Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blaming the term "victim"

Someone whom I was talking to in a therapeutic capacity called me a "second circle victim*" of someone else's sketchy behavior recently, and that has been very much on my mind. I knew what the person I was talking to meant, but I found that my dislike of being called a victim has not lessened in the years since someone has done it.

Though I've been through a few things that might justify my use of the term, and far better justify it than these recent events, I've always hated the idea.

It's not so much that I don't want people to feel sorry for me, though I don't. I'm most concerned that my status as a "victim" in some people's eyes will leak into my self-perception and become part of the way I myself view the situation.

And I really don't want that.

As far as I can tell some 99 percent of the evil in this world is committed by people who view themselves, sometimes rightly**, as the victim of previous evils. To get the Godwin's law violation out of the way, the 1940's era Germans were pretty directly victimized by the treaty of Versailles. For another political example, the French Monarchy really had put the middle class and poor through quite a lot before they struck back with the reign of terror***.

Our personal lives are rife with examples like these. In crim law, it came up that some huge percentage of murders between two lower-middle-class and poor men essentially start as arguments and escalate until someone pulls a weapon. Then the loser dies and the winner goes to jail. No doubt both sides would say they were the victims of the other guy's actions. In interviews where the charge was "attempted murder" that is almost always the case.

On 9-11, America became a victim and our victimization has justified what is to me an appalling number of unreasonable and out-of-proportion responses. The line between terrorist and "freedom fighter striking back against and oppressive and threatening government" itself is, of course, entirely dependent on perspective, but I'm more interested in applying these ideas to my own life.

If I have a busy life and a friend has a busy life and she's fifteen minutes late for lunch and that throws off my schedule a bit and it starts an argument, am I the victim of her inconsiderate nature or is she the victim of my needlessly critical one? We probably see both as true. But will either of us actually "teach the other a lesson" if we make it into an argument?

Are there cases where a 100 percent evil person inflicts harm on a 100 percent innocent person? There are a few. But I bet that those people whom we see as evil are as certain as any other victim that they were perfectly justified in responding to the way they were provoked and that they really are innocent of any serious wrongdoing. John Wayne Gacy's famous comment “I should never have been convicted of anything more serious than running a cemetery without a license.” comes to mind here. That in itself was probably sarcastic, but Gacy was vocal that he had been both the victim of child abuse and of an unfair media that was out to get him.

People tend to talk about the Stonewall riots, where gay New Yorkers fought back against a police raid, like they were a great thing. My oft-expressed dislike of police raids notwithstanding, I still maintain that mobbing outside the Village Voice and threatening to burn it down because the morning's edition made fun of the previous night's riots is not a good thing. Even when victims are in some sense justified in responding, their response is almost always out of proportion to the initial offense.

I find it especially scary when a person feels that they've been mistreated by an entire group, or their group has been mistreated by an entire group. At this point, I'd say every group in the world has arguably mistreated every other group that they have met in some way or another. In an age of rising political snark and rising unemployment, the guy who shot up the Tennessee Valley UU Church provided no justification for doing so that isn't available to millions of Americans. And he did it because of what he felt liberals had done to him. (OK, I still think he mostly did it to ruin his ex-wife's life, but I will accept the manifesto's explanation for his actions for the sake of argument.)

Bringing it again back to the personal, I've had to explain to both Christians and Atheists that the Simpsons doesn't have anything against them and does not have a bias toward the other group. I'm fairly certain that I was not successful and that the two Christians and one atheist that I've discussed this with continue to see their beliefs as victims of unfair treatment by Bart, Lisa, Homer, Marge, Maggie and perhaps especially Ned Flanders.

So anyway, when I see that "victim" is a cherished thing to be, in society and perhaps especially in UUism, I worry. The very concept of "victim" seems to justify retribution, and again much of the time retribution is out of scale with the initial offense. I don't think in any example in this entire post could it be said that the perpetrators learned the lesson they were supposed to from the victim's response****. At the very least, when a victim, justified or not, strikes back in vengeance, it adds more pain to a world that has too much already.

who at one point got to hear all about the perpetrator of the above-mentioned sketchy behavior's actions and how none of them were his fault and how unfairly he has been treated by everyone since. This person has been a victim of the person who claims to be a victim of his whom he seems to feel blew the initial incident out of proportion, of his professional association and of the judgments of others and their nasty reading of his innocent behavior. Hearing all this has not made the victim role more appealing.

* When someone behaves badly, they have victims. But the behavior also tends to affect other people who are simply around the situation negatively.

** I don't have the perspective to provide a modern example of a group who think they are victims but are wrong, though people who claim that the government is trying to destroy Christmas come to mind, but I think it's safe to say that the medieval Christians who used to murder Jews since Jews must be poisoning Christians since Jews never seemed to get the plague are a safe example. Now, of course, we know that it was the hygiene practices of the Jews that kept them safer. Queen Elizabeth's resolve to take a monthly bath was unusually fastidious for her time.

***And for what it's worth, Marie Antoinette's hats and shoes did not bankrupt the French government, helping pay for the American Revolution did. So next time you're tempted to hold her up as a symbol of decadence and greed, consider that she quite literally died for the Founding Fathers' cause.

**** War reparations, ostentatious French people, unreasonable police raids, terrorism, unemployment, the election of liberals, tardiness and child abuse continue to this day.


PG said...

The Marshall Plan's extension to the Axis powers could be a sign that we realized that defeated countries should not be left to fester in their ruin.

Aside from that, I think this is an interesting post and of course it is valid for you to want to avoid being labeled a victim or thinking of yourself that way.

However, I don't think it's always bad or wrong or likely to lead to further unjustified harms for someone to conceive of herself as a victim. Sometimes it can be healthy, as in situations where the person otherwise would be pressured to think she'd done something to deserve the harm done to her. Even organizing around the idea of victimhood, as crime victims' rights groups have done, can lead to positive outcomes, such as improving treatment of crime victims by the justice system.

Anonymous said...

Check out Walter E. William's gift - his "Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon":


I find it relevant to your post, amusing and true.

kimc said...

Do you suppose that this sort of reasoning is what led Jesus to recommend turning the other cheek?

PG said...

How kind of Williams to speak on behalf of all black people in determining that it's all OK now.

Anonymous said...

PG: I don't think Williams is saying it's all OK now, and his proclamation is intended to be, in part at least, humorous. (I don't believe everything is OK for black people.)

I think his point is that when whites act out of guilt for things they did not do, that guilt interferes with interpersonal relationships and effective public policy.

PG said...

I realize that Williams was trying to be funny, but the contexts in which he's referred to this Amnesty and Pardon are never about how guilt is an emotional distraction from the real problems that continue to exist. It's always about how there are no differences between black and white people. Therefore, I don't see how he isn't communicating the message that it's all OK now.

See, e.g., this column where he assumes that how political figures talk to black audiences must be bad and that black audiences should be spoken to exactly as white audiences are; that the needs of black Americans are identical to those of white Americans; and that black Cabinet appointments made by Democrats must be solely as a sop to black voters and not on those appointees' merits.

The Eclectic Cleric said...

This is a very smart, insightful post. Lots to mull over here. Thanks!

fausto said...

You almost set me off on a toot about the false "soteriology of victimization" again, but to save time I'll just link to the last time it came up in one of your threads, here.

The cycle of oppression and victimization can never be broken if the response to victimization (a) only validates the victim's suffering, but fails to heal it by helping the victim overcome those feelings and restore wholeness; (b) seeks only retribution and demonization, rather than growth, repentance and forgiveness, for the oppressor; and/or (c) condones or encourages retaliation or resentment against others who were not involved in the oppression except perhaps through a tenuous or even falsely perceived "guilt by association".

These abstractions, IMHO, come into far clearer focus in three areas of UU life where I think we need some tough self-examination: (1) our general sense of a personal and denominational calling to offer a "prophetic witness" against social injustice; (2) our particular efforts and programs in the area of "AR/AO"; and (3) our widespread toleration of misunderstanding of, resentment against and demonization of Christianity -- especially of the liberal variety of Christianity that we ourselves for the better part of two centuries led and defined, and that once defined us.

Comrade Kevin said...

I hear you. My problem with "victim" is that it can become a self-perpetuating state along the lines of the Karpman Drama Triangle, which is what I try desperately to avoid in my own life.