Victimhood Is Not Virtue

In the modern social justice movement, victimhood is the most valuable commodity. The voices of those who belong to groups seen as oppressed are given more weight, while the opinions of those who are considered privileged are devalued. However, this is not a novel development, but only the latest manifestation of an outlook deeply ingrained in Western culture: to view weakness and victimhood as evidence of virtue and morality.

This view was by and large not present in the pagan Greco-Roman world, but orginates from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Between Abel, Job, the Isrealites held captive by the Egyptians and the Babylonians, and above all Jesus Christ, there are plenty of Biblical examples of people enobled by suffering and victimhood. Christianity offers us what Nietzsche called a slave morality, which celebrates weakness and humility, while resenting the strong. This idea has echoed through Western civilization ever since.

It makes us want to root for the underdog, and consequently, every social movement, every political group, every ideology seeks to portray itself as the underdog, as beset from all sides by powerful enemies, and as the victim of countless injustices. This is why, for example, both the mainstream left and the mainstream right in contemporary American politics, despite being enormously powerful and influential coalitions, see themselves as being weak and constantly outnumbered. The left points to Republican control of the White House and Congress as proof of right-wing hegemony. The right points to the media and academia, which are overwhelmingly run by leftists, as proof of left-win hegemony.

And when the facts on the ground change, neither side will admit that it has actually become more powerful. They will merely find new reasons for why they are still the underdogs. This is an easy game to play. All you need to do is to narrowly define who is on your side and to define everyone else as being on the opposite side, and hey presto, you are outnumbered.

Glorifying victimhood is not without its advantages. This attitude makes us acutely aware of injustices and helps us eliminate them. It makes us look out for those in need of help and protection. I fully agree with it as far as it comes to castigating and vilifying those who victimise others. Where it goes too far is in making suffering and victimhood themselves into virtues.

One of the central insights of economics is that people respond to incentives. When you reward people for being seen as victims, people will tend to portray themselves as such. They may even take steps to become actual victims, or at least not put as much effort into preventing their own victimisation. Thus you get the perverse outcome that people not only fail to make themselves strong, but might even make themselves weaker in the hopes of enticing pity and charity.

If Alice treats Bob unjustly, this quite properly reflects poorly on Alice and causes us to see her as a less moral person, but it should not cause us to think more highly of Bob. Being the victim of an unjust attack is sad and makes Bob worthy of our sympathy, but it should not raise our estimation of Bob. In particular, if Alice believes in ideology A and Bob in ideology B, Alice’s behaviour should not affect our view of B. If Alice is a prominent A-ist, or if most A-ists come out in defence of Alice, we should lower our opinion of A. But just because we now think less of A does not mean we should think more highly of B. Idea space is multi-dimensional and there are always way more than just two positions on a given topic.

I have diagnosed a problem. What then is the cure? Unfortunately, I don’t have any. This victimhood mentality seems to be too deeply ingrained in the Western psyche to even make a dent in it in the forseeable future. Appealing to one’s own victimhood and portraying oneself as the underdog is too effective a tactic to give up. I’ve even done it in this very text: actually the support for victimhood conferring virtue is not as universal as I’ve portrayed it. I’m not actually a lone voice in the wilderness trying to tear down a universally accepted principle. In a way, this entire blog is premised on taking on the role of the underdog. I consider myself a contrarian, taking on conventional wisdom, but this stance is assumed by lots of people, particularly in the Anglosphere. Portraying onself as going against conventional wisdom is actually more conventional than openly defending it.

For strategic reasons I think we need to continue portraying ourselves as underdogs. At the same time, we should be aware of what we are doing and that we do not go too far in this so that we do not reach the extremes of the social justice movement with its embittered debates about which group or intersection of groups is most oppressed. Ironically, Christianity has done a fairly good job with this. Despite victimhood being such a central motif, Christians in practice very rarely turn the other cheek. This might be hypocrisy, but I’ll take a sensible hypocrite over a consistent follower of destructive principles any day of the week.

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