Against Victimhood

Cross-posted, as always, from Putanumonit.

I have written many posts in the shape of giving life advice. I hear back from readers who take it and those who refuse it. Either is good — I’m just a guy on the internet, to be consumed as part of a balanced diet of opinions.

But occasionally I hear: who are you to give life advice, your own life is so perfect! This sounds strange at first. If you think I’ve got life figured out, wouldn’t you want my advice? I think what they mean is that I haven’t had to overcome the hardships they have, hostile people and adverse circumstances.

I talk quite often about things that are going poorly for me, but only from the point of view of how I fucked up. I avoid talking about being wronged, oppressed, attacked, discriminated against, or victimized. If you assume that it’s because I live a charmed life where none of these things happen, you may need a refresher on the base rate fallacy.

The reason I never talk about being a victim is that I’m extremely averse to victim mentality. It’s an insidious mindset, one that’s self-reinforcing both internally and by outside feedback. I’ve seen it claim people, groups, entire nations. On the flip side, I’ve noticed that the less often I think of myself as a victim the less I am victimized, which in turn makes that mindset even rarer. If I do feel on occasion that I have been harmed through no fault of my own by hostile actors I keep it to myself. This is a bad time to be a victim on the internet.

What’s bad about victim mentality? Most obviously, inhabiting a narrative where the world has committed a great injustice against which you are helpless against is extremely distressing. Whether the narrative is justified or not, it causes suffering.

See yourself as a victim prevents you from improving your situation by your own power, since doing so will contradict the story of your own helplessness. In particular that’s true of the story you tell yourself. That story is your identity, how your mind predicts your future actions. If your story is helpless victimhood your mind will refuse to help — it wants to be vindicated more than it wants to do better.

When I was young I was a weird nerd, and while that maybe hasn’t changed much I do find myself in social circles where weird nerdiness is welcome. In school it was not very welcome, and people weren’t nice to me. But I never really fell into thinking that I was singled out for abuse, mostly because I reasoned that if my classmates really wanted to abuse me they could do so much more than they have. I could come up with very creative ways to bully someone, and no one in my school seemed equally creative. I learned to avoid the worst people and slowly make friends with the rest.

Avoiding bad things is a usually a great tactic, but it’s not available to victims. Avoiding the victimizer makes it hard to sustain the story of victimhood. It also leaves behind the lingering residue of injustice, knowing that the culprit did not get their comeuppance. That sense of injustice often haunts the victim long after they’re safe from the original source of harm.

Most importantly, victim mentality leaves no room for empathy. Victims can’t see anyone else’s struggles or suffering, especially those of their perceived victimizers.

When I write about dating I get replies from young men who feel maligned and victimized by women. They complain about impossible standards, ambiguous behavior, and dating norms as if these were setup on purpose to immiserate them. When I was younger and finally managed to reject this line of thinking for myself I started understanding women’s own difficulties, fears, and frustrations with dating, the real issues behind their seemingly-unfair complaints about men. That’s when my dating life improved dramatically.

People in general don’t like victims, and they certainly don’t want to date them.

Why do people claim victimhood despite the drawbacks? It makes sense in a small group where people know each other and reputations are tracked. The group will band to punish the perpetrator and offer the victim restitution, knowing that this will redound to them in turn.

But in the world at large, and especially on the internet of beefs, there are a lot more punishers than restitutionists. Claiming publicly that you’ve been victimized by X will immediately attract everyone with an axe to grind against X. Any pure souls trying to help will get swallowed up by the sheer number and energy of anti-Xers.

The anti-Xers have a vested interest in your continued victimization by X. Nothing is more detrimental to their cause than X’s victims making peace with X on their own terms. Victimhood-mongering provides purpose and gainful employment to countless individuals. The victims end up doubly helpless and doubly beholden: both to their oppressors and their “liberators”.

Global recognition of one’s victimhood is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to anyone. It happened to the Palestinians.

The United Nations agrees that Palestinians are victims. That’s why in addition to UNHCR, the UN agency to support refugees worldwide, it has a special agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees: UNRWA. UNRWA differs from UNHCR in two main ways:

  1. It does not share UNHCR’s mandate to “assist refugees in eliminating their refugee status by local integration in the current country, resettlement in a third country or repatriation”, thus keeping Palestinianss and their descendants in refugee status for perpetuity.

  2. It employs twice the number of staff.

Muslim leaders from Tunis to Kuala Lumpur agree that Palestinians are victims. They need to because it plays well for public opinion and allows them to maintain an anti-Israel stance in the absence, for most of them, of any actual conflict with Israel. Until there’s something serious at stake like foreign investments or a weapons deal, that is, and then they sign a deal with Israel and tell the Palestinians to shut up and stop complaining.

Many Americans agree that Palestinians are victims, especially those on college campuses. Shortly after I arrived on campus in the US I was invited to a “conversation” about the ongoing operation in Gaza with a left-leaning Jewish student group.

I asked them whether they though the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, which set off the operation, was justified. None of the 15 students in attendance knew who he was. Most of them couldn’t tell Hamas from the PLO, conflated the situation in Gaza with the settlements in the West Bank, and had little knowledge or interest in actual matters of Palestinian life and governance such as elections, security arrangements, water and energy supply, etc.

I realized that the vast majority of them joined this organization to establish their progressive bona fides and differentiate themselves from Jewish conservatives. Israel-Palestine is the biggest game in town, but it probably could just as well be male circumcision or female rabbis.

I want to make it clear — I don’t particularly disagree that Palestinians are victims in many senses and that their ability to help themselves is constrained by outside forces, chief among which is Israel. I have real compassion for them. I just want to note that decades of global recognition of Palestinian victimhood have been a boon for UN staffers, Muslim politicians, and American progressives, along with many others. Surely such a broad and powerful coalition would bring Palestine peace and prosperity and an end to victimhood?

Shockingly, it hasn’t.

These situations apply mostly to identifiable groups, examples of which are abundant, but it can happen to individuals too. In families, schools, organizations there are people who like playing the savior role, and they have a sharp nose for victims in need.

Isn’t this all victim blaming? This is a reasonable objection, although I have some issues with the concept itself and its provenance. Here’s the headline of the Wikipedia article on victim blaming:

Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them. The study of victimology seeks to mitigate the prejudice against victims, and the perception that victims are in any way responsible for the actions of offenders.

Equating the perception that victims have even a modicum of responsibility with prejudice gives up the game before it started. With this axiom in place “victimology” is not a field of inquiry, it’s a tool of advocacy to be used in competitions for victimhood status. These competitions have many losers and no winners.

But the concept of victim blaming as it’s naively understood still has value and needs to be addressed. To do so we need to clarify two distinctions.

The first difference is between being a victim in a particular instance and victimhood as an ongoing story. When you are the target of a crime you are a victim — you can appeal to an authority for help. You tell mom your older sister stole your toy and mom makes her return it.

This is entirely different from saying decades later that your career failures are a result of being victimized by your sister as a child. Even if the causal effect of your sister’s depredation is not literally zero, it has probably done less harm than the narrative of victimhood itself.

When I arrived in New York with little money I promptly lost $3,000 to a rental scam. If the cops had apprehended the scammer I would have confirmed that yes, I was their victim, and would have demanded the full amount back. But my main reaction was to analyze the situation, read up on similar scams, and build a plan for the future that will prevent me from falling for those again. I don’t even see it as an injustice — $3,000 is a fair price to pay for a class in scam resilience.

The second, related distinction is between public status and individual mindset. Blame is at its core a social concept, used to coordinate how we allocate responsibility and demand atonement as a group. We could very want for society to direct those at the perpetrator, and simultaneously advise the victim to hold themselves privately accountable at least in part.

The problem here is that every public discussion of the issue is perceived as mostly an attempt to shape the reaction of society, rather than the attitude of the victim. I care more about the latter, which is why this entire essay avoided talking about individual victims and how they could improve. The main way to change individual mindset it to talk about your own experience, which is also what I would encourage you to do in the comments. (I will heavily moderate less-than-perfectly-charitable discussion of the behavior of actual victims and all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict.)

In conclusion we must address privilege. It’s sure easy for someone who is safe from oppression to talk about the pitfalls of victim mentality; not so for the victim!

My first answer is that there is a strong bias in favor of overstating victimhood that needs to be corrected. This bias is caused by all people I discussed who benefit from being seen as protectors of victims. This bias is especially powerful in the United States, where victimhood is more and more allocated on the basis of group identity (which is enduring and political) instead of individual circumstance (which can be helped and overcome). If we lived in ancient Sparta, I would be giving the reverse advice instead.

Victim mentality is manufactured en masse by the American education system. It can only be resisted by individual efforts to reject it for yourself, in the privacy of your own blog-browsing.

But yes — I am privileged. In my nationality, my social and professional status, and more. But for all of those I, or the group that I’m part of, decided not to be victims and to take responsibility even when the former option was on the table. Again, I will not go into detail about how the option of victimhood was available, since merely talking about it is claiming it.

I don’t care if I miss out on the desirable status of having overcome great adversity™. It’s a currency that certainly has its value. But it’s not worth the price it demands.

Victimhood is a vicious cycle. It leads to helplessness which leads to victimization which leads to external recognition of victimhood which in turn leads to helplessness and so on down the spiral. Rejecting victimhood works the same way, small decisions that compound until one reaches escape velocity.

Not being a victim is indeed a privilege. With time and a change of mindset, this privilege can be yours too.