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Who takes advantage of disadvantage? Misfortune has a certain cachet in woke circles – but is ignored where it counts

Jussie Smollet. Credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Jussie Smollet. Credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

April 4, 2019   7 mins

Do you remember when, if people were going to lie, it was about being more successful than they actually were? Jeffrey Archer, for example – despite a career as a hugely saleable author – was found to have added some fictional lustre to everything from his school exam results to the nature of his Oxford degree. Gordon Ramsay, the chef, reportedly exaggerated tales of playing in the first-team squad for Glasgow Rangers, when, in fact, it was a single match as a triallist.

Most frequently, people bumped up their academic qualifications to get them to a next stage denied them otherwise, or to jazz up a mediocre past. Their belief was that the perception of past success would help to create its future equivalent. They were often right – unless they were unmasked.

Today, though, there is a new form of faking it to make it, with the same potentially explosive risks of discovery, and it speaks of a fundamental cultural change in our age: the steady rise – in specific settings – of social status associated with victimhood. In recent years, intensifying in the last few months, there have been a number of scandals in which people are alleged to have lied about grievous misfortune or perceived disadvantage.

The most recent allegation – currently galvanising both Chicago and wider US politics – involved the US actor Jussie Smollett, a star of the drama Empire who is both black and gay, and who said he was attacked by two men wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, who shouted racist and homophobic slurs and put a noose around his neck. Smollett was arrested by the Chicago Police Department on suspicion of staging the attack by arrangement with two men, allegedly in order to boost his profile and career.

Then all 16 charges against him were dropped, reportedly because Smollett had completed community service and forfeited a $10,000 bond payment, something which the Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberley Foxx described as “a just resolution and appropriate resolution to this case”. Yet there is, nonetheless, a nagging sense of public irresolution around the established facts.

The Illinois prosecutor, Joe Magats, has said that Smollett is “not the victim of a hate crime“, while Smollett continues to maintain that he was. The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, is furious, saying that Smollett “actually committed a crime here, he lied about something”. And Trump himself – feeling his supporters to have been unfairly traduced by Smollett’s account – weighed in on Twitter, saying that the FBI and the Department of Justice are to review “the outrageous Jussie Smollett case”.

The Smollett case – inflamed by a feverish wider context – currently has all the makings of one of those national arguments in which the cold, dry facts of what actually happened seem fated to become subordinate to the question of which group one most strongly identifies with in the dispute.

In the US, as the national atmosphere of racial tension has become more charged, hoax accusations of attacks have come from people of all races, often with a political spin. In October 2016, for example, Maria Daly, the white wife of a police officer, reported a theft at her home and that the house had been painted with ‘Black Lives Matter’ graffiti – police later found that she had staged the burglary and spray-painted the slogan herself. In December 2016, Yasmin Seweid, a student at Baruch College, claimed to have been attacked on the New York subway by three white men who tore off her hijab and shouted “Donald Trump!”. Seweid later admitted to making up the attack.

The desire falsely to claim misfortune has also manifested itself in other areas: Belle Gibson, a young, female Australian healthy-eating blogger, claimed to have been diagnosed with untreatable brain cancer, which she purported to be healing herself by following a “wellness diet”. This story was swallowed by press and publishers alike in its entirety, unscrutinised. Gibson’s cookbook, The Whole Pantry, was published by Penguin before her cancer story was exposed in 2015 as a hoax which had also led her to misappropriate charitable donations.

The author Dan Mallory, too, was at the centre of a scandal when an article in The New Yorker alleged that he had falsely claimed that he had cancer, that his mother had died, and that his brother had taken his own life. Mallory attributed these sizeable inaccuracies to the effects of his bipolar disorder, and his next book will come out as usual: the world of fiction is, in some ways, more forgiving of those who weave fictions around their own lives.

This wish to fabricate disadvantage is a sign that it has become a valued cultural commodity – in certain highly visible circles. Those who fake it clearly believe that something beneficial for them will flow from their deception: attention, for example, or the perception that they are a more deeply authentic and morally superior human being. Sometimes they seek to advance their political world view, or be applauded for their fortitude in overcoming setbacks. Sometimes, as with Belle Gibson, they crave commercial and popular success which is sharply boosted by a tragic yet inspiring back-story.

But just because a small minority of people fake such disadvantage, doesn’t mean that those phenomena aren’t very real. Every day countless people, unremarked by media, undergo gruelling ordeals, whether from domestic or street violence, mental health issues, racially-motivated attacks or discrimination, a doctor’s bleak diagnosis, sexual exploitation or harassment, homelessness or simply an increasingly desperate struggle to pay the bills at the end of the month.

The trouble is that such experiences are often only taken seriously when they are advertised in particular contexts, those which frequently demand some degree of luck or privilege to enter in the first place. Thus people who are mildly disadvantaged within relatively privileged settings – such as academic institutions or wealthy corporations – will receive massively more attention and sympathy than those who are enormously disadvantaged in underprivileged settings. A system of proportionate responses across the whole of society has fallen out of whack.

Within many UK universities, for example, the concept of ‘disadvantage’ now has its determined gate-keepers in the way that advantage once did: those individuals who decide who is and is not officially permitted admission. In this system, one generally achieves ‘disadvantage’ status through approved category membership rather than any individual claim to trauma.

When James Knight, a student at the University of the West of England, last year decided to stand as a ‘men’s officer’ in a bid to highlight the high male suicide rate and the inadequacy of mental health services, his initiative was met with outrage by some other students and National Union of Students officers. The NUS women’s officer, Sarah Lasoye, said that attempts to create a ‘men’s officer’ post stemmed from “a fundamental misunderstanding of liberation and almost always an unearned sense of entitlement“.

Mr Knight eventually stood down, and yet his point was accurate: men account for roughly three-quarters of all suicides in the UK. While many other issues, including sexual assault and domestic abuse, disproportionately affect women, suicide is one that disproportionately affects men. Yet it was quickly dubbed “entitlement” for Knight even to raise it as a campaigning issue, as he was summarily refused any pass to the ‘disadvantage’ club.

The former US Vice-President, Joe Biden, currently finds his political career under threat because of accusations of ‘misconduct’ born – not of any sexual assault – but of alleged over-tactility towards women (and everyone else, it seems). A single ‘inappropriate’ remark in a high-flying corporate setting can now be enough to endanger a career, as the legal and reputational risk of a company not acting decisively enough towards a complaint has soared.

Yet just as corporate and political hyper-vigilance to perceived sexist offence is running high, society’s wider response towards women fleeing in terror from violent domestic abuse or death threats seems apathetic. Two women are killed each week in England and Wales by a current or former partner, yet numerous women’s refuges across the UK have closed due to council budget cuts (one in six since 2010) and – despite a recent government cash injection – many have yet to find a long-term model of funding.

Elsewhere in the UK, the most basic measures that assure an individual’s liberty and security in the world – affordable housing, a reliable wage and a functioning criminal justice system – are being rendered ever more precarious for the low-paid, often on zero-hours contracts. The cost of both UK home ownership and renting has risen rapidly, creating a housing crisis, with roughly 1.15 million UK households on waiting lists for social housing.

The fair operation of our criminal justice system is increasingly endangered, too, with frequent delays to cases, a shortage of duty solicitors, and barriers to accessing legal aid. The result is that worse-off individuals and families have steadily become more vulnerable to simple bad luck or malevolence.

There is a vast gulf in how the idea of disadvantage is now metabolised by the corporate, institutional or social-media world and by the underprivileged reality that ticks on grimly outside those structures. Within the former world – for those who have succeeded in reaching its threshold – evidence of past disadvantage can potentially be traded for moral and practical advantage (and it must be said that some of this advantage, such as access programmes for groups more usually excluded, does good and important things.)

Yet in the latter world, of run-down estates and unreliable employment, claims of disadvantage only publicise misfortune to an indifferent audience, or potentially make it worse. The steady decline of paid-for local campaigning newspapers, as was pointed out after the Grenfell disaster, has made it even harder for decisions of officials and corporations to be held accountable to ordinary people. And so the first question that swirls around the question of disadvantage is: who has the time and the voice to raise it?

The rise in theoretical consciousness-raising does not always go hand-in-hand with pragmatic social change. In the US, for example, more than 700 academic institutions now offer ‘women’s studies’ with an emphasis on studying ‘power inequalities’. Yet the majority of US female workers – alone among those of developed nations – still have no right to paid maternity leave, a situation which most grievously affects the lowest paid women and their babies.

Those who need help the most are often unable to talk about their situation, or are unheard when they do, and therefore are widely ignored by policymaking that is increasingly steered by media pressure and publicity. A woman who is a victim of domestic violence, for example, is unlikely to make a noise about it, because she may be terrified of the present or future consequences.

I recently reported on the young, mostly male victims of ferocious paramilitary attacks in Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant: they are generally unwilling to speak at all, because they are fearful that talking may invite further brutality and trauma.

There is a risk that ‘disadvantage’ becomes a form of performance – applauded only in those who have succeeded in transcending it – a packaged commodity, a competitive claim that generates intense clouds of words and theories, reflections and argument. Yet, meanwhile, the steady building blocks of a nation’s fairness, the big government policies designed to shore up equal chances in work and home life, are rotting away – and the conversation around that is considerably less passionate than it should be.

Is the ideological exploration of disadvantage – continuously picked over in modern academia and ‘intersectional’ theory – being nourished at the expense of practical action? The idea was, I think, that one would automatically lead to the other.

Yet at the moment, our society most resembles a person who talks constantly and heatedly about the effects of rain falling through a leaky roof, the question of who gets most soaked by the deluge, and the differing power relations of the people in the house – yet seems oddly reluctant to call round a roofer and pay the bill for fixing the damage.

It shouldn’t be complicated – even amid the intensifying psychodrama of Brexit – to agree that a building programme for social housing, a fully functioning justice system and targeted help for those at the clear extremes of need are where our campaigning energies should lie. And yet, it seems, it is.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.


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