The thing without a name that ruins the world

I’ve had a number of conversations recently where I was searching for a word I couldn’t find. Each time, it was the same thing I was trying to describe.
It’s that tendency some people have to count, in the greatest detail, the slights or unfairnesses they’ve suffered, but to ignore, or seem unaware of, the advantages they have or the unfairnesses others suffer. To feel immensely out of pocket, even when you are clearly not.
It’s the thing (emotion? tendency? dimension of personality?) that makes racists convinced immigrants have it easy. It makes MRAs convinced that men are terribly oppressed and women are all mean to them. It makes [redacted person of my acquaintance] act like a total bitch, no matter what anyone does for her.
It made an old flatmate of mine (who’d had a perfectly nice childhood) deeply resentful of the troubled kid in her class who got sent by some charity on the only holiday of his life (a rainy week in an outdoor centre in Scotland).
It’s the driver of Daily Mail readers’ daily apoplexy. The rationale for car users rage at cyclists. Arguably it’s the thing that allows the Tories to countenance, and get away with, policies that squeeze the most vulnerable in our society until the pips squeak, while letting rich people and corporations get away with murder.
It’s a tendency, or habit of mind, that seems to cause a great deal of the suffering and shitness in the world. And yet I cannot find a name for it.
Words like selfishness, or self-centredness do apply to these people, but they don’t quite capture it. Selfishness can just mean being oblivious to other people. It doesn’t communicate the resentful totting up of every perceived slight. It doesn’t communicate the asymmetry of always seeing yourself as hard-done-by, but never recognising others’ disadvantages, pain and suffering. It doesn’t quite nail that unwillingness to empathise with others, cos you’re too busy burnishing your own box of resentments.
I think Orwell was right, that not having words for things makes it harder for us to talk about them, to even see them. How have we ended up without a word for this thing? Is there a word, and I’ve just missed it or not thought of it? If not, can we invent a word?
Because I think it’s something we need to talk about, identify, and work out how to combat. Or the human race is never going to turn into a nicer place.

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  • thirstperson  On March 9, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    It’s an interesting question. I’m not sure that all the behaviours you mention have the same cause, though they may be linked.

    I remember reading about an experiment – can’t remember the details – that showed that people hate to lose something more than they like to gain something, even if the gain is of greater value. It’s hardwired behaviour, and may even have altruistic roots, e.g. people expect others to behave fairly and will cut off their nose to spite their face if this doesn’t happen.

    When resources were scarce this sharing behaviour could have been more important, possibly vital to survival. Maybe today when people in the West generally have more than enough, this instinct is twisted into something negative?

    I think Daily Mail apoplexy probably has its causes in jealousy that they’re somehow missing the party!

    This could all be nonsense – as you say it’s hard to pin down.

  • Steve Benner  On March 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I think it probably needs a name like “Me-ness”, as it represents, as you say, a certain self-centredness married to a particular meanness of spirit which denies any redeeming or balancing circumstances in any situation regarding others’ differences. It seems to be particularly articulated within the phrases “It’s all right for [you/him/her/them]…”

  • Ethan  On March 9, 2012 at 5:13 pm


  • Courtney Williams  On March 10, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    I can’t think of one single word to sum it up, which is probably why your post was the first thing that really made me link all my seemingly disparate experiences of people who just don’t get it. My instinct is to look to other languages, though unfortunately I lack the skill to do this to myself. The closest concept I can think of is “first world problems” (I prefer “minority world problems” of course).

  • BristleKRS  On March 10, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    My gut feeling is that the German language probably has this nailed in a Scrabble game-winning fashion, though equally I remain sceptical that having a word for it means that our cousins over the water are any less afflicted with it than those of us without. IYSWIM.

    I think I’d go with kick-the-dog syndrome – a transference of some kind that redirects frustration or anger at a (-n often justified) sense of personal injustice not onto the cause of that injustice (be it person, process or thing), but instead onto someone else equally or even more vulnerable.

    The German word probably has as many letters as that.

  • meh  On May 17, 2012 at 7:58 am

    hmm.. a sense of entitlement? i.e., that the world owes them something?

  • juliusbeezer  On October 2, 2012 at 9:24 am

    I think Bob Altemayer’s The Authoritarians is a good place to start with this issue: IIIRC, the message is that such attitudes are essentially defensive survival strategies for the less well intellectually endowed; the best counterstrategies are education (in general, especially to degree level) and conscious integration policies.
    Thoughtless ranting that does not acknowledge one’s own educational privilege is almost certainly futile… sorry about that.

    • matriarchalutopia  On October 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm

      Rebuke accepted on the not-acknowledging-my-own-educational-privilege front. But I don’t think I’m talking about something that educational privilege applies to really. I think it’s something more emotional. I’ve met plenty of highly educated people who exhibit this asymmetry, and plenty of five year olds who don’t.

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