The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”Genesis 3:9–13, NRSV
“The Woman You Gave Me”
Did you notice the double layer of blame in Adam’s response? He did not just blame Eve who gave him the fruit. Adam also blamed God for giving him Eve. The same is less obvious with Eve, but it is still there. It is true that Eve only names the serpent. But in explicitly pointing to the serpent, she implicitly points to the one who created the serpent.
So who sinned? For both Adam and Eve the answer is ultimately, “God.” They deny their own culpability. This includes listening to the serpent, eating the fruit, and hiding from each other and God in shame. No, they see God as the one to blame. After all, God put them in the garden with a tree they were not supposed to eat from. God also set loose a talking snake whose only roll seems to be tricking them into eating from it. Clearly, Adam and Eve are the victims here.
And that story describes the origins of victimhood.
According to Wikipedia, a victim mentality is “an acquired personality trait in which a person tends to recognize or consider themselves as a victim of the negative actions of others, and to behave as if this were the case in the face of contrary evidence of such circumstances.”
In this post, I will use the term victimhood to describe a victim mentality.
Victims vs. Victimhood
Let me be clear, there are real victims in the world. People of color, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people are both vilified and socially restrained. This happens because of their ethnicity, place of origin, gender or gender non-conformity, and sexuality. Meritocracy is often used to legitimize similar oppression of the lower class.
This is nothing new. Human history is filled with assaults on people based on race, class, and gender. This is part of what makes Paul’s claim in Galatians 3:28 so provocative: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). It is also what makes The Forgotten Creed so radical. It is hard to envision an ideology rooted in a rejection of all oppression based on race, class, and gender.
Moreover, victims’ voices need honoring. They deserve compassion and empathy. In many cases victims have the right to restitution. But being a victim does not entitle anyone to a life of victimhood. It does not absolve anyone of personal responsibility for their hurtful choices. Nor does it grant the freedom to draw conclusions about others based on their similarities with your oppressor.
To put it another way, justice for victims is necessary. However as Jenny McCartney argues in UnHerd, victimhood culture will tear us apart. Moreover, it often drowns out the plight of those who are the most vulnerable in our society. To phrase that last line another way, victimhood further victimizes and ignores those most in need of justice.
Being a Victim, Victimhood, and Me
On many of the traditional levels, I am not a victim. I am a straight, white, male born into an upper-middle class family in the most powerful nation on earth. Physically I am tall, fit, and at least reasonably attractive. Educationally, I hold the title of Reverend Doctor. While that might prompt some to vilify me, I am not socially restrained because of who I am as a person.
And yet, on another level, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Bullying is also a large part of my childhood. My intelligence, slender frame, and social ineptitude all making me a target. Those things are wrong. The fact that they happened makes me a victim deserving of justice.
At the same time, I would argue that how I handled those things was worse than the offenses themselves. Even while denying the abuse, I allowed the trauma to drive my behavior. It defined my relationship with both women and honesty. I feared women I was close to and used women I was not. Being honest about anything potentially shameful was quite literally painful. I also lived as if everyone was out to bully me. I constantly reacted to innocent comments as if they were hostile. In my victimhood I lived an contemptuous, defensive, adulterous, deceptive, and manipulative life. When I am not mindfully present, I still do.
On top of that, in my victimhood I used my status as a victim to excuse my vile behavior. If I could shift the blame then I could avoid having to deal with both the guilt and the shame. I could acknowledge that I did something wrong, but simultaneously act innocent or unaccountable for my actions.
Ultimately, victimhood fueled a life of victimizing others and justifying my behavior because I too was a victim.
With Victimhood, We All Lose
In his excellent New York Times opinion piece, Arthur Brooks writes about the real victims of victimhood. To put it simply, the answer is all of us.
This happens in our individual stories, but it also happens when society embraces victimhood culture.
At one level, it limits our ability to address conflict at both social and political levels. It takes away room for compromise and finding the often necessary middle ground. Moreover, as is clear in my life, victimhood make us worse people, specifically “less helpful, more entitled, and more selfish.”
This is also seen in The Atlantic’s review of academic research on micro-aggressions, The Rise of Victimhood Culture. The article explores various responses by students at Oberlin College to a conflict that arose during Latino Heritage Month. The analysis includes how the same events would evoke different responses in other historic and cultural contexts.
In a society where power is achieved through victimhood, becoming the greatest victim is the only way to get ahead. In the process, we vilify others to uplift ourselves, creating more and more distance between ourselves and others.
This is true for woke signaling liberals, conservatives claiming reverse discrimination, and Christians bemoaning cultural oppression like the war on Christmas. In the meantime, the most vulnerable victims of injustice get lost in the fray.
How Do We Tell The Difference?
The challenge is, those operating from victimhood are often legitimate victims. Moreover, claims rooted in victimhood often sound like genuine victimization. Finally, someone operating from health can make identical conclusions to someone operating from victimhood. So how to we tell the difference?
Again, Arthur Brooks offers some practical help. He identifies two criteria to help distinguish between those fighting on behalf of victims or someone operating out of victimhood.
- First he suggests we look at the role of free speech in the conversation. Brooks argues, “Victims and their advocates always rely on free speech and open dialogue to articulate unpopular truths.” Free speech is how they assert themselves into a conversation they would otherwise be ignored. In contrast, he argues that victimhood often wants to suppress speech under the guise of not triggering others.
- He also recommends we consider the movement’s leadership. Those fighting for justice tend to be “aspirational leaders who challenge us to cultivate higher values.” They point to human rights, capabilities, and dignity. However, those leading a culture of victimhood will often act like a savior or focus on a common enemy. People loose their status as individuals and instead operate as an aggrieved mass.
From my own experience I would add a third point. If you are quick to box people you disagree with into victimhood without listening and confirming you understand their actual position, odds are high that you are operating from victimhood.
Moving Beyond Victimhood
For those of us who find ourselves caught up in a culture of victimhood, I propose two resources. One that helps us at an individual level and a second that focuses at a societal level.
First, The Four Agreements, by Miguel Ruiz. Embracing each of the four foundational statements moves us out of a culture of victimhood:
- Be Impeccable With Your Word: If your words only invite others towards truth and love, you will only work to promote justice for the truly oppressed.
- Don’t Take Anything Personally: Victimhood is based on taking everything personally.
- Don’t Make Assumptions: Often victimhood assumes the worst about other people and their intentions. Taking time to ask clarifying questions can disempower victimhood.
- Always Do Your Best: We all do our best with the tools we have available to us at the time. The goal is to make sure we all have better tools. Victimhood might have been the best too for a time, but the time has come to move on.
Second, Race Matters, by Cornell West. While there are any number of excellent books on the matter, West builds his argument around a dual threat. First he points to the ongoing structural victimization of Black bodies. Then he sets present experience within the cumulative generational effects of systemic oppression. These forces produce the “hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness” that can feed victimization.
West argues that for generations, Black culture built in resistance to prevent victimization. He also sees it fading because of market driven forces and a lack of Black leadership.
West contends that because economic, political, and cultural structures and behavior are inseparable. Therefore, we all need combat structural oppression by bestowing hopefulness, meaningfulness, and love towards all people … especially the marginalized. Doing so will take our eyes off of ourselves and point them towards those most in need of justice.