A person crossing a street has more power over an oncoming car than a driver of a multi-ton behemoth of steel does over a pedestrian. Why? Because that pedestrian is a potential victim. The driver of the automobile stops because they fear hurting the pedestrian. The pedestrian, then, often walks across the street no matter what the signal says and expects the cars to stop for them. And if they get hit, well, they might be hurt a little, but look at the million-dollar fruits of that lawsuit! Look at the sympathy of the crowds! Look at the fame and attention of the nation!
Our society has become so prosperous, so spoiled with luxury and choices and rights, that we no longer fear the things animals in the wild fear—direct consequences to bad decisions. We’d rather get rid of painful symptoms in our lives than the cause of them. Death itself is a shocking and irregular and almost unnatural thing to experience. Most of all, we think we have a right to success and happiness, rather than just the freedom to pursue it. We think we deserve attention and money and ease because we, or people like us, have been wronged or slighted in some way.
Bill Watterson in “Calvin and Hobbes” described it best:
Calvin: “Nothing I do is my fault. My family is dysfunctional and my parents won’t empower me! Consequently, I’m not self-actualized. My behavior is addictive functioning in a disease process of toxic co-dependency! I need holistic healing and wellness before I’ll accept any responsibility for my actions.”
Hobbes: “One of us needs to stick his head in a bucket of ice water.”
Calvin: “I love the culture of victimhood!”
I mean to be careful in bringing this subject up. Please do not mistake this piece as an accusation against any one particular group of people. Certainly, at times it is right and proper to raise the flag of victimhood for a certain group because it draws needed attention. So instead of taking offense against a perceived accusation, I invite some honest soul-searching. I am writing here to individuals, not groups, and I believe it is something all people, no matter what categories they fall in come census time, need to examine their own lives.
The truth is, those categories should not, and cannot, define us as human beings. Have not all of us overcome more problems and obstacles in our lives than cannot be expressed with a few simple adjectives? For example, mental illness, misfortune in finance, bouts of serious depression, the good or bad values one was raised with, fighting through a death in the family, the quality of friends and the quality of family and the quality of the relationship between one’s mother and father, etc., etc.
Each of these, be they impediments or advantages, still only define the arenas in which we struggle. The struggle itself, the path we choose to take, is still up to us. To paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, it is our choices, not merely our abilities—or whatever else we are born with—that make us who and what we truly are. But of course, it’s easier to be a victim and ask for fame and compensation than it is to make our own life honestly, even in the face of opposition. That’s because it is the path of least resistance, the same path that water, for example, takes in the face of gravity. While gravity might take water forward, it also takes it down. Never up.
No doubt, victimhood can be real—but it can also too often be merely an excuse: “The responsibility for my failure lies in this other fellow across the street that I believe is harming me in some way!” Victimizing ourselves too much—even if it is a legitimate grievance—gives us the idea that we lack any accountability for our present state and persuades us that we don’t have to change or grow or improve ourselves in any way. It puts the onus on the other person to change to meet our needs. This perspective destroys what makes us human; it kills our moral agency and makes us mere objects, puppets on strings held by our perceived enemies.
With the rapid ascent of identity politics in the public discourse, this new culture of victimhood has led to a great tribal splintering. If we’re all victims, then we’re also all perpetrators. If my group thinks it has been harmed by your group, that makes us no longer Americans, but enemies left and right. We come to focus so intently on people’s race, sex, class, or other superficial categories, that we forget the unique, rich, and complex individual soul at the core of each person, and reduce their life story—or our own—to a single adjective. This only serves to widen the chasm that divides society at a time when, now more than ever, we need to reach out for unity.
Both political parties are guilty of manipulating us on these counts. Both Democrats and Republicans gain followers by urgently assuring us that our problems, whether political or not, are not our fault, and they can only be solved through political means. The right says it’s non-whites and Mexicans and Muslims and the global elite. The left says it’s patriarchy and white supremacy and Christianity and the NRA. Most fiercely of all, the opposing political parties blame each other for the nation’s woes, engendering hatred for and prejudice against those of differing values. These accusations have been leveled with such unyielding ferocity that they are rooted in people’s minds as true narratives, and cannot be wrenched free.
When we are all a nation of perpetual victims, who then is left to compensate us for our hardship? Who is left to improve the world?
It may seem that the election of Donald Trump, with his of alpha-male posturing, has returned the power from the self-proclaimed victims to the self-proclaimed strong. But what he does isn’t strength, it’s childish temper tantrum: all egomaniacal bluster and threat without any grit or conviction to back it up, and all of it just to get attention, respect, and influence, which he would [and should] otherwise lack. Trump is, in his mind, as much a victim as anyone else, and reminds us of this constantly. In his tweets, he whines that he has been unfairly dealt with, either in the press or on TV or by other world leaders or even his own administration. Remember, he only appeared to have lost the popular vote in the general election because of all those millions of illegal votes! (Now it’s whites who are being unfairly discriminated against in college admissions, and Trump is going to do something about their plight, gosh darn it!)
Perhaps, in a way, this shift away from “might is right” is a good thing. We truly don’t want those with superior strength—whether that’s through physical power or the backing of the mobbing crowd—to be bossing around or intimidating the helpless pedestrian. But we also don’t want the pedestrian using his newfound power to mock and abuse the driver of the car he’s stopped in the road or command the driver to go in a certain direction she does not want to go. We should not strive for a pendulum society, where strength swings back and forth between different groups over time. We want to be standing still, balanced, equal, respect going both ways, love and humility touching our every interaction with our fellow man.
Of course, there are legitimate victims in the world. And of course, the sword of justice must sometimes fall on whoever is in the wrong. But if we are to claim victimhood, we need to be careful our purpose is not to hold some kind of threat, and thus power, over our neighbors. We can’t be too quick to accuse others and excuse ourselves. We should take opposition, even that which is directly thrown at us by other children of God who are in the wrong, as an invitation to rise against it, and grow, and choose to act and forgive, not react and return an eye for an eye.
I believe this is inherently a spiritual problem, a problem of the soul, and can only be fixed with spiritual action—humility, forgiveness, introspection, and a determination to weave our life in a pattern of our own choosing, no matter what threads we’re dealt at its onset. The act of forgiveness is much, much harder than accusing and persecuting—especially when one does not receive earthly rewards in return. And yet it brings people together in a way nothing else can, and when two opposing people reject their baser instincts and instead come together, they become better.
We also lose something by insisting others change in our place. Going uphill against the gravity of our own limitations compels us to rely on our own strength—thus building that strength. The act of climbing a mountain depends on what we choose and how hard we push ourselves toward higher goals. It’s harder, so it’s the path less taken, by default. But it also takes us to higher places. There is little pleasure in seeing the view from a mountain peak if we’re simply helicoptered up there. It’s nice, but not satisfying. We haven’t changed as a result; we’re just in a different location.
That’s why our priority shouldn’t be simply getting up that mountain one way or another. Our goal should be the strength such a climb imbues on us. The self-betterment we naturally earn from staggering through the mire and up the slope, pulling one leg at a time. Though the winds can be strong, if we never adjust our sail to match them, we can’t complain when we are taken where we don’t want to be. Whether that destination is a tense political situation or a change in our self-esteem, we must own it for our own humanity’s sake.
Otherwise, one of us surely needs to stick our head in a bucket of ice water.