cater to their feelings. The mentality of those who need to retreat to safe-spaces and those who desire to be seen as victims have traditionally been viewed askance. Traditionally, the ethic of shame was applied to channel these inappropriate people and behaviors into walking the straight and narrow path.
It was not until Rousseau’s doctrines evolved did this traditionally shameful behavior become legitimized. As Judith Shklar said of Rousseau and his self-appointed status as a victim: “He . . . is the Homer of the losers.” Rousseau and his disciples are encouraging losers to be self-indulgent with their loser proclivities.
Every university, K-12 school, and other institutions teaching “Victimology 101” and creating safe-spaces should abandon this practice immediately. Life is hard, demanding, and the human condition is tragic. These are the terms of Man’s existence. Every effort to fight these terms of our existence will only make things worse than had we accepted the existing terms in the first place. By abandoning the cult of victimhood and the safe-spaces for the victims to retreat to, we can foster stronger and more vital students and citizens. If, and only if, our institutions and the individuals running them are strong enough and have the temerity to take a stand can we begin to move forward towards the amelioration of Rousseau’s weak and self-defeating personality types.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Babbit, Irving. Rousseau and Romanticism. New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1919.
Blum, Carol. Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1986.
Gauthier, David. Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence. New York, NY: Cambridge University, 2006.
Kessler, Steven. “When feelings Became Facts: Rousseau, Burke, and the Origins of Today’s Outrage Culture.” The Imaginative Conservative, 2018.
Locke, Jill. Democracy and the Death of Shame: Political Equality and Social Disturbance. New York, NY: Cambridge, 2016.
Melzer, Arthur. “Rousseau and the Modern Cult of Sincerity.” The Harvard Review of Philosophy, Spring, 1995.
Melzer, Arthur.. “The Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity.” The American Political Science Review, 90 (2), 1996
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, 1750.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1753.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Emile, or education,” 1762B.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Confessions, 1782.
Shklar, Judith. Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory. New York, NY: University of Cambridge, 1969.
Shklar, Judith. “Rousseau and Equality.” Daedalus, 107 (3), 1978.
Stearns, Peter. Shame: A brief history. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois, 2017.
Twitchell, James. For shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture. New York, NY: Diane Publishing, 1997.
1 Rousseau, “Emile, or Education.”
2 Shklar, Men and Citizens.
3 Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.
7 Melzer, “The Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity.”
9 Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.
10 Gauthier, Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence.
11 Shklar, Men and Citizens.
12 Gauthier, Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence.
15 Melzer, “Rousseau and the Modern Cult of Sincerity.”
16 Locke, Democracy and the Death of Shame: Political Equality and Social Disturbance.
19 Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution.
20 Locke, Democracy and the Death of Shame: Political Equality and Social Disturbance.
21 Shklar, “Rousseau and Equality.”
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” by François Guérin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.