Thursday 3 November 2011

The cult of victimhood

Victims are everywhere these days, whining about one thing or another. Sometimes they are still complaining about things that happened decades ago (or even hundreds of years ago to other people with the same skin colour); sometimes they seem to be 'status-victims' who feel entitled to oppress others because of their special personal sense of oppression. Very few seem to be complaining justifiably, or even comprehensibly, about some genuinely significant injustice being done to them right now that others should address. This is not healthy. Much of the limited space for morality in politics is being taken over by the study and art of victimhood at the expense of proper moral reasoning. It has a deleterious effect on public discourse and behaviour, with people seeming to compete more about their degrees of victimhood than the rights and wrongs of their case.

In the normal case victims deserve compassion followed by immediate justice. For this we employ sympathy - a forensic tool for comprehending and assessing the situation of those who claim victimhood. It should not be mistaken for straightforward empathy with the feelings of others. But this goes wrong when victims are automatically assumed good and right. Then victimhood itself becomes the measure and the end of justice, and more and more people step up to claim it since it offers both a short-cut to credibility and the chance to wallow, child-like, in the comfortable helplessness provided by misguided public empathy. Proper moral analysis is short-circuited by shallow declarations of suffering that becomes little more than dysfunctional and pitiful whining (see e.g. the inestimable Theodore Dalrymple on resentment).

Why do we listen to victims? It is sometimes thought that they have some special epistemic authority - a finely tuned sense for oppression (let's leave earthquakes aside and confine ourselves to the evils that humans can inflict on each other). That may be the case for victims of genuine oppression with respect to their immediate situation - they are the relevant witnesses at the trial, etc. However victimhood needs to fulfil certain criteria before a victim may be considered an expert on anything: truth and understanding.

First, feeling like a victim is no guarantee that one has been properly oppressed, in part because such feelings are not a zero-sum game: all sides in any interaction can feel persecuted e.g. many whites felt they were the victims of the US 1960's civil rights movement (they only shut up and moved on, eventually, because most people didn't agree). Proving injustice can only be achieved by actual arguments, not feelings.

Second, some people suffer as victims without really understanding what's going on - most obviously in cases of child abuse. Not to belittle their real suffering, but, unless they made a particular study of the subject afterwards, what can they really say about it that's relevant to our understanding of the problem?

Now of course there are victims of genuinely terrible oppression - such as ethnic cleansing or the persecution of homosexuals - who might have a special sensitivity to the situational factors preceding or surrounding such oppression. A death camp survivor who criticises the rhetoric of a populist rightwing politician for what it implies should probably be listened to since he may recognise something others wouldn't. But he isn't necessarily right - that depends on the arguments he can give, not his feelings.

In most cases however the assumed epistemic authority of victims seems as ungrounded as consulting celebrities about development aid or nuclear non-proliferation (why would you expect them to have anything worthwhile to contribute?). And there is a further risk, all too common among victims, that their special experience leads them to view far too many situations as resembling what they suffered (false positives). In another example of mistaking feelings for objective expertise, victims feel linked by their shared passive experience of unjustified suffering, but that does not mean that a World Trade Center survivor can speak on behalf of the victims of a Burmese army massacre. Their situations are quite different.

Victims seem these days to be granted a mysterious ethical authority, as if society, by acknowledging that they were in the right with respect to a particular situation, considers them to be innocent and good across the board. But this really makes no sense. A murderer who gets raped in prison is a victim of a crime and deserves justice. But that doesn't make him a good person! It is as if the simple black and white model of the oppressor-victim dynamic permanently crowds out our other moral accounting perspectives. Sometimes this combines with a second phenomenon where society appears to grant victims some extra stock of ethical capital out of guilt for what they were allowed to suffer. So the victim is seen as a perpetual innocent so long as he retains his victim status and he may be able to get away with bad behaviour (including creating new victims) that would ordinarily never be permitted. 

Is it a good thing to assume that victims are "good"?  I can't see how it is. Many so-called victims seem to justify terrible acts by reference to their past suffering, even though it would seem totally unrelated to their own present behaviour ("Yes, I killed my wife, but I was abused as a child"). When children try this on we make it clear that morality does not work this way: if the world makes you cry, you don't have the right to make someone else cry. What responsible adult would accept this from a child "Why did you hit your sister, Tommy?" "Because Johnny took my favourite toy"? And yet that is analytically identical to what adult 'victims' are sometimes allowed to get away with. (Roman Polanski's perpetual victimhood springs to mind.)
I think that there are aspects of the modern (mis)understanding of victimhood that actually make it quite seductive and this, and society's immoderate tolerance of such claims, may explain its popularity. To explain away one's failures and frailties as the effects of some outside force; to float away on a sea of comfortable social empathy; and to embrace a right to irresponsibility is a bit like regressing to childhood. It isn't surprising therefore that we are seeing the rise of a culture of victimhood taking over how many people view and present themselves, our norms of discourse, and the (limited) moral space in politics. (This is not unconnected with the rise of identity politics, in which nearly everyone can at least claim membership of an oppressed group. Even American Republicans can be found whining that they are being terribly oppressed by outside forces - like that Nazi-communist Obama!)

Of course it is true that real victimhood can be traumatising, and that may be relevant to explaining later bad behaviour, but it's not an acceptable reason  (it may partially mitigate but not justify). If the victim really believes that their whole life is being determined by what they suffered from external forces, then they have really accepted the passive role of victimhood as their life-long orientation to the world. That deserves our pity, but no longer our compassion. Victimhood can become a trap, and society owes it to victims to help them out of it, not to encourage them to dwell in it so that what they suffered takes over their whole life, nor dishonour real victims by allowing just anyone to call themselves a victim.

When people combine a self-understanding as victims with actual effective power in the world they can be especially dangerous, since they are exercising power without taking responsibility for agency. Self-identity and the objective world clash and cognitive dissonance results: the self-identity as victim restructures one's view of the outside world to fit itself. Self-described victims then go around seeing the world as oppressing them: they consider themselves thereby exempt from normal moral standards and act accordingly. Of course, lots of other people are now also going around claiming to be victims, so we get lots of terrible behaviour justified by 'competitive victimhood' claims. As if that proves anything! For example in Israel and the occupied territories: "We blew you up because you oppressed our grandparents" "That's not fair, we are the most oppressed people in the world" etc, etc.