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Victims versus victimhood

By Wendy McElroy
web posted October 17, 2005

Weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the anguish of its victims is still painful to see. Even people hardened by years of war and the sharp divisions within our culture, reach into their hearts and pocketbooks at the sight of it.

Meanwhile, the claim of victimhood has also emerged: the allegation that blacks were discriminated against in aid efforts. But that accusation has generally met with weary dismissal.

The difference in response has made me wonder about the distinction between a victim and victimhood, and whether the latter may be on the political decline.

The standard dictionary definition of a victim is "an unfortunate person who suffers from some adverse circumstance" such as a crime or a hurricane.

Victimhood is a relatively recent term, not found in most older dictionaries. It usually points to the ongoing and collective victimization of a group.

Historically speaking, many people have been wronged because of their group identity. Blacks were enslaved, women were legally excluded-- such individuals were victims. The idea of victimhood, however, caught political fire long after slavery was abolished and women acquired the vote. It persists even though the institutions of society, such as the legal system, have been purged of 'discrimination.' It persists even though preference for minorities and women have been imposed in the form of policies such as affirmative action. Are those who claim victimhood still victims in any meaningful sense?

Victim and victimhood: the two terms get tangled up together and distinctions need to be drawn.

Consider the example of a woman who is beaten by her husband. She is clearly a 'victim' in the traditional meaning of the word; she deserves both compassion and justice.

But many feminists argue further for the battered woman's 'victimhood.' That is, she is viewed as only one example of the wider oppression all women experience from men and society. She ceases to be a wronged individual and becomes the symbol of a wronged category that includes women who have never experienced violence or may themselves be violent.

The shift from victim to victimhood has important consequences. The primary wrong is no longer inflicted on an individual but upon a group. It is no longer committed by an individual but by another group. The main remedy is not restitution to a person but general reparations to or special protection (privilege) for 'the group.'

The phrase 'politics of' tends to precede the word 'victimhood' because that word is so often accompanied by a demand for social justice. This remedy includes reparations or privileges.

In short, the move from victim to victimhood pushes the individual aside, constructs society into warring groups and argues for political remedies.

In his essay "Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood," Robert Meister argues for such politics and he epitomizes how the idea has been used by the far left.

A synopsis of the essay states, "On the revolutionary side [those arguing for victimhood and against the 'oppressive' system], the aim had been to produce unreconciled victims who would continue to struggle against the beneficiaries of past injustice even after the perpetrators were defeated."

Meister also hints at why the politics of victimhood may be on the decline: "The counterrevolutionary response was to exploit the fear of passive beneficiaries … that they would be treated no better than perpetrators should the revolution prevail."

Translation: Men who've never harmed a woman (passive beneficiaries) may resist being stigmatized for the wrongs committed by men who do batter. They may insist upon being judged 'innocent' or 'guilty' based on their own actions. They may resist having their sons and daughters born into a political category.

How did society lose sight of individual victims and slide into the groupthink of victimhood? Why did people allow themselves and their children to be stigmatized simply because they were male, white, or otherwise the member of a 'guilty' category?

To some extent, the answer lies in the generosity that now pours toward Hurricane Katrina victims. When most people see genuine and undeserved suffering, they feel compassion and they want to help. That is almost a definition of decency.

Consider once again the example of battered women. In the '70s, when decent people finally saw the extent of the problem and heard the anguished stories firsthand, they were outraged; they wanted to help. And without the compassion that the average person extends toward victims, little could have changed.

That compassion was hijacked and politicized by the advocates of victimhood with the goal of revolutionizing society by redistributing power and status between groups of people. They did not seek justice so much as social justice. They spoke not of restitution but of reparations. The original cry for protection became a demand for privilege.

A result of decades of victimhood politics can also be seen in the general response to Katrina. Many people are no longer listening to the cry of victimhood. Perhaps they are weary of victims who never heal but seem to embrace their 'oppression' as a source of identity and self-worth. They could be disgusted with blasts of anger which don't distinguish between friend or foe. Perhaps they want people to take some personal responsibility. Or they could just be tired of feeling 'guilty.'

The response to Katrina was heartening on many levels. One of them: It demonstrated that society can still respond with overwhelming kindness toward innocent victims. The compassion fatigue that sometimes seems overwhelming may be more a reaction to victimhood than to victims. If so, as the politics of victimhood fades, perhaps compassion will shine.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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