“If somebody hits you, don’t hit them back,” my father told me. “Run away and look for an adult.”
It was the best piece of advice he gave me, and I’m grateful that he taught me to be nonviolent at a young age. Unfortunately, he was the only authority figure in my life to bestow this guidance. For the vast majority of the rest of my life, I was told the complete opposite.
When I reached elementary school, I started learning about the virtues of “standing up for yourself.” I was taught that the preservation of one’s pride was of the utmost importance, even if it meant violent retaliation against those who you feel have wronged you.
Conversely, our family was Buddhist, and we were taught to be peaceful. In addition, my parents came from Vietnam and escaped from the country when it was in turmoil, so they were more concerned with my survival than they were of teaching me about pride.
But these ideas clashed with “American exceptionalism,” something I didn’t learn until several years later.
I was taught that we were the best country in the world. It gave me a sense of pride and arrogance that I never had before, believing that I could do anything to anyone I wanted.
I later learned about Capitalism, the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers, and other American mythology, and my father’s advice was in the rearview mirror – a distant memory from a time I was more innocent. I internalized these American beliefs because they were taught to me by other authority figures.
When I say “American mythology,” I’m talking about the story that we tell ourselves of who we are as a nation. I mean the constant reiteration of “The American Dream” – that you, as a strong individual, can make it if you just work hard enough.
I’m talking about how we have a narrative of aggressive individualism that’s been indoctrinated into our psyches at an early age so pervasively that the likeliness of ever challenging it is slim to none.
I understand the allure. Aggressive individualism is a powerful feeling.
But this alluring mythology has troubling connotations. The more our mythology harps on how we are strong individuals that can overcome anything, the more we blame ourselves when we can’t live up to those expectations.
We blame ourselves for our own shortcomings, which makes us likelier to blame others for theirs as well.
Our mythology is not a universal truth. It’s simply a set of ideas – and ideas can be challenged.
These ideas are repetitions that your pride is more important than anything else in the world. They are reiterations that everything you do – all of your successes and failures – rest solely on your shoulders.
They lead you to hold such a strong sense of individualism that you feel that you can overcome anything despite any historical and sociological evidence that may suggest otherwise. And if you can’t overcome insurmountable obstacles, you are taught to blame yourself.
So, to unpack such ingrained narratives, we must look at the core of these beliefs and question them – because an unchallenged idea can be extremely dangerous.
1. ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’
Our mythology begins with our Founding Fathers standing up to the authority of the British Crown and breaking free from their rule.
At the outset, we are rebels – and the ideas of “independence” and “freedom” are very important to us. In this context, “give me liberty or give me death” is a powerful statement from one country to another: We will not be pushed around.
However, when that historical context is removed, people instead use “give me liberty or give me death” as a way of asserting themselves as aggressively independent individuals.
The preservation of one’s pride becomes more important than anything else, including one’s life (and certainly the lives of others).
Much too frequently in our culture, we proactively fight with others to preserve our pride, even if the situation doesn’t call for it. We become fixated on never being pushed around under any circumstances, whether the infraction is major or minor. We even stand up for ourselves proactively for perceived offenses, lest our pride is even potentially challenged.
I’d watch television shows where a child would be bullied in school, and the advice the child received from adults was to stand up to the bully. “He’s more afraid of you than you are of him,” they’d say. “The best way to get a bully to back down is to stand up to him.”
Not once did I ever see a television show where it was admirable for the child to seek an adult’s help.
Fighting your own battles is seen as a virtue under any and all circumstances, even for children. Seeking help from – or working with – others is a sign of weakness.
Leading children to believe that they must handle verbally and physically abusive situations on their own is a form of child abuse. A classmate once followed me home from school and punched me in the stomach. I took my dad’s advice, ran away, and told some adults. He stopped bullying me shortly after.
I felt good about the outcome, but other students ridiculed me for “tattling.” They couldn’t believe that I’d let someone wound my pride that way, and at the time, I had no idea that pride was such a virtue. That was something I had to learn over time.
My classmates viewed this altercation as a fight that I “lost,” because to them, my pride had been wounded since I didn’t retaliate. The bully, on the other hand, was viewed as “the winner” because his pride was still intact since he didn’t receive a violent comeuppance.
His actions went unexamined and all of the focus was on me, the victim of this incident.
People would ask me: “What did you do to provoke this bully? How did you make him angry? Why didn’t you hit him back? Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?”
The bully received little to no attention. He essentially got a free pass.
It’s much easier to view society as something that works as is, while viewing instances of victimizations as anomalies. It’s simpler to look at each incident – and person – as isolated, because doing so keeps us from looking at the bigger picture.
But I believe that instances of oppression occur too frequently to be written off as anomalies. It is a pervasive and cultural problem that needs addressing.
Before we can think of tangible solutions to minimize these incidents, we first need to acknowledge and admit that we have a problem, especially when it comes to feeling aggressively individualistic while having excessive pride.
2. ‘Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps’ (Also Known As ‘The American Dream’)
A few months ago, I was heartbroken to hear one of my friends speak with such self-hating defeat in his voice, “I can’t find a job. I’m so broke. It’s my fault. I’m trying my best, but if I can’t find a job, it must mean I’m just not trying hard enough.”
He refused to blame anyone other than himself.
Whenever I even tried to bring up that the economy was down or that people in general are struggling to find jobs, he told me that he didn’t want to be one of those people who blamed society for his problems.
The fact that he grew up with no money and had to take care of his family since he was fifteen years old was a non-factor to him. Those, he said, were just “excuses.”
Without realizing it, he was regurgitating beliefs we learned in school.
We were taught so many rags to riches stories by teachers – about how so-and-so started with nothing, pulled himself up by the bootstraps, and became a millionaire – from history class to literature courses.
I didn’t realize at the time that the implication was that if it’s possible for them, it’s possible for anyone – that if you aren’t a rags to riches story, then you have nobody to blame but yourself.
Not only is this viewpoint inaccurate and cruel, but it also teaches children at a very young age that lacking empathy is an admirable trait. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is fundamentally a capitalistic mentality.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think outside of yourself, while American Capitalism exalts ruthless pragmatism (look at how many fans the villainous Frank Underwood has), which is the antithesis of empathy.
To become a sufficient capitalist, one must – at least partially – shut off the empathetic part of their brain and not think about the consequences of potentially destroying their competitors’ livelihoods, and in some cases, their lives.
If a capitalist gets too lost in empathy, they could lose the ruthlessness necessary to achieve financial success. Lacking empathy mixed with victim-blaming (including victims who blame themselves) makes for a dangerous combination.
By encouraging people to believe that they are the only ones responsible for their own successes and failures, we subtly attach morality with financial worth. We imply that with hard work comes success, which in turn means that failure comes from laziness.
As a result, we cultivate disdain for those with lower incomes because we equate poverty with an unwillingness to work hard, and furthermore, view poverty as a trait to vilify.
We kick ourselves and others when we’re down, and meanwhile, we root for the rich and the wealthy, whom take advantage of us all because we equate affluence with success and hard work.
Every time I hear about someone who is struggling, I still have an initial instinct to wonder what mistakes they made in their life to become that way because I was taught the same victim-blaming narratives as everyone else.
I’ve had to train myself to turn on my empathy and question what was always taught to me.
Doing so makes it easier for me to challenge the systems in place and feel compassion for those who are less fortunate, and it stops the toxic cycle of blaming the victim.
3. ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’
On its face, “the pursuit of happiness” sounds wonderful. Pursuing happiness is such a hopeful concept, and it’s written in our Declaration of Independence.
However, the idea of “the pursuit of happiness” will always have plausible deniability. It can always be used as a scapegoat to attack those who have failed to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
When I was in college and heard my classmates lamenting about injustices in the United States, a conservative would always chime in with the narrative that happiness is not “guaranteed,” only the pursuit is (and a speech about “personal responsibility” would soon follow).
Therefore, one can conclude that failure to achieve happiness is a personal failure, because our Declaration of Independence implies that society has given everyone a fair opportunity (pursuit) and it’s up to the individual to create success on their own.
Thus, those who are struggling and fail to achieve success are victim-blamed by their own Declaration of Independence, which is our sacred document. If only the pursuit is promised, the only thing we’re really guaranteed is the intangible idea of hope.
This makes second-guessing the Declaration of Independence a very delicate act – because to ask others to question the logic of our so-called “inalienable rights” is asking them to consciously shatter their hopes, and for some people, hope is all they have.
Many people will die defending the system that failed them because it’s too difficult to admit that the structure never favored them to begin with. It’s too devastating to accept that we were fed so many lies, and I think this is a large reason why many people victim-blame.
I’ve seen people actually blame Tamir Rice for getting shot by the police within seconds of arriving on the scene. People have asked what the student in South Carolina did to deserve getting beaten and dragged by a police officer inside her classroom. Comedians have made countless jokes asking what Rihanna said to Chris Brown to deserve getting physically assaulted.
In these instances, the focus is all on the victims – and we give less criticism to bullies and predators because if we condemn them, we’re at least partially admitting to the failings of our society.
Admitting that we, in part, cultivate, create, and protect bullies is much a harder concept to swallow than figuring out whether or not the victim deserved what happened to them.
When people spout such vicious victim-blaming rhetoric, I see people who are obviously dripping with hatred and bigotry, but I also see people who desperately fight to preserve order because are deathly afraid of people attacking the very system that they’ve put so much faith in.
They need order to stay intact because the alternative, which is the exposure that we’ve all been sold lies and propaganda that damage the vast majority of us, is too difficult to bear.
Or they’re so desperately afraid that the system might change into something they don’t recognize because they are currently benefitting in several ways, namely our culture’s favoritism of bullies and predators. The thought of losing their status or privilege fills them with terror.
Ironically, in many ways, this current structure likely doesn’t benefit them as much as they believe.
The system really only aids those who know how to obtain keep power by cheating the game. It encourages predatory behavior because more than anyone else, ruthless people reap the rewards.
It brainwashes us into thinking that oppressive behavior is a natural state of being when the reality is, very few people are born without a conscience. But the very essence of our society encourages people to have diminished empathy and remorse in order to succeed financially, which, by definition, encourages sociopathic thoughts and behaviors.
I believe we can stop the cycle of blaming victims, lacking empathy, and creating monsters if we collectively pondered where our beliefs came from, who taught them to us, and why we believe these ideas.
I think most people would be astonished to realize that through no fault of their own, they were indoctrinated at an early age.
If we can break out of our own individual bubbles and work with one another, we might realize that most of us suffer from similar hardships. We can begin building our collective empathy and start showing compassion for one another.
And together, maybe we can see that aggressive individualism is toxic for a society, and hopefully we can realize that we’re all in this together.
Maybe then, we can actually pursue genuine happiness in a meaningful way.
Robin Tran is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a standup comedian and blogger, and she holds a BA in English from UC Irvine. In early 2015, Robin came out as transgender woman and has written about her firsthand experiences ever since. She has performed at the Improv, Mad House Comedy Club, and the Comedy Palace, and her articles have been published in xoJane and Time.com.