When did it become chic in our society to claim the status of a victim? I know this has happened, because various groups now routinely use words like “oppressed” and “deprived” to describe their general condition.
This instance of victimology is not applied to just one phase of a person’s life or to a particular period in his or her personal history. It has become fashionable to claim that you and your tribe were, are, and always have been victims of great and ignoble forces active in society, history, human psychology, sexual relationships, or some other sphere of interaction, where it has become impossible to name your individual enemies, call them out, and thrash them. Conversely, it becomes all too possible to point toward the nearest representative of some designated über-class and blame him for all your woes.
To my mind, this is a dead end. Going deeper into victimhood just doesn’t work. Good stories and happy outcomes don’t follow from reveling in the state of oppression, deprivation, loss of opportunity, loss of dignity, and impairment of selfhood that the victim mantle bestows. My first question to such a person would be, “Well, what are you going to do to get your own back?” That is, how are you going to repair the damage, reclaim your life, rebuild your fortune, regain your self-respect, punish your enemies, and defend yourself against future attacks and depredations? To me, these would seem to be the next steps in returning to the status of an independent, resourceful, courageous, and fully functioning human being.
To my ear, the status of a victim sounds too much like an excuse … and like whining. “I can’t be a complete person, I can’t be strong, can’t do my job, can’t improve my life, care for my family, learn and grow, because I have been abused, robbed of opportunity, looted of identity, denied good role models, hampered with social pressures, and oppressed by the economic system, by the banks, the patriarchy, the upper class, the one-percent, the middle class, or simply by the majority in society.”
When my generation was growing up, my parents and my various aunts and uncles were not people to suffer complaints and whining from me and my brother and our various cousins. I routinely heard the elders say, “Knock it off!” along with “Go do something! Get busy!” My father’s favorite aphorism was “Those who feel sorry for themselves, should!” And I don’t think we youngsters were ill-used. Their world had just survived a grueling and all-consuming world war, second of two in as many decades, separated by a worldwide financial collapse, and the end of that war had brought horrifying stories of brutality, torture, and genocide. Their generation considered strength, self-reliance, and preparedness in the face of such adversity a cardinal virtue. And no one has told me since then that the world has gotten any kinder or less dangerous.
If you attack me and my family, if you rob us or try to bend us to your will, you will not make us victims—combatants, perhaps, and certainly enemies, but not victims. The only person who can turn me into a victim is me, through my own attitudes about myself. And as I’ve said before, that’s a dead end.
Adopting the mantle of a victim is not a survival tactic. Instead, it is an admission of general weakness and lack of purpose. Moreover, it inspires not pity but, among those without compassion or charity, the urge to attack and finish the job. Why would anyone want to make him- or herself a target of unsympathetic scoundrels? If you know your condition or situation to be weak, the best course is not to advertise that fact but rather to conceal it—and then work hard on improving your condition and situation.
Perhaps those who openly adopt the mantle of victimhood are trying to take on a protective coloration against potential criticism. “I’m not an oppressor! I’m not a scoundrel! Look! I’ve been deprived and oppressed myself!” Of course, this argument leads too easily to comparing and contrasting your hurts and degradations with those of the people you are trying to convince. And that’s another dead end.
Adopting a pose of weakness, of oppressed status and a deprived condition, might seem like an expression of humility. But it’s the false kind. The truly humble person does not deny his or her strengths, skills, opportunities, and achievements. The magnanimous person accepts these things calmly, does not flaunt them before others, but uses them to achieve good ends. He or she also wishes to build a future, to grow and learn in order to achieve a better life, more opportunities, more instances of kindness, and an easier passage for his or her family, community, and society. The person who glories in perceived losses, hurts, and damages is actually exercising a kind of pride, focusing on him- or herself and what others may owe to satisfy his or her hurts. The truly strong person puts aside losses and hurts, attempts to take them in stride, and focuses on building for the future.
I’ve always been a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels.1 One element that has stuck with me is a reference in relation to the Bene Gesserit, which is one of the Great Schools, whose adepts and mother superiors are the interstellar empire’s genetic preservationists and political manipulators. They operate under the axiom “Support strength.” On the face of it, this would seem to be backwards. After all, our human compassion tells us the poor and weak need our support, and the meek need our protection. Our human paranoia would suggest that the strong are more likely to be predators and users, and their prey is the poor and meek.
But I think that in the long view, in taking care of the entire human race and building for its future, the Bene Gesserit have it right. The goal is not to encourage the ruthless and predaceous, nor to increase the number of the weak and helpless. The greater good is to help those who are still learning, growing, acquiring skills and purpose, becoming self-reliant and able to cope, and teaching others by their example. Preserving, encouraging, and teaching poverty and weakness are a dead end for society and slow suicide for those who accept the status of victim.
Those who would live, prosper, and move forward into the future must be strong and resourceful. These are the people with the good stories and happy outcomes.
1. See my blog The Dune Ethos from October 30, 2011.