Victimhood Culture

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

We seem to be living in times where everyone is a victim. It’s almost considered a status symbol, even fetishised in some spaces. We claim victimhood as individuals, as groups, and even as States. 

We may do it unconsciously, due to unhealed or unacknowledged trauma, but we may also do it to get attention, to find someone to blame for our suffering, or to justify our actions.

The tendency to adopt victim narratives does not necessarily relate to actual trauma someone has suffered. Equally, having suffered trauma will not necessarily lead to victimhood.

Giving space and voice to victims of harm is crucial for any society that wants to grow and care for its people. Recent questions about the impact of trauma on our societies is opening up much needed conversations. People are becoming more aware of issues such as: What happens when trauma from past events, like interpersonal violence, oppression, war or colonisation, goes unhealed? 

People can be traumatised without having themselves experienced traumatic events, like intergenerational trauma, and also by witnessing others’ suffering. This is leading some psychologists to suggest that we are all traumatised and it’s making our society ill. While we hear about the ways in which people can heal from personal trauma, why do we hear so little about collective healing?

While we may think this is just another characteristic of our individualistic and narcissistic societies, the victimhood narratives forged make us feel entitled. They can make us believe we are more deserving of attention, or care, while expressing moral indignation and superiority towards others. 

On a collective level, this can be dangerous. Physician Gabor Maté says it has to do with identity and that when you identify with a group, a sense of victimisation comes very easy. But what happens when groups are founded on a victim identity?

Emerging hate groups, like incels, white nationalists, and groups like white lives matter, base their ideologies on victim narratives. Several of them were formed as a response to human rights movements, like sexual violence against women, a group of which they claim to be vicitms. Trump is the perfect symbol of individuals basing their entire being and behaviour on a narrative of victimhood. And unfortunately, it’s very effective. 

Less extreme examples can be found among civil society groups that represent different specific victims. With such narratives, it becomes about who is the most deserving of attention and funding, making collaboration often impossible. Many children’s causes use the victim card as a way to gain sympathy, or pity, and raise funds for the poor helpless children. And donors, too, love the victim narratives. Today, many just want to fund actual victims to become activists and representatives of their cause, regardless of whether that is both safe for the survivor and effective to achieve systemic change.

And with that comes the simplistic belief that victim equals good and perpetrator bad. The fact that people, groups or States can be both is too complex for many. This is also how geopolitics tends to be played out. 

Markiewicz and Sharvit who examined the role of victimhood in intractable conflicts, with a particular focus on how Israeli elites use victim narratives in public communication, suggest that these narratives are often used strategically. “The victim chic can lead to a perverse monetisation of victims by state actors. In media studies, political thought, sociology, and human rights studies, there is a growing concern about the appropriations and calculative political employment of victim status,” they write. 

In their paper, they detail the characteristics that collective victimhood fulfils: It provides a sense of being, it helps to cope with stress, it offers moral justification for violent acts, it helps establish the group's superiority towards the other, it prepares and immunises the group against potential harm and harsh conditions, it strengthens solidarity and patriotism, and finally, it helps gain international support.

Because Israel was founded on the trauma of the Holocaust, this victim narrative is so entrenched that a number of States refuse to recognise that Israel is primarily the perpetrator of atrocities on Palestinans. The victim has become the perpetrator.

Quoting an Israeli psychologist, Maté says that Israel raised generations of soldiers and fighters that would ensure such horrors would never be done to Jews again. But, he cautions, “a soldier’s victory is never just a victory, but a double edged sword that leads to loss and to cycles of trauma and violence that are carried from generation to generation.” 

In a victimhood culture, we spend too much time looking at how we may have been wronged and almost none at how we may have wronged others, individually and collectively.

Victimhood does not lead to peace. If the driving forces are blame or revenge, we will not find peace. “The very thing you want is the thing you are undermining,” Maté says.

The only way out, according to Maté, is to strive for consciousness, “we cannot move forward to a place of peace without understanding the other, the experience of the other. No amount of suffering or past injury can justify.” 

Words, Veronica Yates

Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

References


‘The "Monster" in All of Us: When Victims Become Perpetrators,’ Abbe Smith, Georgetown University Law Center, 2005, Download here.


Dr Gabor Maté on Israel / Palestine, 28 October 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHDBw-wx6w0 

‘Trauma and the Israel Palestine Conflict - A Call for Healing: Gabor Maté on Palestine / Israel’, Soren Gordhamer interview with Gabor Mate Wisdom 2.0. Watch here.

‘When Victimhood Goes to War? Israel and Victim Claims,’ Tadek Markiewicz, University of Kent and Keren Sharvit, University of Haifa. Political Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2021, published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of International Society of Political Psychology.

‘In Israel, a New War Summons Old Traumas,’ Galit Atlas, The Wall Street Journal, 19 October, 2023. (Quoted by Gabor Maté). See here (with a paywall).

‘The abused and the abuser: Victim–perpetrator dynamics,’ Warwick Middleton, Adah Sachs, Martin J. Dorahy, Pages 249-258, 20 Mar 2017. Read online.

Further Resources

‘Unravelling the Mindset of Victimhood,’ Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American,

June 29, 2020. Read here. Read here.

‘Of monsters and men: Perpetrator trauma and mass atrocity,’ Saira Mohamed, June 2015, Columbia Law Review 115(5):1157-1216. See here.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma Paperback, Bessel van der Kolk.

Lostness, Trauma and Stories of Transformation with Bayo Akomolafe, Transforming Trauma Podcast, with Emily Ruth, 1 June 2022. Listen here

The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture, Dr Gabor Maté.

Dr Gabor Maté, on Trauma, author’s website https://drgabormate.com/trauma/ 

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