"Victimism" and Victimology
Monday, July 7, 2020
How did we become a nation of individual and collective victims? The question has many possible answers and may depend on your perspective. After an experience of anti-Semitism in high school, I vowed never to become a victim. I think I have been largely successful. As I look around today, I see and read how other people seem to perpetuate and relish their victimhood. I thought it would be interesting to briefly explore "victimism" and the study of victims: victimology. I have relied on a research paper written in 2009 by Daniel Bar-Tal, Lily Cherneyak-Hai, Noa Schori and Ayelet Gundar. It was published in the journal International Review of the Red Cross. The article analyzes the sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts, I have also drawn on Charles Sykes' book A Nation of Victims, and various summary reports on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
If we look at a list of groups that perpetuate the divide, we have democrats/republicans, progressives/conservatives, scientists or secularists/believers in faith, whites/minorities, male/female, urban/rural, internationalist/isolationists, special interest groups/commonweal and many more. In each opposing pair one side and often both sides view themselves not only as having differences but as victims to their opposition. We have become a nation of victims, not only individual victims, but collective or group victims as well. I believe this widens the gap of the divide
On an individual basis or as a member of a collective, victimhood describes some lasting psychological state of mind that involves beliefs, attitudes, emotions and behavioral tendencies, stemming from a direct or indirect experience of victimization. Sykes would argue that individual victimization is the result of refusing to accept responsibility for one's own actions and attempting to blame someone else for one's own inadequacies or failures. This view would largely discount the numerous psychological studies on victims and victimhood, but it is a view worth considering and it may be basis for joining a group that you can identify with and share in comfort your victimhood.
At the collective level, a group may experience either directly or indirectly this sense of victimization. Conflict in the broadest application gives rise to the sense of and becomes a foundation for the ethos of conflict and lingering collective memory of victimhood. This form of victimization may occur not only from an objective experience but also from perceptions shared by proponents of how a group is being victimized. That is, members of the collective, a group, or tribe adopt and hold dear shared beliefs about their victimization. Sharing beliefs reflects a sense of collective victimhood: the glue which holds the group together. The focus of these beliefs, real or perceived, is on the unjust harm, or evil deeds perpetrated by the adversary, and deeply embeds itself in the group's collective memory. These deeply held beliefs contribute to the perception that the adversary is wicked, immoral, corrupt, or evil while reinforcing the perception of one's own group as being just, moral, and victims. How easy it is to identify with the underdog. How easy it is for an individual or group to self-perpetuate victimhood when you have a sympathetic audience.
Overcoming a societal sense of victimhood will be a generational task. It starts by opening our collective eyes to the truth. Can our present political cast of characters see the truth and take us down the road to change? My sense is not, I see a growing disconnect between the citizenry and our elected officials. Governments at both the state and federal level daily demonstrate structural and systemic weaknesses. The political bickering is dramatized each day by our 24-hour news cycle which contributes to, if not perpetuates, the sense of victimhood of one group or another and embeds ever more deeply into the collective memory. It is likely that the upcoming electoral season will further exacerbate the partisan divide and victimhood. Mercifully the election cycle has been condensed thanks to COVID-19.
I am ever hopeful. My hope is that if the Irish can overcome their religious and political difficulties, if South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission could make significant inroads into reestablishing a fair and just society, and various police officials identifying with protesters can march with them, then maybe there is hope. We need to stop the atomization of society into bickering opposing groups who view themselves as victims and believe once again in the virtues of the commonweal.