Victims Versus Victimhood

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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.

October
14, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
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).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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