Victim (noun) vic·tim \ˈvik-təm\: one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment
How has victim become such a slur? How have we come to a place where those who are wronged are always somehow in the wrong themselves? I have been told that I “like making myself out to be a victim.” Apparently, acknowledging and discussing oppression—past and present—in this country is so very uncomfortable that there is a need to demean those who address the issues and to dismiss the issues themselves. Victim: a term that used to illicit understanding and empathy has become a term to label a person as inadequate, lazy, complacent, and someone who mooches off others’ successes. Victim and entitled have become synonymous in the eyes of conservative America. This modern understanding of victimization goes hand-in-hand with the idea I introduced in my “No Ordinary Election” post: that we cannot define the experiences of others. Just because you have not experienced something personally, does not mean the experience is not relevant to others. By saying I am playing the victim card by addressing various forms of oppression, is to belittle the experiences (good and bad) of myself and others.
I am trying to be careful with how I address this issue in that, by calling out a certain group who tends to make the fictitious victim claim, I am making them victims (as their definition defines it.) Let me just say that I have not yet met a woman who has said I am playing the victim by discussing gender inequality, nor have I met a minority who says I am fallaciously identifying them as victims of systemic discrimination. That, however, is not to say that every group thinks with a single mind or experiences the same things. We are complex beings and we need to be aware of intersectionality. There are probably women who have never experienced (or never recognized) sexism or misogyny, and perhaps there are minorities who have never found themselves at the receiving end of discrimination. But to belittle and devalue those of us who have experienced such things, is to normalize and perpetuate the behavior further.
Let’s look at who has really created the fictitious victim label for themselves: straight, white men. Daniel Sullivan writes,
“In 2012, I published a series of studies showing that when male white Americans were told that their group had caused the suffering of minorities, they responded to these accusations with competitive victimhood, such as claims that their group suffers basically as much as minorities. Following in this vein, Trump consistently portrayed Americans as being exploited by their government and other nations, which absolved white males of any guilt by granting them their own victim status. Our data showed that this tendency was driven by feelings of ‘stigma reversal,’ which is a resentful sense that majority groups are now considered immoral and stigmatized due to historical injustice.”
Again, I do not want to paint any group to be of a singular mind. I know I am going to get flack for “targeting” this group of individuals, but I feel it needs to be addressed. Straight, white men have historically held the power in this country and, with an increasingly diverse America, that power is starting to shift and it is uncomfortable. Change is always uncomfortable. A rally cry of the Right is that immigrants and minorities are taking our jobs. But the question is: who decided they were our jobs to have? Just because certain positions have been historically filled by white men, does not make those jobs exclusively theirs. That is the definition of entitlement, plain and simple. When we see signs that say, “Take our country back,” who is the “our” being referenced? When we see red hats reading, “Make America Great Again,” what time period are you wanting to return to? When women and minorities could not vote? When African-Americans had “separate but equal” facilities? When women stayed home and tended to the kids while the men made the money? It seems to me that all of these would be ideal: a time when the others knew their place. But this is a classic case of misplaced frustration. Michael Kimmel states,
“They are right to be angry! I empathize with those angry white men. I’m angry too. But was it immigrants who issued those predatory loans that lost them their homes? Was it LGBT activists who outsourced their jobs and created deals that let billionaires pay no taxes? Was it feminist women who caused climate change? Of course not. America’s angry white men are right to be angry, but they are delivering their mail to the wrong address. Our task in this election is to help them re-address that mail, and send it to the very people—like conniving real estate moguls turned reality TV star—who are ultimately the cause of their anger.”
Instead of fighting over who gets the bigger crumb, should we not focus our energy on who made off with most of the cake? Sure, white men are victims…but not to minorities or women or LBGTQIA individuals or immigrants. They are victims of a country that gives more rights to companies than to people. We are all victims of corporate America, a commonality we could use to unite and fight back, but instead we spend our time blaming others because they look or act differently.
I wish I could precisely summarize the entire book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, but I am not that talented. (It is a must-read!) The book basically debunks the idea of the American dream and equal opportunity. It criticizes the pull yourself up by your bootstraps argument. Do not get me wrong, this country provides incredible opportunities, which is why people immigrate from all over the world. But, the idea that opportunity is equal for all is a fallacy. No matter what rags-to-riches success story you look at, you will find that certain advantages were afforded to those individuals that are not available for the common American; certain rare opportunities allowed them to surge ahead, surpassing others. This all ties into my refutation of the idea that, “We have trained Americans to play the victim in this Country. Nobody is responsible for their own actions anymore. Instead of taking responsibility, one merely just becomes the victim of something” (David Quinn). There are people in this country—and in every country across the globe—who are at a disadvantage when it comes to certain available opportunities. In order to explain this in a more comfortable way, however, we try to paint the counterpart in a negative light. Cedric Johnson, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, stated, “We promote an underclass mythology defined by false beliefs that the poor don’t want to work, don’t value education, don’t share the same values as we do…So black lives are devalued by both the economy and within our popular discourse, which says they have no stake and don’t deserve support.” Yes, addressing inequity will likely require assistance for some. But we need to realize that asking for help does not mean you are weak. It does not mean you want others to see you as a victim, nor does receiving help mean you are acting entitled. We all need help in different ways throughout our lifetimes. I know it is unpopular to say, but this country has reparations to pay to certain groups that have been used and oppressed throughout our history. Are there people who do take advantage of aid, who do feel they are entitled to certain things? Of course! Does that mean we decide to demonize every individual who asks for/needs help keeping their head above water? And lest we not forget, our beloved Declaration of Independence states that we all have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There are no quantifiers such as sex, gender, race, ethnicity, physical ability, financial status, etc. In my mind, those three things include education, shelter, sustenance, and basic healthcare. I know many disagree and argue that no one is entitled to those things, but that is my personal opinion; we need all those things in order to have a shot at the so-called American dream.
Acknowledging privilege is not to devalue success. In the same way, to acknowledge a criminal as a victim of police brutality or an unjust court system is not to ignore the fact that a crime was committed. They do not have to be exclusive. Dr. Ofer Zur wrote that,
“The ‘rights movement’ goes hand in hand with the victim industry. The incessant cry for empathy and justice by the victim industry reduces our capacity to deal with genuine victims, such as children who are molested, women who are raped and beaten, immigrants who are mistreated, etc. The victim culture creates a compassion fatigue, which interferes with helping those who truly need and deserve our help.”
But, like my argument about fighting over who has the bigger crumb while someone else makes off with the entire cake, why must we quibble over who is the more persecuted victim? What warrants the “genuine” qualifier? Why try to one-up each other on who has faced more “legitimate” hardship? Can we not acknowledge various forms of oppression while still maintaining our “capacity to deal with [all] victims?”
Let me be clear, falling victim to oppressive or inequitable forces is not the same as defining yourself as a victim by nature. I have been a victim of both gender inequality and of sexual assault. I have lived in a place where I was an “outsider” due to the color of my skin. But those experiences do not define my entire life nor my entire identity. Those experiences have strengthened me so that next time I face hardship, I know what to say and do to fight back. In this country, one in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime (as opposed to one in seventy-one men). Read that again: one in five. Twenty percent. And that is with less than thirty percent reporting such events. Now, of course there are many reasons why women tend to not report sexual assault/abuse. In my opinion, however, one reason stands head and shoulders above the others: victim blaming. Not just external blame (i.e. “you were asking for it,” “if you hadn’t been dressed like a slut,” “if you hadn’t taken him home,” “if you hadn’t been walking in the dark alone,” etc.) but internal, self-blame as well. Despite knowing that being forced to have sex without my consent was not my fault, I still berate myself thinking “I should have fought harder to push him off,” “I should have screamed instead of cried,” “I shouldn’t have given up,” I should have, I should have, I should have. Why do I, and many others, tend to think this way? Because the idea of victim blaming is so deeply ingrained in our society and in the American psyche that legitimate victims blame themselves for others’ wrongdoing. No wonder most people don’t report sexual assault. For me, I did not see the point in reporting the rape because I was so upset with myself for allowing this person into my home; I was so wrapped up in thinking about what I should have done differently to avoid what happened that the thought of holding the other individual responsible did not even come to mind.
At its core, victim blaming seems to boil down to both a lack of empathy and fear; fear that what happened to them, could happen to you. You are somehow relinquished from this possibility if other victims were in some way at fault. Dr. Juliana Breines argues that,
“Victim blaming is not just about avoiding culpability—it’s also about avoiding vulnerability. The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are. Victims threaten our sense that the world is a safe and moral place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When bad things happen to good people, it implies that no one is safe, that no matter how good we are, we too could be vulnerable. The idea that misfortune can be random, striking anyone at any time, is a terrifying thought, and yet we are faced every day with evidence that it may be true.”
Walking by a homeless person and blaming them for poor life choices feels safer than the idea that whatever happened to them could just as easily happen to you. My guess is that women who blamed Secretary Clinton for her husband’s infidelity—rather than acknowledging that she was a victim of adultery—are women who worry that such a thing could happen to their own families. It seems that, due to a general stability compared to the rest of the world, Americans have a harder time than others wrapping their heads around the idea that bad things happen to good people. “In other cultures, where sometimes because of war or poverty or maybe sometimes even just because of a strong thread of fatalism in the culture, it’s a lot better recognized that sometimes bad things happen to good people” (Sherry Hamby).
It is time we stop making everything a damn competition. It is one thing to compete on the playing field, and another entirely to create competition among victims about who had it worse. Reminds me of this Monty Python skit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1a1wHxTyo. (Enjoy!) In order to make progress, we must acknowledge and discuss the problems. Ignoring oppression in this country is not going to make it go away. When your check engine light comes on, do you just ignore it and hope it disappears, or do you take it to a mechanic to uncover the problem and then fix it? Same goes for issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. We need to have open discussion that identifies underlying problems without erratic and blanket victim blaming. By doing so, we can work toward creating an America that lives up to all the hoopla: a grand nation with liberty and justice for all.
Amel Ahmed, Ferguson fallout: Black Americans grapple with victim blaming, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/20/ferguson-and-victimblaminganationalpastime.html.
Daniel Sullivan, Psychology explains how Trump won by making white men feel like victims, http://qz.com/834713/us-election-psychology-explains-how-donald-trump-won-by-making-white-men-feel-like-victims/.
David W. Quinn, Be A Victim: It’s the American Way, http://www.chicagonow.com/arkielad/2013/12/be-a-victim-its-the-american-way/.
Joshua Rothman, The Origins of ‘Privilege’, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege.
Juliana Breines, Ph.D., Why Do We Blame Victims? When Others’ Misfortune Feels Like A Threat, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-love-and-war/201311/why-do-we-blame-victims.
Kayleigh Roberts, The Psychology of Victim Blaming, http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/10/the-psychology-of-victim-blaming/502661/.
Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men, http://www.voices4hillary.com/angry-white-men-by-michael-kimmel-1953554562.html.
Ofer Zur, Ph.D, Culture of Victims: Reflections on a Culture of Victims & How Psychotherapy Fuels the Victim Industry, http://www.zurinstitute.com/victim_psychology.html.