The valorisation of suffering
On the overrepresentation of orphans in children’s media, and other social oddities
There are an absurd number of orphans in children’s literature. Charles Dickens was one of the founding fathers of orphan fever, with Oliver Twist in 1838. Jane Eyre followed in 1847, then Anne of Green Gables in 1908. There are more modern examples: consider The Mysterious Benedict Society, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter. The Guardian even published an article a few years ago titled “Katherine Rundell’s top 10 orphans,” in which the English author (who, to my understanding, is a non-orphan herself) lists her favourite orphans of literature in ranked order. The fictional orphans are multiplying, even as the proportion of real orphans in the world goes down.
I think the literary fascination with (fetishization of?) orphanhood is part of a broader cultural norm (cultural pathology?), in which struggle is seen as a source of meaning and sometimes social capital. I want to try to describe the nature, origins, and impacts of this narrative, while imposing limited judgement on whether it is desirable.
How do I define the valorisation of suffering?
A lot of personal, social, and moral value is placed on hardship. This is evident in much of the media (both orphan- and non-orphan-related) that we consume. Most books and movies loosely follow a character enduring some set of trials and coming out on top; the ability to withstand and recover from this suffering is seen as virtuous.
There are more interesting examples of this in a political sense. Identity politics are effectively a game of harnessing oppression for social capital. Affirmative action quantifies and compensates people for their suffering. The framing of addiction as a disease makes drug users passive sufferers of an external pathology rather than perpetrators of a moral wrong — and thus more sympathetic by virtue of their pain.
One thing to note, though, is that it isn’t just progressivism that places this social premium on struggle. I think most political movements frame themselves in terms of victimhood. The Republican Party has arguably gained much of its success in recent years from appealing to the sense of suffering among a disillusioned white working class. Most conservatives opposed to American police reform choose to frame police officers as victims of suffering (cf. Blue Lives Matter). Why do gun rights advocates bother painting school shooters as young casualties of severe mental illness? Partially to shift the focus away from guns themselves, but also possibly to make their demographic appear a little more tortured and thus a little less blameworthy.
This all speaks to the broad allocation of social status based on one’s level of adversity.
Why do we attribute moral value to suffering?
An obvious comment upon reading all of the above is: “Of course humans care more about those who are suffering. Suffering is bad, and life is hard when you’re suffering, and humans are empathetic creatures, and we should try to make things a little easier for others.” I agree with all of this.
Here is my speculative list of reasons as to why suffering is morally acknowledged in this way:
1) Recognising the difficulty of a struggle makes it more likely that we help those who are struggling.
Helping those who are struggling is better than helping those who are not struggling, even from a utilitarian perspective. Firstly, because suffering tends to grow exponentially rather than linearly (e.g. if your mother dies and you are also addicted to drugs, each problem exacerbates the other). Secondly and possibly relatedly, because helping a suffering person has higher marginal returns than helping a non-suffering person. If I give five dollars to somebody with no money, they will buy a sandwich and live to see another day. If I give five dollars to Michael Bloomberg, he’ll probably put it in his back pocket, put his pants in the washing machine, and the five dollars will turn into the clumpy, accidental papier-mâché you sometimes find in your newly dried clothes.
2) Valorising suffering sometimes allows us to morally compensate those who suffer.
For example, in the case of affirmative action I mention above, a person who has lived in poverty for their entire life has been wronged by the system. Perhaps the system has a reparative obligation to give this person something back. (One constraint of this is that “the system” is an awfully non-specific term. It’s unclear that managers at random medium-sized companies can/should inherit the moral debts of colonisers or slaveowners. But maybe these people are arbitrary beneficiaries of privilege, and it is virtuous even if not obligatory to share the wealth, and affirmative action is utile in the long-term, etc. I’m ambivalent on this issue.)
3) Sometimes suffering is net-utile in the long-term.
For example, studying hard for the LSATs is a hard, time-consuming process, but probably worth it if you want to be a lawyer. Valorising this struggle allows people to feel more empowered while working towards an ultimately good objective.
4) Nietzsche’s account (cf. The Genealogy of Morals):
Humans were originally self-interested, instinctual creatures. However, disadvantaged people could not access health, wealth, or happiness, and so a culture of poverty and self-denial formed as a consequence. Nietzsche uses this to explain the valorisation of abnegation, selflessness, and chastity in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Then, in order to force people to honour their debts to others, and more broadly to inculcate people with obligation, we invented harsh punishments. For example, Germany boiled criminals and quartered people with horses, deterring crime. This meant that people internalised social obligations, and that they “represented and incarcerated” their underlying instincts, ultimately leading to a pervading sense of guilt over natural human desires. (Nietzsche points out that the German word for ‘guilt’ comes from the word for ‘debt.’)
All of this resulted in the formation of the ascetic ideal — an ideal in which people make themselves or others suffer as a way to meet social obligation. He identifies this ideal in artists such as Wagner, whose later work preaches “reversion, conversion, denial, Christianity, medievalism.” And Nietzsche comes back to religiosity: he cites eternal damnation in Christianity, various ascetic traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism, and interestingly, the idea of original sin (which positions human nature as a source of guilt in itself).
Some of The Genealogy of Morals reads a little like fascinating historical fiction — particularly the sections that are more abstract and theoretical — but a lot of the speculations seem plausible to me. Lots of religious institutions do idealise self-denial, and I think it’s reasonable to say this system of values has had a calcified, persistent impact even upon secular societies.
5) Culture grows out of suffering.
Nietzsche suggests at various points in his genealogy that there is something aesthetic and interesting about the way humans experience struggle. Maybe artwork that captures difficult experiences is inherently more powerful than artwork about average lives, or even very happy lives. A lot of rap music is about poverty, brutality, racism. A lot of popularised queer culture is about pride in the face of discrimination and shame. A lot of national anthems are about bloodshed and sacrifice and victory over oppressors. Stories about orphans are kind of interesting.
This exists outside of specific social groups, too. I was looking through a list I made of my favourite poems, and even though my life hasn’t been especially sad, the poems are saturated with melancholy. Jamaal May asks: “What if I sigh, / and the black earth beneath me scatters / like insects running from my breath?” Ocean Vuong asks, “How come the past tense is always longer?” Warsan Shire: “Sometimes the things we love will kill us, but weren’t we dying anyway?” Maybe I’m just unusually fond of sad rhetorical questions, but I also think beauty and nuance flow from struggle in a way distinct from other experiences.
Some problems with valorising suffering
Here is a loosely Nietzsche-inspired summary of what I think has happened. There were a set of originally rational reasons for valorising suffering. It allowed for people to endure necessary hardship more easily, and it incentivised people to be selfless and make sacrifices that were socially utile.
But over time, the glorification of suffering grew into a broader narrative that extended past these specific cases. We valorise suffering that isn’t individually or socially utile, and this can be harmful.
What does this look like?
1) Sometimes, people end up in lifestyles that are unnecessarily painful for no rational reason.
For example, an entrenched part of masculinity is tolerance and stoicism in the face of pain — pushing yourself past physical limits when exercising, not taking pain medication or seeking out medical attention, denying yourself emotional support from others, choosing professions that are difficult and dangerous and painful even when it isn’t financially necessitated, etc. Some of these things occur for reasons independent of a desire to suffer (negative body image fuels the cycle of unhealthy exercise, for example), but I think there is also a moral premium placed on pain itself.
This system is probably stronger for men, but exists more broadly. It explains a general culture in which we valorise resignation to struggle and the unwillingness to seek help. It also probably explains a lot of youth angst, which is at least partially an issue of young people seeing struggle as a core source of meaning and value. On a daily basis, I hear a bunch of academically ambitious students whine about and compare the hardships of a deranged high-achieving lifestyle. (“You slept for three hours? Well, I fell asleep on the STD-infested carpeted floor of the history classroom to the tranquilising sounds of Salman Khan explaining hydrogen bonding.”) The ascetic ideal surrounds me.
2) People avoid pursuing real solutions to suffering.
I had an interesting conversation with my friend (who requested that I refer to him as “Asclepius” in this article) about incel culture. For the older folks reading: ‘Incel’ stands for involuntary celibate, and refers to people who believe they experience unfair sexual rejection and are resentful as a consequence.
Asclepius argues this: “Incels link suffering to virtue because their understanding of what it means to be a male is to be resilient and tough, and so they think that any sort of burden that they can bear discharges a duty they feel insecure about — in this case, the burden of rejection. But the problem is that they’re using a burden that doesn’t serve their needs to deflect from the real challenge of doing something they don’t want to do. The pain they actually need to endure is the pain of getting rejected a thousand times before something works out.”
In essence, the valorisation of suffering makes it easier and more comfortable to wallow in a state of misery. Beyond incels, this is what I think a lot of negative thought spirals are at their core. When you’re tired and don’t want to finish a piece of work, it’s easy to overfocus on the unfairness of being given so much work to begin with. When someone breaks up with you, it’s easy to overfocus on the ways you were poorly treated or their arbitrary reasons for disliking you. To be clear, the pain and injustice of these situations is real and difficult to overcome. But romanticising these problems — socially infusing them with meaning and martyrdom, as in the case of incels — has the capacity to trap people further in a narrative of self-defeat.
3) An undue focus is put on quantifying, labelling, and verifying suffering.
Valorising suffering requires some kind of loosely standardised system to determine how much value each struggle gets, so we create norms around which struggles are particularly bad. Many of these norms are broadly accurate: the struggle of grief receives a lot of moral points because grief is really difficult, for example.
But there are cases where norms are incomplete. In particular, when problems are poorly understood by external onlookers, struggle isn’t recognised to the same extent. Consider people with persistent chronic pain who, particularly prior to the last few decades of increasing awareness, often have not had their experiences widely acknowledged as legitimately challenging.
A consequence of this, too, is that it creates an incentive to explain individual struggles in terms of a wider social issue. Wider issues confer social legitimacy upon the experience of struggle, because they invoke an accepted framework of difficulty. For example, I think this explains much of the current desire to label and diagnose mental health problems in pathological terms. If an emotional experience can be found and verified in an index of a book, it is easier to decide what level of social concern the experience ought to receive — how much behaviour we excuse, how much support we offer, etc.
I think a similar thing happens with gender sometimes. A person has a broad experience of gender dysphoria that is challenging and confusing, and we categorise this under a specific identification to clarify what the problem is. Sometimes this identification is precisely accurate, and sometimes it’s probably not. On some level, this is an individual desire to make sense of one’s life, but I also think the social element is relevant. There is a need to see people as a part of something more structural in order for their experiences of suffering to have measurable value.
4) The rareness of problems is sometimes used as a proxy for intensity of problems.
The amount of moral recognition we can distribute to issues is arguably scarce. People have limits on how many problems they can devote emotional energy to. In a concrete sense, we can only create so many affirmative action categories, or donate so much money, or give people sick days over some threshold of sickness. As a consequence, common problems are sometimes weirdly underemphasised because we can’t afford to spend moral currency on them.
Consider bullying. There’s lots of research that being bullied as a child is actually really traumatic. According to American Addiction Centres: “A literature review examining 29 relevant studies on bullying and harassment found that 57% of victims scored above the threshold for meeting PTSD criteria.” As a reference point, the rate of PTSD among American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is somewhere between 13.5 and 30%. Obviously, there are lots of other differences in these problems, and being shot at in a trench is a sort of unique experience, etc. etc. But the point is, bullying is largely perceived as being an inevitable, temporary, low-intensity issue — a sort of growing pains — when there are many facts suggesting that it is not. Maybe this is because of a social reluctance to admit that massive percentages of children are experiencing suffering on a scale comparable to the valorised hardships of veterans.
There are other examples too. Breakups are terrible. I know at least four people who have experienced what is essentially crippling depression, for weeks or months, after their most recent breakup. But we treat bad breakups as more natural and less morally sympathetic than crippling depression. You can’t take time off work because of your breakup, or get tax money to help you recover from your breakup. This distinction is arbitrary and mostly rooted in the fact that more people have recent breakups than crippling depression. (I’m making this comparison within a Western liberal context, where we do mostly morally acknowledge crippling depression. I know this isn’t true everywhere.)
5) The political gamification of suffering
As described earlier, one way to promote your political cause is to describe how much your group is suffering. This incentivises three strategies from the other side, all of which are deranged in their own way.
The first strategy is to argue that your group is not actually suffering. Consider the false belief, propagated by European colonial regimes and later baked into Western healthcare practices, that black people didn’t experience physical pain or emotionality in the same way as white people. If they couldn’t suffer, their experiences lost moral value and political attention. This belief dehumanised an entire race of people for centuries, and still festers.
The second strategy is to make their own group’s suffering seem worse, creating a sort of race to the bottom (often deemed the Oppression Olympics). “Being a woman is hard? Well, try being a poor lesbian woman who works on a potato farm for 13 hours a day!” And then: “If you think your potato farm gig is bad, try having your six children kidnapped and tortured by the IRA and being unable to chase after the kidnapper because of your rheumatoid arthritis!” Then the rheumatoid arthritis lobbyists retweet, angering the orphaned identity theft victims and war widows with yellow fever and so on and so forth. This is often entertaining but usually counterproductive.
The third strategy is to invent an entirely fictional form of suffering for their group because the group isn’t actually suffering at all. People who oppose gay rights will often paint young children as victims of a Satanic homosexual child molesting plot. This is a very weirdly specific political strategy, if you think about it. The underlying reason why people don’t like gay rights is because it threatens a comfortable, established social structure, and makes gender roles more confusing for straight people, and maybe middle-aged people want genetic grandchildren. It would make more sense to appeal to these reasons directly.
I think what happened was this: in a culture that valorises suffering so heavily, the masses were coming around to the LGBTQ cause. The anti-gay rights movement needed a victim of their own to compete against gay people who clearly were being legitimately oppressed. So conservative lobbyists picked the most sympathetic victim they could find — children — and spewed propaganda about how the gays will corrupt and abuse your children. The suffering of innocent children outweighs the suffering of adult gays, so this was a viable winning strategy.
As a note, it’s completely unclear what the alternative would be. How do we rank political priorities if not on the basis of where suffering exists? So I suppose my intention here is more to describe than to condemn.
6) People reframe their own experiences in terms of suffering.
Some problems have deep causes, and some problems don’t. Some people are depressed because their parents were abusive and insane, and some people are depressed because they don’t like their job. It’s possible that both conditions are equally debilitating, but the first stems from an intense, visceral form of suffering whose intensity and viscerality is socially recognised.
The difference in social recognition means that people create narratives of their own lives that revolve around suffering. They reframe relatively normal childhood experiences as deep familial dysfunctions, or relatively normal relationship behaviours as deliberate emotional microabuses. (I also suspect some psychotherapy tends to amplify this process, but that’s a different kettle of fish.) Complex stories of suffering, even when they verge on fiction, enable people to explain challenges in their life whose causes are in reality either trivial or ambiguous.
I don’t think people do this consciously or are really at fault here — there is an inherent human desire to have our experiences acknowledged and verified, and it’s easy to feel personally culpable for difficulties that don’t have a clear cause. But I do think attributing problems to false suffering makes it more difficult to understand, solve, and satisfyingly move forward from difficult situations.
The evolution of suffering through time
One problem goes like this: “Before, we had a lot of orphans. We wrote a lot of books about them, so that we could help represent and alleviate their problems. This worked so well that we don’t have that many orphans anymore. But we got into the habit of writing books about them, and now we can’t stop, and children with healthy families think it’s cool to have a bad relationship with their parents.” (As a note, it’s unclear whether Harry Potter is actually good for orphans. In fact, Jeff Alexander at TIME says it’s harmful. I don’t have enough data to say anything coherent about this.)
Perhaps narratives around struggle aren’t innately incorrect, but just poorly adjusted to the present day. It made sense to valorise suffering in eras where the vast majority of people experienced incredible difficulties at young ages and throughout their lives — if lots and lots of people are going to suffer regardless, it’s probably better that they believe this experience has some value. But the quantity of material suffering has decreased over time. Fewer people are poor, fewer people go to war, fewer people lose close relatives to preventable diseases. For the first time in history, we can see the possibility of a life free from material suffering, at least in some places, for some people.
I also wonder, though, if suffering is too embedded in the human experience to disappear. I know lots of people who are materially well-off, and they overwhelmingly suffer from non-material problems — mental disorders, existential crises, academic hypercompetition, etc. The valorisation of suffering can partially explain this, but more fundamentally, the problem is that materially satisfied people place greater emphasis on non-material needs — the need to be loved, valued, respected, desired. If you don’t have water, the most valuable thing for you is probably getting water. If you do have water, but you don’t have a girlfriend, maybe the most valuable thing for you is getting a girlfriend. Obviously, there is a difference in how intensely you want these things. The argument is more so that our goals change in relation to what we have. As the nature of our goals changes, so does the nature of our failures, and thus the roots of our suffering.
This all leads to a complicated, messy tradeoff. For some people, suffering is created or intensified by valorisation (e.g. stressed college students, undiagnosed anorexic men, incels). But for the foreseeable future, some people will also struggle independent of how suffering is socially regarded (e.g. orphans). For this group, the valorisation of suffering might be reassuring and meaningful. To reach a verdict on this narrative, we have to decide which is more important: decreasing the pool of suffering people, or making life better for people whose suffering is inevitable. I won’t even try to weigh the benefits of each approach. The equation would be sprawling and incalculable: on one side, moral compensation, aesthetic experience, greater ambition, resilience; on the other, health, happiness, truth, self-improvement. So I guess I end close to where I started — in a place of curiosity and of descriptive ambivalence.
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