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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.