What is a Culture of Victimhood?

20 September 2015

A few thoughts about so-called cultures of victimhood and whether it's a new, old, or even real phenomenon, prompted partly by  recent "debates" over trigger warnings, but also by our recent episode on the Changing Face of Feminism.  I put "debates" in quotes like that because  I think of the debates more as heated exchanges.  Way too  much talking past each other and way too little sympathetic listening has gone on.

But enough of that.  I start with the observation that it's surely true that there have been victims as long as there have been humans relating to each other. i don't think any reasonable person could or would deny that. Would they? I suppose that what is taken by some to be perhaps a new thing under the sun -- and what people who talk about cultures of victimhood and victim studies and all that jazz are sort of trying to get at -- is that there are nowadays intensely fought and fraught contests over who exactly counts as a victim in various morally and politically fraught contexts. And I think that although perhaps they do acknowledge that nobody wants to be a victim, what they notice is that there are, nonetheless, certain advantages to being seen as a victim.

It's Plato's ring of Gyges but in reverse, perhaps. If you look at it this way, then the social/normative status of being a victim becomes in a way a complicated thing -- both desired and not desired. Though nobody wants the bad that comes with being a genuine victim, people do want the good that comes with being seen as a victim. What goods would those be? A certain degree of power, at least moral power, if not political power. If only one could have one's cake and it it too.

So here's the million dollar question.   What is one could have one's ring of Gyges, as it were?  That would be so very cool.  It would  allow one, while not being a victim, to still be seen as one.  Of course, it would probably take a little bad faith, insincerity or self-deception or something to pull that hat trick off. And that, I think, is where the naysayers think so-called victim studies comes in. That is, those who dismiss certain fields as victim studies think that they function like a reverse ring of Gyges in the context of contests over victimhood. What these particular rings do is to make others and perhaps even the wearer him or herself see the wearer as a victim, one with diminished, oppressed, or marginalized agency.  That it deceives not just the other, but the wearer him or herself, of course, distinguishes it from Plato's ring.  Plato's ring only worked on others.  It didn't hide the wearer from his or herself.  

Now the conjuring trick here. those who hurl this sort of accusation will think,  is that the very act of putting on the ring is itself a full and supreme act of agency.  It not only gives the lie to the claimed victimhood.  But it is an essentially aggressive act.  The aggressive act of  seizing the moral high ground with respect to the other. That's at least always a morally powerful ground to occupy and often maybe even a politically powerful ground to occupy.  From the moral high ground you get to command and condemn the behavior of others.    The commanding heights of victimhood, it could be called, if you thought this way.

But is this a real phenomenon? Is it something new under the sun? Well, as to the latter, I doubt that there was some discrete point in cultural history when contests over power came,  at times,  to take the form of contests over claimed victimhood. Probably such a move was always available.  Probably it was exploited at different time in different ways by different groups. Nietzsche, I think, thought that something like that is a more of less enduring feature of human social life. (resentment, herd morality and all that). And I don't think he's entirely wrong for thinking that. So maybe in some sense at least the possibility of "cultures of victimhood" have perhaps been with us always.

But beyond abstract possibilities, do we really live at such a moment now? A moment when non-victims have seized the moral high ground of victimhood? That's a much tougher call. People, on one side or the other of our current struggles will no doubt view them differently in this regard. Where one side sees as an illegitimate culture of victimhood backed by bad faith and the will to power, the other side is liable to see genuine and disempowered victims claiming their moral due. Judging where the truth lies in that sort of meta-dispute -- is a hard thing, truly fraught thing.  Notice that right now, I'm in my neutral interpretive guise.  I'm  just trying to figure out what talk of cultures of victimhood might really come to.

Comments (6)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, September 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Reposted from the thread on

Reposted from the thread on feminism:
In my youth women would not go out of doors without a scarf. But they did not make a political case out of it. Someone should do a cartoon of Mohamed and Fatima, with Fatima wearing curlers under her scarf. The point is, it is only an issue because there is compulsion involved. There is no other reason to affirm it as a 'right'. Let alone the veil. It is not up to the enslaved to endorse the condition of slavery. Do some women freely wear the scarf or veil? Is culture a right? If it is not spontaneous it is not inalienable. The earliest talk of right was about the right to self-defense. The point there was that no law can prevent it, and so it was taken as a demonstrable fact of natural law supreme over human laws and customs. Cultural constraints are not a natural and spontaneous expression of rights. A recent film on arranged marriages (I do not know its title) portrays an ex-patriot Indian community desperately clinging to social norms that are fading in India itself. Should their right to be sticks-in-the-mud be regarded as an inalienable right? Indigenous cultures should not be protected from the future, they should be provided the means to adapt to it in their own terms. Assimilation is a two way street, we adopt them as much as they us. The only crime is where it is unilateral and coercive. Absent that coercion and that implacable resistance to being influenced by the stranger, two way assimilation is the future for us all, not just those who feel they need to be protected from it, or from "them". Go to Iran and watch the girls push back their scarf when they think no one is looking, but quickly pull it over their hair when they think officials might be present, and then tell them it is their "right" to wear it. In France the scarf is outlawed in public schools. Does this go to far? Or do they have a point? After all, they don't allow visible Christian symbols either.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, September 21, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

My comments on cultural

My comments on cultural victimhood will most likely not endear me to those who have long-espoused the principles of equality and may have even supported such fractious notions as affirmative action in the interest of correcting past unfairness. I too, once espoused such idealism and worked in a civil rights organization for many years, as has been mentioned before. However, over time, the best intentions of affirmative action were gradually eroded by the fact that minorities and women came to see advantages to being disadvantaged. Being cultural victims could be turned into an asset of sorts and opportunities would flow from what had heretofore been a hopeless sea of quicksand. Almost everyone began to recognize what was happening and respected leaders of disadvantaged groups repudiated affirmative action and other such artificial mechanisms. AA is probably now clinically dead, though the corpse may still retain some vestige of residual warmth. In his closing remark, Professor Taylor wondered what "talk of cultures of victimhood might really come to". Let me suggest this much: maybe, just maybe, they may clear away some of the cobwebs and allow us to assess the results of our best intentions with 20/20 hindsight. Yes, sometimes truth hurts.

ryoudelman@gmail.com's picture


Friday, October 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

When did the term "victimhood

When did the term "victimhood" come into being? What's wrong with the standard English term "victimization"?
"Victimhood" by definition suggests that "victims" are milking their condition and making undue demands. It's a shaming term which is designed to put victims on the defensive. "Victimhood" reflects contempt for victims.

edgarp678's picture


Thursday, December 10, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

In honor societies,

In honor societies, individuals (men) kept up their honor by reacting to affront, insults, infringement of rights without anyone else's input help roughness. For the most part respect societies exist where the principle of law is frail. In honor societies, individuals ensured themselves, their families, and property through having a notoriety for quick savagery. Amid the nineteenth century, most Western social orders started the ethical move toward pride societies in which all nationals were lawfully enriched with equivalent rights. In such social orders, persons, property, and rights are protected by plan of action to outsiders, ordinarily courts, police, et cetera, that, if fundamental, wield roughness on their benefit. Respect societies rehearse resistance and are a great deal more quiet than honor societies.thesis writing service

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Modulo a Nietzchean rejection

Modulo a Nietzchean rejection of there being anything proper to a victim,  an illegitimate victim would be one not truly victimised.   This implies a judgement of whether or not there has been an actual tort, to dip into legal  language.  Roughly speaking, those on the Right used to generally claim that the victims in whose interest the Left spoke were not true victims because the supposèd injuries done them were either due them by virtue of their failings ('The poor are lazy. ')  or represent the natural and inevitable consequences of the way society, if not the entire Universe, is set-up ('Blacks/women/infidels are naturally unsuited to lead, so in a well-ordered world they will naturally have to defer to whites/men/{the One True Church}.'). Those on the Left,  roughly again,  see false victimhood in members of formerly dominant classes of people constructing their new lack of acknowledged superiority as a form of injury. 

niboyav859's picture


Wednesday, July 17, 2024 -- 12:18 PM

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