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.


  1. Wisdom is what helps the traumatized overcome- that and time
    and usually in addition to those guidance hopefully from somebody wise and if applicable trained.
    I don't think wisdom of that kind is a public good that can be mass produced. Just as many children can make it safely to adulthood- with wise parenting, the same with the traumatized
    That kind of wisdom is hardly as rare as a philosopher king, but it is an uncommon commodity

  2. True enough, if might does not make right, then weakness must not make right, either.


    We live in nations where the law isn't available to most of us, it's vastly too expensive. If the law worked, you'd hear a lot less public pleading. What was fraud or robbery is now just the way business is conducted.

    Victims must nonetheless understand that they will always be the person in the best position to help themselves; being a victim adds responsibility to an individual (not just to help themselves but to keep others from being victims in the future, etc) - it doesn't remove responsibility.

  3. Right on. Perpetual victims spend a lifetime misinterpreting random acts as malicious abuse, and then bore us with their tepid tales. More dangerous is the bully that wields victimhood as a shield to moralize the inherently immoral.

    Society needs to offer sympathy, not sanction. Our eternal victims should be encouraged to show some grit and a stiff upper lip, rather than be encouraged by pop psychology to eternally mine past wrongs.

  4. HB I wouldn't want to encourage a cult of suffering in the style of Simone Weil either. The recovery from trauma may be character-forming in the way you suggest, but actual suffering, even in the form of extended and delusionary victimhood, tends to pull people apart not build them up.

    Anons. Thanks. Does the law work? I think so. The issue here is that victims think that the law (and society in general) should respond to their 'feelings' that they are a victim, whatever the objective facts. All I am calling for is that claims about justice (such as fraud) should be made by objective arguments rather than such appeal to pity.

  5. I'm against making suffering into a totem of any cult, I guess in the manner of Weil with whom I'm remotely familiar- I think she was a feminist who hung out with Sartre.
    This is a big topic; so for now let me respond with an analogy; just as on a suicide hotline, people are talked off the brink; so the really traumatized can be talked down from their mental condition however that may be characterized; which is another big topic.
    My main point is that trauma is real and it can be managed, not just by toughmindedness, but by getting a perspective on it, without getting overly attached to one's martyrdom and without making oneself the center of the world

  6. The cause of this phenomenon may be the confusing of the public and the private- since men are a single family, those deserving help are those most in need who have suffered the most, such as the traumatized

  7. To put my point with greater clarity: people expect things, resources, from society at large, like they would from their family.
    Being traumatized is a way of placing a claim on these resources.
    They apply the model of family, of a caring family, to the world and society at large.
    That is the error in thinking behind the wave of victimization, I think

  8. One final argument: if the successful thank parents or teachers for their success then success is not entirely of our own making and we may be victims to some degree.
    Blaming others for problems however usually doesn't help us better ourselves

  9. Very interesting write-up. A little too generalized for my understanding but if am not mistaken you are perhaps referring to Zionists, their perpetual sense of victimhood and how the mainstream corporate media hypes-up their status as victims. When in fact they are now oppressors rather than victims. The number of Oscar-winning Hollywood movies from Schindler’s List to the Pianist shows some hidden sinister motives in portraying their status as victims. But I think this corporate media’s obsession with Holocaust and portraying Zionists as victims has some political and economic reasons rather than historical and academic. I’ve written a blogpost on this topic which you may like to read, The Epistemic Challenge of Conspiracy Theories:

    But in my opinion what’s worse than false victimism is victim-blaming. And I find it very strange that how many neo-liberals these days blame the poor for their poverty, extremists for their illiteracy and victims for their victimhood. First we need to create conditions for the equality of opportunity, universal education, social justice and a degree of enfranchisement. Only then if someone commits a wrong can we rightly criticize him for his wrong-doing. Such conditions may be there – to a greater or lesser extent – in the developed world. But in the third world countries, our underclass suffers a two-fold injustice. They are the poorest of the poor, i.e. they are the underclass of a nation-state which is itself a poor state. And I don’t think that they qualify as false victims and their extremism and sense of grievance as misplaced or misguided.

    P.S. I apologize for being too forthright. But I always find it a bit difficult to express myself in a subtle and nuanced way. I am following your blog for quite some time and I truly admire your work. Only complaint that I have against you is that your blogposts are a quite infrequent. But perhaps you have more important things to do than just blogging. Anyway, keep up the good work. Cheers!

  10. Nauman, I'm delighted your're interested enough in what I write to want more, but I'm afraid I must disagree with much of your comment.

    In terms of criticising Zionism, what I meant was that the narrative of victimhood on both sides is so powerful that it distorts proper concern for living justice (i.e. in the present and for the future).

    I agree that it is wrong to blame victims for the injustice they suffer from, as when unemployed or poor people are called scroungers or losers. But I think you go too far in saying we can't judge people at all for what they do if they are a genuine victim of injustice (e.g. neoliberalism). My argument is against such blanket exemptions from moral rules on the basis of victim status. Apart from anything else it further dehumanises the victims of injustice if you assume that when they beat their children or blow up tourists their actions are determined by their suffering rather than their choices.

    Rather, victims of injustice should have the right to remedy that specific injustice, and the right to be supported by society as a whole in their struggle for that. Injustice, not victimhood, should be politicised.

  11. Brilliant article PB, and I wholeheartedly agree! While victims have a right to redress their wrongs, it does not give them the moral authority to drag down the rest of society with them...

    There are, unfortunately, too many examples of this! The victims of Srebrenica are one example of both sides of your argument. There are those that genuinely need and deserve redress... and there is the flip side of the coin, where the issue is politicised, both by the relatives and by political elites, to further their own agendas.

    Israel is another good example. I saw that you have an article on national guilt and collective responsibility... a fascinating topic, especially when tied together with the cult of victimhood. But I'll have to read it before I can comment further.

    I'd add one partial qualification to your argument - the case of refugees. I've been acquainted with many people who have genuinely had to flee for their lives, everything upturned, and no real hope of going back... They are the genuine victims, and there is a question of to what extent they are able to take back control of their lives and destinies even decades after.

  12. Western culture has an intellectual fixation about emotion, which it sees as the truth about being human. You may have noticed how imagination is also highly valued, so that "interesting" interpretations are often considered more relevant than boring old empirical evidence, even when the matter at hand would rather seem to demand calm reasoning. There is no better example of this than the culture of psychotherapy which thrives on sentimentalism and speculative imagination. It is not surprising that psychotherapy is often focused on finding a culprit and creating a victim identity for the patient.

    I think the cult of the victim originates in the same source. Sobbing is more convincing than a tone of sober objectivity especially when the story behind it is one of injustice. It is as if the tears of the victim were material evidence that a gross injustice really has taken place.

  13. Reading this 2015 ! It has gotten so bad that I can't even remember what was it like back in the 1990s! Everyone is a victim now, it's a "thing", it's something people are actually proud of. Pathetic!