Grievance politics, like negative partisanship, is when our political actions are motivated as a way to defeat or strike back at a group we hate rather than align with a cause we like. Tom Nichols, in his book Our Own Worst Enemy, talks about the danger we face as a country due to our self-perception in comparison to those slightly better off than we are. We don’t want progress or equality for humankind, at least not in a vacuum; we don’t even want to better our station. We just need to feel that we are doing just a little better than those around us, and if we don’t, we are filled with rage.
I was recently listening to a history podcast about the American Civil War, and an interview with Sarah Churchwell author of The Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells. The book explains the incredible popularity of this movie which is essentially (very effective) Confederate propaganda, spinning a tale about white grievance against losing their human property and the status of being a slave owner. Essentially, in giving up a society based on slavery in which white people had the right to the unpaid labor of black people, they traded down (slightly) to a society in which white supremacy still governed every institution from policing to legislation. White men were still the bosses, the business owners, the legislators, the police, and so on. They set the terms. But that’s a (slight) come down if you are used to owning people and their labor directly. You have lost your wealth, your status, and it’s clear that you are seen as immoral by others, particularly the self-righteous northerners, many of whom were also hypocritical racists. Instead, they built a post-slavery society in which corporations and business owners’ interests were protected, but they no longer had to house, clothe and feed their workforce. They also had a harder time killing them legally.
The book Gone with the Wind was based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell. She was born in 1900, but her grandmother was raised on an antebellum plantation with slaves and frequently opined to Margaret about the “good old days,” her lost status, and a bygone way of genteel life. In order to sustain this idea of earned privilege that was ripped from her, she espoused many of the supporting myths such as the “happy Negro,” the benificent slave-owner, and the infantilization of black people. She believed that black people needed and even wanted to be owned by white people, that it was the natural order, one that everyone accepted. Of course, this bolstered her own innate sense of being a good person despite benefiting from slave labor.
Gone with the Wind was partly popular because it came out during the great depression, when most Americans could identify with having lost everything, with dealing with hunger and poverty, with a society that would have to endure many trials but needed to rally to be able to overcome these obstacles and achieve greatness again. It is still considered to be the most successful film of all time, grossing over $3.4 billion dollars adjusted to 2014 inflationary levels. Despite being a war movie, we never see a single battle. It is entirely from its heroine’s perspective, trying to hold onto her privilege while a war is lost around her. She often behaves despicably, but she will never admit defeat.
This myth of a lost south, of a world in which white supremacy was held at its most overt and unapologetic manifestation, is a story of white grievance. And it’s a powerful narrative to believe that you have lost something that was your due, something you believe you earned.
I’ve been listening to the Sunstone podcast reviewing each episode of the Hulu series Under the Banner of Heaven. A point Lindsay Hansen Park made that was news to me is that among fundamentalists, many of the grievance myths of Mormonism hold a lot of sway. Polygamy, for example, was a “privilege” and a status symbol for the men who practiced it. This idea of a lost privilege, access to sexual diversity and more heavenly glory, is behind the thinking of those in the series who form the School of the Prophets. In the series Stay Sweet, the FLDS policy was that men needed to have at least 3 wives to be of any consequence in the community. Since all marriages were arranged by the “prophet,” you had to stay in his good graces to be rewarded in this way. A few weeks ago, I was behind an FLDS couple in the grocery store in Cedar City, and just seeing the husband pissed me off. I have a much different idea of what his eternal reward will be than he does.
But there are many more grievance narratives out there, far more common than these two very obvious ones. These can be shared stories, such as the rise of incels (celibate men who want access to sex with beautiful women, but can’t get it through persuasion, so they band together online in misogynist anger and frustration), or the rise in angry passengers during the pandemic physically and verbally attacking flight crews in their refusal to comply with mask mandates, or conversely, their anger at other passengers who refused to comply. Or even a former president whose property is raided by the FBI (run by his own appointee) due to his failure to return confidential records at the end of his term. Or a shock jock podcaster whose phone records have been sent to the prosecution, revealing his many instances of perjury about his persecution of bereaved parents.
The heavy lifting a grievance narrative does is to turn a victimizer into a victim. Once you convince yourself you are a victim, you can begin justifying your perceived loss as grounds to blame and even harm others. Most situations are not that simple. Consider a few we may have heard in various forms. Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? Are the rescuers good actors or self-interested?
- Corporations are victims of regulation; they need help from legislators in order to protect American jobs.
- Gun owners are the victims of leftists who want to take away their freedoms; they need the NRA to protect their interests.
- Christians are the victims of LGBTQ people who demand support for their chosen perverted lifestyles through equal access to public goods and services.
- White people are the victims of affirmative action; they are being passed over for “less qualified” people of color.
This is identified in the Karpman Drama Triangle sometimes used in therapy. When engaged in this triangular game, a person sees everyone involved in a situation as either a victim, a persecutor, or a rescuer. If they see themselves as the victim, others are either rescuers (good guys who support and enable their victimhood) or persecutors (bad guys who cause their victimhood or challenge their grievance narrative). The trick is to see through this game for what it is, and to challenge our assumptions about victims, persecutors and rescuers.
The entire religious freedom argument feels like a grievance narrative to me, a byproduct of a pluralistic country in which some would like to be privileged within that pluralism. It’s why we are suddenly seeing the rights of conservative white Christians being expanded, even at the expense of women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ citizens. Would SCOTUS have sided with a football coach who was leading his team in a public observance of Muslim prayer? We all know the answer to that. Religious freedom, at least to be a white Christian, has always been protected in this country, but that freedom relies on pluralism, avoiding giving preference to a preferred sect. The dirty little secret is that the scale is tipped in favor of white Christian sects. For those who think otherwise, I’ll point out that we have never had an atheist who is the president. Atheists are even more reviled than Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in national polling, and that’s saying something!
To return to Tom Nichols’ observation, we don’t need to build Zion, or at least that’s not really what we are trying to do; we just need to be better, to have less constraints on us, than other churches. We can handle a pluralistic society, if we must, so long as Christians are privileged above non-Christians. We embrace diversity, sorta, so long as BIPOC people act like white people and don’t get the most prestigious jobs over white candidates. If they ever do get a lofty position, we can declare “Racism is over!” and shout anyone down who disagrees. After all, one black person got the biggest job ever once. We are fine with equal pay for women, but only if they can operate in an environment built around men’s needs. If they want work-life balance or get pregnant, well, that’s on them; men are fine with how it is. Why do they need special treatment? That’s “reverse sexism,” we are told.
I’ve also been listening to a podcast that I can’t quite like, but almost, called Uncomfortable Conversations. The podcaster’s views are a little too conservative and smug for my taste, although I do agree with some of his points, partly. One point he often makes is that seeing oneself as a victim is never useful, even if it’s true, but especially when it’s not; as a bisexual man married to a man, he does not believe in LGBTQ victimhood, at least not in advanced western cultures. He does not believe the cake baker should have to bake the cake. I disagree with these specific points, but I do think victimhood can create problems. We should get past grievance narratives and solve real problems. The best way to do this is through more diversity, pluralism and basic protections and freedoms for all citizens. But I personally believe if you want to provide a service to the public, you can’t refuse to provide services due to homophobia, transphobia or misogyny. Maybe I wouldn’t compel you to do a good job I guess. I also don’t believe in refusing services to people from the other political party, but I can attest that one potential customer who called our business demanded that no Democrats provide the service he requested.
There are many grievance narratives in Mormonism, some of which we seem to be starting to distance ourself from, especially since the truth has come out that we haven’t always been the innocents we might have claimed to be. Mountain Meadows Massacre paints a new light on our persecution narrative, as do the Danites, the fact that the Expositor’s criticisms of Joseph Smith were basically true if inflammatory, and the fact that Joseph Smith had a gun that he shot during the mob attack at Carthage. As grown ups, it’s important we learn to question our own victimhood, the motives of “rescuers,” and how those we see as “persecutors” might see themselves as victims. Unfortunately, like most things, it’s easier to see the flaws in someone else’s thinking than it is in our own.
- Can you think of examples of grievance narratives you’ve seen?
- Have you ever realized someone you thought was a victim was a persecutor or questioned the motives of someone who was “rescuing” someone else?
- Have you let go of feeling like a victim by seeing the perspective of others?
 I blame proselyting.